Tuesday, July 29, 2014

The State of Beer (As I See It)

A friend, Gina, asked my thoughts on a recent article by Joshua Bernstein that appeared on Bon Appétit.com. Bernstein looks at the over-crowding of the American beer market, and what breweries do to stay competitive in a saturated environment.

I absolutely think beer is over-crowded, and that got me thinking about a number of things happening with beer today. I've been meaning to put my thoughts down about this for a while—my perspective on all things beery. The article and Gina's prompt, acted as a sort of cue for me to lay out the state of beer as I see it today. 

I've borrowed Alan's thinking chimp.
First off I have to say that I am a consumer, and therefore my point-of-view is that of a consumer. I have friends who are brewers or work in the beer industry, and their perspectives are often quite different than mine. I experience beer not at tastings, or festivals, or dinners. Beer, for me, is of the pub. I am, for lack of a better term, a punter—and this is how I approach beer.

Right now, there is a "rising tide lifts all boats" mentality. Places are opening hand over fist, and the money is good.. Beer is the hot ticket. It's showing up outside the pub—in magazine and newspaper articles, television talk shows, someone even made a beer related movie. Beer has become "mainstream". It's a hipster magnet. Unfortunately, if the brew-pub craze of the mid-1990s is anything to learn from (which we won't) bad business practices and bad will probably change that. Depending on your economic philosophy, that might be good or bad for the market, but whatever side the coin lands on, I have a feeling a lot of people are going to lose their shirts. 

But that happens with fads like "craft" beer.

"Craft" has become a marketing term—like "farm-to-table"—just a hyperbolic phrase, used to sell the false importance of beer. There are breweries producing great beer, and there are A LOT of so-called “craft” breweries producing shit beer. Unfortunately, the focus of many places shifts from making great beer to the side-show—essentially being "craft" has become more important than the beer itself. In other words, "craft" is far from synonymous with good, but the term gets bastardized to make beer, or breweries "important".

"Craft" in that sense, shares something in common with the Oscars. Films that are deemed "important" or those that deal with important or serious issues like war or diseases often win Academy Awards. They, like "craft", are in fact quite the opposite of important. They are celluloid past time fillers. Beer is beer—craft or otherwise—it is not important, and those who make it are not significant. Is it enjoyable? Immensely. 

Even more unfortunate, is that the idea of self-important clever "craftiness" is fueled by places like Stone, Rogue, Dogfish Head—hell, even Ommegang—who were at one time pretty good microbreweries, but have turned to pulling off crowd-sourcing gimmicks, überbeers, and so-called collaboration beers that are, quite frankly, pretty bad—but succeed due to their marketability. It's becoming a vicious cycle of new, next, better, barrel-aged, stronger, hoppier, and weirder—perpetuated by fanboys, beer snobs, and brewers who fancy themselves artistic rock stars. All said and done, "good" basically becomes secondary, and specialty, one-off or limited run $30 a bottle beers have become the new norm, doing nothing more than raising the price of beer—all beer. I'm going to be perfectly honest with you. If you spend $30 on a bottle of beer—then you're nuts.

A lot of breweries say that their gimmicks, promotions, special events, and even their non-beery stuffs—like cheese and a hotel—is what gives them the competitive edge, but isn't that a bit like saying you have to use steroids in major league baseball to be competitive?

What about banding together against the big boys? The craft community is important, right?

The mantra that Anheuser-Busch and Coors are bad because they are big, and that small, independent breweries are good because they are small is, as far as I'm concerned, a red-herring. In fact, part of the myth of "craft" is that "craft" brewing is a big happy family, just one big, beer-loving community.

That's horse shit.

We see that in the current phenomenon of "Big Craft." That is to say large "craft" producers, like Sam Adams, Stone and DFH, carving out large chunks of the market for themselves by expanding into alco-pop, cider, retail and, in some cases, buying out or into, smaller breweries. Big Craft wants to make as much money as they can—ethically or unethically—that's not just an ABInbev thing. Yet, there's this naivety among "craft" that ABInbev and SABMiller are the enemy and, apparently, one-off gimmick brews are the answer. If it were my money, and I was a small brewer, I'd make sure my beer was great, and I'd be watching Jim Koch far closer than Auggie Busch.

So, what do I see happening?

Again, a few things. 

First, I think a change is coming. Is it a bubble? Maybe, maybe not, and whatever is going to happen, isn't going to happen over night. But I think we're moving into the breaking zone—kinda like when the phrase "fo shizzle my nizzle" became common in upper class, white suburban neighborhoods. It's just a gut feeling. 

Many of the new breweries opening are nanos—that is to say tiny, commercial breweries producing one to three barrels of beer per brew—and I think that's part of the problem. Nanos beat the system, and the system isn't meant to be beaten. Although nanos are cheap to open, they are astronomically expensive to expand—and isn't expansion always the goal? In come the investors, now the homebrewer-but-not-necessarily-a-business-man brewery owner is beholden to investors to the tune of 100 thousand, or 500 thousand or a million—and, of course, investors demand returns. That's when the trouble starts. That's a lot of clams, and the fact of the matter is, there are a lot of people out there who simply should not be running a business—a brewery or otherwise. Success rates for new breweries are through the roof—right now. But everybody can't hit a home run, and not everybody deserves a trophy. Don’t get me wrong, I think some nanos will succeed in the long term—and I think breweries like Community Beer Works in Buffalo and Rooftop Brewing in Seattle will lead the vanguard as far as these small-batch breweries go. But we will eventually see fall out from this rapid expansion. 

Is it all doom and gloom?

No. Far from that in fact. I'm still regularly surprised by beer. Some of what is made—and I'm sure some of what will be made—is fantastic. Jabby Brau from Jack's Abby is an exercise in sublime simplicity, and The Duck-Rabbit's milk stout is one of the best beers I've ever rated—ever. Beer can still be great, and obviously there are bright spots—a lot of them, too—but I get a sense, as much as I love beer, that it has overextended itself. It's reaching for the stars, but often barely makes it to the top of the counter. 

More so than that, though, I just think beer has lost its focus.

18 comments:

  1. Joe called it the monkey, not me: http://beerblog.genx40.com/archive/2013/february/apparentlythe

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  2. May I please republish this on our blog at blog.beerploma.com?

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  3. *like*
    But no, expansion isn't always the goal - at least, it shouldn't be. Sometimes the goal is the craft, the enjoyment and the making-a-living. But perhaps that's just a European attitude?

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    1. You know, I hear that a lot. To be honest though, it sounds to me like people say that because they are supposed to say that.

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    2. Or "think" they are supposed to say it.

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  4. Excellent commentary. I believe that a lot of the points you make revolve around the deeper issue of the negative side of the "craft" beer movement. Overpriced beer. Hype. Overcrowded shelf space (often with old beer). The rate of brewery openings (it seems like every 20-something's dream is to open a brewery now right?). Hidden agendas behind marketing tactics. Beer snobs. Etc.

    It'll be interesting to see how everything plays out over the next couple of years. I'm not old enough (29) to have experienced what happened in the 1990's, but I've read a lot about it and opened my ears when people have talked about it. You can certainly draw some parallels between now and then.

    Steve

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  5. I guess I have this hope that customers' palates will improve and bad beer will take care of itself... but that doesn't seem likely. People are great at tricking themselves into liking trendy things.

    Harsh criticism of Stone, though! They're not necessarily my favorite brewery, but I hardly think they're disingenuous in their marketing. Enjoy By is definitely a gimmick and I despise the idea behind it, but damn it's a delicious DIPA.

    I also don't think we can fault breweries for participating in flavor trends. I've heard plenty of new breweries open declaring that they'll never make a Pumpkin Beer or even an IPA... and then less than a year goes by and they realize it's better to 1) meet customer demand, and 2) make money.

    Finally, I imagine that the bar will be higher and higher for becoming a regional brewery. At the same time, customers will continue to develop their affinity for "my local" and smaller breweries will hopefully find that sweet spot of profitably supplying their town and surrounding areas.

    I think I'll stop writing now.

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    1. You despise the idea behind a Stone marketing gimmick, but you don't think their marketing is disingenuous? Why not just make a great DIPA without the added gimmick? Further more isn't the idea behind an extra strong, extra hoppy IPA a bit of a gimmick in and of itself?

      Making beer people want to drink is one thing, but gimmicks usually have very little to do with the beer themselves. Go ahead make a pumpkin beer, just don’t expect that I, personally, will buy it because you’re releasing it in conjunction with a new Smashing Pumpkins album—especially if that tacks two or three more dollars on per bottle.

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    2. There's definitely some gimmicks out there, like releasing the beer to coincide with an album/movie release, but I don't think Enjoy By is one of them. What's wrong with printing the freshness date in bold letters on your label?

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    3. Nothing is wrong with that. In fact most beer has a freshness date on it—even Budweiser. What's wrong is promoting the beer as something special, and charging more for it. Shouldn't all beer be brewed with the intention of it being drank within a certain amount of time. If the beer isn't bought by its expiration date it should be pulled from the shelves. They do that with cereal and hot dogs, too. Isn't that just quality control? Whatever it is, its definitely not worth a 40 or 50% mark up.

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  6. Expansion is not the goal. For some, yes. I'm not out to "rule" the world like Walmart, maybe I just want to open a business and make just enough cash to live a decent life. If I make a let's say, 100 grand a year, I fine with that and I have no need to do anything else, I have found my niche. There are many nano breweries like this. When anyone uses the word "red herring" it just means you have tossed off an issue that you don't want to address. Pretty soon you have quite a few red herrings and your view is lacking. Also taste is SUBJECTIVE !!!!! If people could just get that through their thick skulls.

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    1. But, I'm not the one falling for the red herring.

      I assume from your tone that you own a nano? If you don't think that Big Craft is going to become an issue for small breweries within the next 5 to 10 years, then it's you who has the issue that you don't want to deal with.

      You're right, taste is subjective. Bottling 5 dollars worth of beer and selling it for $50 as limited-edition, barrel-aged, extreme, collaboration brew is not.

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    2. When you start paying for employees, equipment, ingredients, barrels, and rent on the space that you're storing the barrels for upwards of 18 months, then you can charge as little as you want for that finished product. The ingredients may cost 5 dollars, but having the knowledge and skill on how to turn that into delicious beer is the added cost.

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    3. By that logic less knowledgeable or less experienced brewers should charge less for their beer. That obviously isn't going to happen.

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  7. Grow hops instead. Let the brewers deal with the retail.

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