Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Big, Bigger, Biggest

I've just landed back in the Empire State, having spent eight days frolicking in the Palmetto State—much of which was a quite beery. I was however, struck by one rather odd beer distribution anomaly. I've mentioned before that the beer selection in the Myrtle Beach area grocery stores is pretty phenomenal—offering everything from New Belgium to Fullers, Saison du Pont to Saranac—but there's a catch.

Of the nine commercial breweries operating in South Carolina, only one store—the Piggly Wiggly in Surfside Beach—carried product from more than one of them. Walking into almost any grocery store in Albany I'd be sure to find at least three or four New York brewed beers, in some case quite a bit more. During my stay below the Mason-Dixon line, I visited three different stores—Lowes, Food Lion and the aforementioned Wiggliest of Pigglys, in search of South Carolinian beer. Lowes came up dry, Food Lion offered cans of Myrtle Beach's own New South Brewing Company, while the Piggly Wiggly topped the list with beer from both Spartanburg's RJ Rockers Brewing Company and Thomas Creek Brewery of Greenville.

It's great to see markets and groceries embracing beer, but gone now are the days of just macro versus micro. There's now a third layer the macromicros, as oxymoronic as it may be. Breweries like Sierra Nevada, Sam Adams and New Belgium—the 180,000+ barrels, craft breweries—seem to have become the expected craft beer available to the general consumer. In other words those breweries have become known as "the" craft breweries, and their availability in grocery stores reinforces this. Before I go any further, I have to add that I don't think that view is necessarily a bad thing, and I believe that most of these breweries are fantastic and produce great beer. I also have to add that this overshadowing of smaller, local or regional breweries by these larger mid-level breweries isn't being done intentionally by either the grocers or the breweries—It's being proliferated by the three-tier distribution system and it's distributorships. Distributorships are the ultimate bandwagoners, they push what's trendy—remember the ice beers of the mid-1990s. We are on the precipice of a similar era, where "craft" is replacing "ice." I want to see Sierra Nevada at every bar or pub I stop into and I want to be able to grab a twelve pack of Fat Tire at a gas station—but I don't want to do it at the cost of the brewery run by the local guys down the block.

How do we stop this? Some of the onus falls to the grocery stores, and significant number of them have taken a step in the right direction, simply by offering craft beer, However, if they choose to sell craft beer—and by this I mean offer a substantial selection, not just a few six packs—then they should hire beverage managers who have some knowledge of both local and national craft brands. The other responsibility falls to us, the beer lover. Speaking with the store manager or beverage manager increases awareness. If you ask for it, they'll usually get it. The more local beer is asked for, the more you'll start to see it in the coolers and on the shelves of the markets in your town.

To the groceries, bodegas, markets and shops, out there, I say, embrace craft beer. To those out there who already have, I thank you. But, if your going to do it, why not give the little guy a shot, too.
   

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