Thursday, October 9, 2014

I Think We Need to Clear Something Up

Everybody knows this latest argument of quality and local beer (and for that matter craft versus krafty) is partisan politics, right?

The arguments don't really have anything to do with quality or authenticity. They are politcal-esque attack ads. They are the beery equivalent of one politician claiming another politician voted against meals for the elderly (even thought the first guy probably also voted again the old folks). But it's not re-election or control of the Senate that's being quibbled over, it's control of the U.S beer market—and "craft" beer is in the middle of it, literally.

It all started 25 or 30 years ago, when micro-brewing got itself going. Companies like AB, Molson, and Miller were big—and times were good in the 1980s. The big boys had been sucking on the "too big to fail" tit since the 1970s. What did they have to fear from some upstart in Boston? Not much—at least not in their world. That was a mistake, because some of those 1980s microbreweries were good, and they grew because of it, slowly pushing into macro's profits. Then came "craft"—the marketing strategy that places authenticity, and so-called innovation, paramount to anything else. Micro-brewing, the denizen of beer-nerds and hobbyists, became "craft" brewing in the 2000s. "Craft" has brought along hipsters and radicalized fan-boys by the legions, first glancing, and now cutting a swath through macro's market share.

What's the lesson to be learned here boys and girls?

The big boys should have payed more attention to the little guys. Perhaps a smiting was in order. That didn't happen. Faux craft or krafty happened, and conglomeration—as is the preferred tactic of macro brewing—happened. In any case, most of the actions came a bit too little, a bit too late.

Do you know who the lesson was not lost on?

Those same upstart breweries, who are not so upstart anymore. Those breweries who grabbed onto "craft" and ran with it—Big Craft. They can now afford marketing departments and strategists, and can sway distributors—all through "craft". This puts them in a unique position, to 1) continue to undermine the macro brewing industry—by using their "craft" credibility; 2) proliferate the "craft" mantra to new breweries and; 3) eat their own young—with warning shots across the bow about lack of quality undermining the industry.

The small guys—the local breweries—hear that they need to be "craft" from their venerable elders, because craft is good and not-craft is bad,  so "craftier" they become—in go the pickles and pepperoni and out comes the bad beer. Macro is chasing the illusive credibility of "craft"—or at least attempts to appear that they are, to gain back their lost percentage of the market. All the while Big Craft sits in the middle like "The Man With No Name" in a  Sergio Leone spaghetti western, playing both sides against each other.

Big craft knows there is a chink in macros armor. Macro beer will still be a major player in the U.S market, but they'll start—actually they've already started—to look to non-U.S. markets to make-up for their loss. The bad-press of craft versus krafty only helps to move that process along. It gets the dander up, if you will.  Big craft also sees weakness in smaller, local breweries. First many of those breweries have been opened by people who shouldn't be opening business—beery or otherwise—in the first place. Secondly, they know that "craft's" mantra of authenticity and "innovation" (i.e potentially, and quite often bad beer)—only acts to undermine those businesses built on unstable foundations to begin with. Big Craft can then turn that lack of quality against those smaller breweries. There lies the "local beer has quality issues" argument.  In the end, it all works out for Big Craft.

It's actually a pretty brilliant strategy—political campaign-style beer selling.

Beery folk have convinced themselves that beer—especially craft beer—is one big happy family. It's not. Beer is a business. Boston Beer Company, Lagunitas, Bells, Stone—and the like—may have started in a garage—but so did Microsoft. It's about market share and money. The arguments of authenticity, quality, and local are straw man arguments. Big Craft wants to sell beer, and they want to sell more beer than the next guy. He who dies with the most number of distributors wins.

Got it? Good. I just want to make sure everybody is one the same page.

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