Competition in the Craft Beer World

Friends, not foes.

Friends, not foes.

It’s the final day of the first month of the new year, which means it is time for me to exit my cave and post something. The reason for my month-long silence was two-fold: 1) Unexpected  and sizable car repairs meant that Mr. NN and I have had to scale back our expenses this month. To wit: Only one trip to the Happy Gnome, one trip to Buster’s on 28th, and only one meager shopping jaunt at the Ale Jail all month. Therefore, I’ve had little to report. 2) I woke up one morning with fragments of an exciting dream floating in my head, and those fragments needed to be turned into a novel. (I’m an aspiring novelist, see, and dreams are the source of most of my writings.) I’m 30K+ words into my newest venture, and I didn’t want to stop working on that until the fever broke. Alas, it broke before I was able to flesh out the plot fully, but I’ve got a good start. Oh, and my Twitter app stopped functioning, too. (Once I get it going again, you can follow my “Tipple Tweets” — what I’m drinking, thoughts on beer & football — by following @ninkasis_niece)

So, enough with the excuses. Time for some beer talk.

A couple months ago, Mr. NN and I went to the weekly tasting at the Ale Jail (every Tuesday from 5-7pm) when the Odell representative was pouring. One of the attendees asked if the competition between microbreweries in Colorado was fierce. After all, Odell hails from Fort Collins, which is also home to New Belgium and several smaller breweries and brewpubs that I have never heard of. He launched into an explanation of how craft beer, despite its growing popularity, is still only 5-9% of the market share for beer in the United States. (The variation in rate depends on how recent the data is and whether the analysis is by volume–the lower end– or by dollar amount–the higher end.) Given the deep pockets and market domination of the MacroCrap Breweries (“ABC” = Anheuser-Busch, Bud, Coors), the representative explained that most craft brewers viewed one another as colleagues and comrades, fellow foot soldiers in the fight for good beer.

Was he right, or was he just putting a “we come in peace” face on the situation? Let’s examine the evidence:

  • Collabeerations. Ever see a Miller-Bud collaboration? A Coors & any other brewer Frankenstein-child? No. Nor will you. The ABC brewers do not play nicely with others. They do not cross-promote. Craft brewers, however, do, and we will probably see more of this trend: Sierra Nevada & Dogfish Head (Life & Limb) , Dogfish Head & Portsmouth Brewing, Deschutes & Boulevard (Collaboration series), Deschutes & Hair of the Dog (Conflux No. 1 Collage)…. The list goes on. Some of these collaborating brewers may have once worked at the other brewery, but most do not have a connection like that, just a respect for the quality product crafted by the other brewer.
  • Actual cross-promotion (or at least praise). In December, Mr. NN and I ventured once again to the Ale Jail for a tasting, this time by Grand Teton. Chris, the Grand Teton representative for this part
    Mr. NN with Chris from Grand Teton at Ale Jail's anniversary event.

    Mr. NN with Chris from Grand Teton at Ale Jail’s anniversary event.

    of the country, enthused about the GT products he was sampling. We decided to pick up a couple bottles, but then also grabbed some beers by other companies. Chris noticed that I was holding a bottle of Indeed‘s holiday ale and he raved about it. Not only that, but he suggested the proper temperature at which to serve it so that the honey tones would be more pronounced. We chatted a bit about other beers, too. Granted, this representative lives in the Twin Cities and so could be expected to know about local beers. Indeed is nowhere near as large as Grand Teton and only sells in the general Twin Cities area, but still… he showed enthusiasm for beers other than what he was selling. Some may think of that as poor salemanship, but they’d be wrong. Chris showed a broad range of knowledge about the other beers on the market, and by being able to praise other beers, it showed us that his opinion could be trusted, that he wasn’t just a pitch-man for Grand Teton but a beer connoisseur. We can trust his opinion about his company’s products when he can say, “Yes, that other company’s products are good, too.”

  • ABC brewers have launched a war, part I.  If an extraterrestrial being were to learn about beer just by watching commercials, these are the conclusions it would come to: 1) Beer is for dudes. 2) Beer should be cheap, no frills. 3) Beer should only ever be served ice-cold. 4) Special “vortex” bottles and a calorie-count of only 64 are some of the main deciding factors why you would choose one brewery over another.  I say, Bah! (as well as many other, stronger words) Those are really the only things that they can promote for their corn-based beer-esque beverages. It’s misinformation and mis-direction. They want you to turn your nose up at anything that isn’t a weak lager and costs more than $3/pint. If you think beers generally taste all the same, it is because you’ve bought into the ABC marketing and have not tried the mind- and tastebud-expanding beers offered by craft brewers. (For a funny send-up of the MacroCrap brewing commercials, see the Breckenridge Brewing commercials here.)
  • ABC brewers have launched a war, part II. They have deeeeep pockets, my friends. They can shut smaller brewers out and shut things down. I have heard from people who work in the beer distribution business that frequently the ABC brewers will buy up more shelf-space than they require in liquor stores and fill it with junk (promotional items), just so that they crowd out the selections on offer by other brewers. A few years ago, the Discovery channel had a series called Brew Masters, a show about Sam Calagione of Dogfish Head and how he comes up with the exotic recipes for DH’s fabulous and creative beers. It was cancelled after six episodes. Was it due to low ratings? (Beer author Andy Crouch thinks so.) Was it pressure from Anheuser-Busch? (Anthony Bourdain of No Reservations thinks so.) We may never know for sure, but in this instance, I’m a conspiracy theorist. (You can watch the episodes here. If you’re not familiar with DH, watch a bit and you will learn why it’s the brewery of my dreams.)
  • ABC brewers have launched a war, part III. Oh, the MacroCrap brewers are cagey. They know a good thing when they see it, even if they won’t produce it themselves. They can beat the craft brewers WP_001844to some extent, but they will also join them. Covertly. Have you recently cracked open a bottle of Goose Island? How about a Blue Moon? Red Hook? Widmer Bros.? or even Kona, which has just arrived in Minnesota with a tasty coconut brown ale? Those breweries are either entirely or largely owned by one of the Big Three. I’m of two minds about this. First mind says, “Well, at least they’re still producing tastier beers, which can work as ‘gate-way’ beers to the better stuff.” Really, what’s the harm? After all, Goose Island still tastes like Goose Island. Leinenkugel’s still has their Big Eddy series, which has some surprisingly good stuff in it. Does it matter, in that case, who owns the company as long as craft-quality beer is being made? Second mind, however, says that by reducing the number of truly independent breweries, the MacroCrap brewers are squeezing out the smaller brewers, giving them even less space on the liquor stores shelves. I’m glad that the Big Three are putting money behind better beer, but I’m disturbed that they’re doing it secretly. I’m also worried that the over-arching plan is to bring us back to the Dark Ages (the early 1970s) when something like 95% of all the beer sold in the U.S. was produced by 5 companies. I doubt things will get that bad, but the MacroCrap breweries would love that. (For more thorough listings, check out this page from the Drink American website. I don’t propose limiting one’s beer consumption to American beers alone, but the website does indicate who owns what.)

So, yes. I do believe that what the Odell representative said was true: Craft brewers see each other as colleagues and collaborators, a foamy Resistance against the fascist conglomerates, Jedi rebels against the Evil Empire. And we, as the consumers, must do our part by buying craft, especially by buying local craft. I leave you with the rallying cry of Randy Mosher, author of Radical Brewing

You can surrender your dough to some vast industrial conglomerate that owns who-knows-what-else, or you can help support a dedicated entrepreneur who’s a part of your community, who is crazy for the good stuff (just like you), and who isn’t trying to water it down to utter blandness. Buying genuine microbrew is not just a matter of being nice–it’s self interest. If you don’t support them, they’ll be gone, and then what will your choices be like? Be cantankerous. Demand craft beer wherever you go, and don’t be afraid to be a pest about it. Learn where good beer comes from. Consider who you’re giving your money to. Turn your friends on to the pleasures of craft beer. It matters.

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4 Comments

Filed under Beer News, Culture

4 responses to “Competition in the Craft Beer World

  1. I like the imagery of Jedi beer drinkers – they’re permitted to go to the dark side of the malt.

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