Friday, September 25, 2009

Is "Craft Beer" a revolution? Is it a success?

Maureen Ogle takes an outsider's view of the beer industry, continuing a process she began in her 2006 book, Ambitious Brew. She looks at it with the dispassionate eye of a historian, and comes up with contrarian viewpoints that make Andy Crouch look like a mainstreaming cheerleader.

Witness her latest blog postings, which are cuts from an essay she wrote on craft beer for All About Beer's 30th anniversary issue (which I'd urge you to buy so you can read what she kept in the piece). There are three of them, and the 2nd and 3rd seem to largely say that contract brewing was controversial but is no big deal -- I got no problems with that thesis at all. I agree, and I regret the amount of money, time, and good feeling that was lost in the industry misunderstandings that revolved around it. I've said for years: it's about the beer, not where or who it's brewed by.

What I do disagree with is her first posting, a more general take, in which she writes:
The problem, [the late Michael Jackson] argued, was that the bottomless “pocketbooks” of the Big Six (at that time A-B, Miller, Stroh, Heileman, Coors, and Pabst) enabled them to “dominate the advertising scene” and thereby obscure consumers’ awareness of brewing’s lager-, porter-, and ale-stuffed nooks and crannies.
This “public ignorance” posed an “acute problem” for craft brewing. “No small brewery is itself an island,” he reminded readers. “None can succeed for long unless the . . . idea of small breweries is understood and appreciated by the consumer.
He was wrong. Thirty years in, most Americans don’t know about or drink craft beer, and yet craft brewing is alive and well. [emphasis added]
I don't buy that. We got into a small, very civil discussion on her Facebook link to this post, in which I argued that craft beer is now widely known, to which she countered:
I base that on my experience doing beer events for various non-beer groups (I do a lot of paid speaking). Very few people at them have ever heard of the beers on offer, all of them, of course, local craft brews. Also, the term "craft beer" has zero meaning to people outside the craft drinking/brewing niche. Again, that's based on my experience w/people who are NOT connected to or interested in beer.
Well...my response was that people who aren't interested in American football may not realize that the forward pass revolutionized the game, but that doesn't make it any less of a revolution. In short, does the knowledge or opinion of people who don't drink beer, who are not "interested in beer," really have any meaning in this? I don't feel that it does.

Another point: is it the knowledge of the term "craft beer" that we're talking about? Because I don't like the term (even though I use it every day), and I don't think that most people who are aware of these beers use the term. They either know their local craft (like, for example, the thousands in Boston who drink Sam Adams or Harpoon and don't give a damn about anything else), or they call them "microbrews," a term just used today in the Wall Street Journal to refer to beers from small American and Italian breweries.

Microbrews (or 'mircobrews,' as I've seen it misspelled so many times on teh Interwebs that it's hardly funny anymore; likewise, "Rouge" and "nector") is the term a lot of people "still" use. I put "stupid quotes" around the word "still" because I don't really know why the beer police felt they had to change it, except to de-link it from the old definition as a brewery that made less than 15,000 bbls. a year, a size that Sierra and Anchor blew by decades ago. It's a perfectly good word -- by virtue of public acceptance -- if you want to distinguish the (practically) uniform light lager output of the major established breweries from the more varied output of the not-so-major...er, 'micro' breweries.

So I'd argue that we should disregard the awareness level of the specific term "craft beer" and instead find out if these non-beer people -- or more importantly, and validly, people who do drink beer -- are aware of any beers other than the majors; Sam Adams, Sierra Nevada, Fat Tire? How about non-mainstream types of beers from mainstream brewers, like Blue Moon? How about mainstream beers from non-mainstream breweries, like Yuengling?

Because while there are certainly still people out there who know nothing at all about these beers (or at least profess to know nothing about them for political purposes...), it seems less and less likely that their existence remains a mystery to the majority. I recognize the pitfalls of sampling a pre-selected audience -- I lecture the geekerie about it often -- but the buoyant growth of the segment, the assumption of knowledge in a growing number of news stories like the one noted above, and the continued introduction of beers like Bud Light Golden Wheat all are evidence of a wider knowledge...at least, among beer drinkers in general, and people interested in beer.

If people aren't interested in beer...well, really, who cares what they think about beer? I don't say that to be cavalier, I just point out that it's kind of like asking the average American citizen about...Austrian elections. If they don't care about beer -- as long as they're not one of that group who is trying to take beer away from us! -- why should beer care about them?

Discuss. Or discuss. Or discuss.

13 comments:

Steven said...

People I know who like beer know what craft beer or micro-brewed beer is -- and drink it.

As you said, Lew -- if you're interested, you know. That probably explains why the Great Lakes Brew Fest, I attended last week, was sold out, and the Quivey's Grove Beer Fest I'm attending next week is sold out.

I'm no good at estimating crowds, but I've attended each fest for 6 to 10 years (depending on the fest) and the attendance just keeps growing.

The number of different labels I see on shelves compared to 1985, when I first got into better beers (craft or otherwise), has to be a barometer too -- especially when I see grocers that stock the likes of BMC along with Sierra Nevada, Bell's, and Rogue -- not to mention Goose Island, Sam Adams, and Red Hook among regionals like Leinenkugel & Berghoff, and "mock" micros like wing-walker, and so many imports.

Back in '85, I was lucky to find Bass and Guinness. Revolutionary.

Lew Bryson said...

True, though to be clear to all who are reading this, I'm talking about people who drink any kind of beer. To say people who drink craft beer know about craft beer...well, you know.

But yeah, you walk into a beer store today anywhere in the country and you're going to be hard-pressed to NOT find something other than the basic macros.

Glenn said...

I'd have to argue more for the side that it has been a revolution, or perhaps the more appropriate term would be "evolution". You have your beer folks here in NC who since the cap was lifted a few years back, have been able to buy pretty much any sort of beer they want. But what is less then obvious is the gentle push in restaurants, at the arenas, even in bars, of better quality beers. Heck I've even seen local and regional craft beers at local "performing art" places. One of my favorite locals does a booming business at the hockey games here. Side by side with the BMC stands. Point I'm trying to make is that with the greater availability of choices, people try things they may not have tried in the past. And a group of those people who end up liking what they try start seeking it out. So the "craft beer" revolution is evolving the folks around here into better beer drinkers in general!

Steven said...

"I'm talking about people who drink any kind of beer."

To be sure -- I wasn't singling out my craft-brew-only drinking friends. "People I know who like beer..."

But then, maybe I'm being hypocritical, because I often say that what they're drinking really isn't beer.

When I say one of these fests is sold out, we're talking thousands of people here, just for craft brew, whether they drink other beverages or not. Difficult to see that many people and say "obscure."

Jim Dorsch said...

She says (that Michael said), “None can succeed for long unless the . . . idea of small breweries is understood and appreciated by the consumer.”

Then she says: He was wrong. Thirty years in, most Americans don’t know about or drink craft beer, and yet craft brewing is alive and well.

The second statement doesn't disprove the first. MJ didn't say that the majority of Americans need to understand small breweries. He referenced 'the consumer', and indeed there is a class of consumer that does understand and appreciate small breweries.

THOMAS 'Tom' CIZAUSKAS said...

Good post and comments. Thank you for again deconstructing the BA's silly and not quite benign definition of 'craft brewery'.

But (and you knew there might be a "but"), arguing that most people don't know or care about where a beer is made feeds into Maureen's argument that most people don't know or care about 'craft' beer in general. Once drinkers are made aware of freshness' crucial role in flavor, many do care.

Maureen Ogle said...

I only used the term "craft beer" as a way of identifying the "non-mainstream" beers that, in my experience, most people don't know about.

Obviously, I have no way to quantify general ignorance (heh, not even my own...), so my assertion was anecdotal.

But the larger point I was trying to make was that, if "craft beers" (or "non-mainstream beers") were more widely known for what they are (alternatives to mainstream), the market's segment would be larger than it is. More important, it would be larger than it was, say, 10 or 15 years ago. Which it's not.

Finally, the outtakes I posted at my blog were just that. The first one of those makes more sense if it's read in conjunction with what ended up in print in the magazine. There's a certain amount of incoherence in what's at my blog because it was chopped off a larger argument.

And yes, even I, in my small town in Iowa, can find quite a bit of "craft" beer. But those six-packs of Craft Whatever are dominated by the national brands (eg, Sam Adams, Sierra, Leinie) (which, yes, I know many people don't acknowledge as a true craft beer). In other words, the craft beers that have gone "mainstream."

But at the end of the day, the grocery store shelves are still dominated by the mainstream brews.

In any case (and I promise I'll shut up after this), my main point in the AAB piece and the outtakes was that I was trying to debunk the notion, so widely held by the beer geeks, that "everyone drinks craft beer now."

Everyone doesn't. It's unlikely "everyone" ever will. And the form and structure of American brewing has not changed in thirty years: Dominant giants. Niche midgets.

sam k said...

Lew, some of what Maureen's saying was borne out in your neighborhood recycling survey some time back, I think.

Lew Bryson said...

"In any case (and I promise I'll shut up after this), my main point in the AAB piece and the outtakes was that I was trying to debunk the notion, so widely held by the beer geeks, that "everyone drinks craft beer now."

Please don't shut up!

I agree with this main point 100%. As you said: outtakes. I was mainly quirking my eyebrow at the idea that most beer drinkers were not aware of craft beers...which I do not think is true at all. Drink them? No, the numbers make that clear. Know about 'em? Yeah.

But I do disagree with the idea that the market will never go for craft in a much bigger way. Here's why:
http://www.lewbryson.com/avintagebook.htm
And the recent short portrait I did of Ron & Bill of Victory in BeerAdvocate Mag.

In short? Wine is not all mega-vintners, making table wines in gallon jugs or fortified crap-ports flavored with lemonade. But it was. I don't know why beer can't go that way. Likewise, craft beer is not all IPAs and sours. Craft can be very approachable.

I think the future is still happening. If it's taking longer to go our way, well, it takes miles for a supertanker to make a turn. Beer's a huge market.

Jim Dorsch said...

I don't know if all the beer geeks say that everyone drinks craft, but if they do, then clearly they're wrong!

I think a remarkable number of people know that there is some kind of craft beer out there, even if they don't know what it is.

Regarding market share, Jim Koch's NBWA speech has been all over the trades. He made a lot of interesting comments of interest mainly to wholesalers, but he also said that what he calls 'better beer' could grow to 1/3 of the business, with craft accounting for 1/3 of that, or about an 11 share, compared to today's 4.5 share.

I see no reason why craft would ever have a really huge share because it costs a lot more than the regular stuff. I also don't expect gourmet cheese to ever dominate the market. These are specialty products, which by definition don't have huge market share.

Andy Crouch said...

I think Maureen's general point about the limited future of craft beer might indeed be a good one (it's certainly one we could debate and come to no agreeable answer other than to wait and see). I think the anecdotal evidence that she has experienced (and indeed I have as well) actually largely relates to a single point of division: age. People under a certain age, say 35, grew up surrounded by craft beer or at least aware of its existence (or even unaware that it previously did not exist). Over that age, the pockets of knowledge/awareness of craft/better beer get much smaller. As the beer buying demographic continues to shift and the older groups phase out of buying beer (or die, to put it plainly), they'll be replaced with a more knowledgeable set of consumers. Whether craft/better beer producers can retain substantial percentages of these aging "young" consumers remains to be seen but I suspect they will. The cycle continues again as new generations of kids age (or get peer or perception pressured) into beer drinking and out of macro-beer.

Once largely populated by old, fat dudes, the GABF (for example) is now a frat house by comparison. I don't know whether these kids drink craft when they're done boozing it up on the convention floor, but I imagine many do. These consumers are also finicky by nature and remain decidedly disloyal to a single brand. So with these trends, I think craft brewers have a great deal to be positive about regarding the future. The macro brewers, long propped up by brand loyalists are in a heap of trouble when a new generation of consumers views their products as a uniform offering.

Cheers,

Andy

Maureen Ogle said...

Well, wierdly enough, I was thinking about YOUNG people when I mentioned my anecdotal evidence.

Specifically all those people I talk to at the meet-greet part of the talks I give: most are in their late 20s and early 30s (only bec. of who hires me and the kinds of events I do). For the most part, they've never heard of anything other than Miller, Bud, or Coors. They're always amazed to discover there's another kind of beer out there.

I suspect this is a "social" thing rather than an age thing: These tend to be affluent people who generally don't drink beer in business-social settings (they prefer spirits). For them, beer is something to drink in the backyard or while watching sports events on TV.

For what it's worth.

Anonymous said...

"Well, wierdly enough, I was thinking about YOUNG people when I mentioned my anecdotal evidence.

Specifically all those people I talk to at the meet-greet part of the talks I give: most are in their late 20s and early 30s (only bec. of who hires me and the kinds of events I do). For the most part, they've never heard of anything other than Miller, Bud, or Coors. They're always amazed to discover there's another kind of beer out there.

I suspect this is a "social" thing rather than an age thing: These tend to be affluent people who generally don't drink beer in business-social settings (they prefer spirits). For them, beer is something to drink in the backyard or while watching sports events on TV.

For what it's worth. "

----------------

FWIW, The Rivertowne Pourhouse in Monroeville, PA is a HIT with the affluent "business folk" of the area. Myself and a number of my 20-something friends hit it up for happy hour after work regularly. We're huge fans, and almost always opt for it over a *chain* establishment like Mad Mex that serves mostly "Macro" beer.