The future of “craft”

No deep answers here, but there were some of interesting thoughts and articles I came across this week made me think a bit about the future of craft beer—and “craft” beer (the label).

On Twitter, Ray Daniels (author, founder of the Cicerone Certification Program) had a 13-part write-up on the future of the industry as the number of breweries continues to grow. I’ve pulled those tweets into a readable “narrative” here:

Wrote this sequence last week and just saw talk by Jim Koch that affirms parts of it, so here goes:

@BrewersAssociation continues to encourage brewery openings, cites larger winery pop in US (6,000+). But with huge brewer population, I believe fundamentals of brewery business change for most. Of course increase in brewers = increasingly hard to get distribution, tap handles, shelf space. Also: more brands = more difficult to be known, remembered by consumers esp beyond local area. Wine world is similar. Few brands break through avg consumer consciousness. Most bought on varietal, region.

A crowded beer world where purchases based on style, not brand, would be a disaster for brewers. One wine/beer difference: beer can’t sit around for years. This further limits distribution options. Onsite tasting rooms already essential to small brewery start ups. Parallels in wine world. Consider: ~1/2 of all winery revenue from tasting rooms. As margins higher, must be >> 1/2 of profits!

Future of beer may look a lot like wine market: onsite and direct sales essential for success in 95+% of brewers. Imports now being pushed out of US retailers. Far-away US beers soon to get same treatment? Soon, I figure most stores will only stock 1) popular local beers 2) acclaimed classics and 3) household names.

Logical, interesting train of thought here. But it mostly ignores the brewpubs, which, selling primarily on premise, don’t have to worry about tap handles, or shelf space, in the same vein as production breweries. Of brewpubs, I see the overall number proliferating. Particularly in Oregon; here in Central Oregon at least 33% of our brewing operations are (primarily) brewpubs.

And in today’s (Sunday’s) local newspaper, the Bulletin, there is an article on the growth of the nanobreweries here in Bend as part of the “boom,” which does tie a bit back into Daniels’ comments but also brings the focus back to hyper-local.

Which San Diegans are thinking of as well; they’ve had what you might call a rough year in Southern California for beer purists: “losing” Golden Road Brewing, Ballast Point Brewing, and Saint Archer Brewing to the corporate megabreweries. And with news out that Anheuser-Busch-owned, Bend, Oregon-based 10 Barrel Brewing is wanting to open up a brewpub there, it’s got the locals thinking about what it means to be a “craft” — in this case, the label — brewery.

On the Hoptology blog, in The Battle for the Soul of San Diego Indie Beer, author Tom says (the bold emphasis is mine):

By placing a brewpub in San Diego, InBev has shown that it will continue to rely on deception and outright lies to attempt to create a ruse to confuse and trick customers. It is shameful. This is an effort to severely damage the indie beer culture of San Diego and we cannot sit back and take it.

One of the many rewarding aspects of loving the local, independent beer scene of San Diego is the knowledge that your money is staying in San Diego and supporting small business. Your money is helping your neighbors, and not lineing the pockets of rich people who do not give a damn about the community of San Diego. They see our city as dollars signs. They know their product does not stand a chance when lined up against the world class beers brewed by many of our local, indie Brewers. Deception is the new strategy.

Recently on a trip to Portland, Oregon I spent a Saturday night hopping from brewpub to brewpub in the downtown area. After a few hours I stumbled upon the 10 Barrel location; it was packed. I was shocked. Portlanders are known for their being savvy when it comes to supporting local business over corporate greed. It opened my eyes to a few truths that I still wrestle with but two of those truths are that not only are InBev’s deceptions working, they are working very well even in a indie beer town like Portland.

“Indie” beer and brewers, meaning anti-corporate, independently owned, hearkening back to the “indie” rock movement in the music industry. The San Diego Reader brought this to everyone’s attention this week, in Craft is dead. Now we drink Indie Beer:

The term Craft Beer may be in need of a makeover. The Union-Tribune reported this week that Bend, Oregon’s 10 Barrel Brewing Co. has proposed a 10,000-square-foot brewpub in East Village. In response, local beer industry podcasters have doubled down on a push to describe independently owned breweries as Indie Beer companies, rather than craft.

The Indie Beer designation (and social media hashtag) arose during a November 17 podcast on ThreeBZine.com, a blog devoted to local beer, music, and food. During a discussion about Ballast Point’s billion-dollar sale to Constellation Brands, podcasters Cody Thompson, Dustin Lothspeich, and Tom Pritchard decried the efforts of “Big Beer” to enter the craft beer marketplace, including other recent purchases of longstanding craft brands Lagunitas, Elysian, and Golden Road.

“Is craft beer even a thing any more, or is it just marketing?” asked Pritchard. “It’s been appropriated by corporations.” Taking a cue from the concept of Indie Rock in the music industry, the trio settled on Indie Beer as a way to distinguish small, privately owned businesses.

It’s not inappropriate, as “craft” as it applies to beer is really much more of a marketing term these days, especially fueled by the Brewers Association’s own definition of “craft brewer.” I don’t know about you, but I don’t particularly think 6 million barrels of annual production is “small” — I don’t even think barrelage in the hundreds of thousands is small. Deschutes Brewery is not “small,” Stone Brewing is not “small,” Sierra Nevada Brewing certainly isn’t “small” but we would probably agree that all are “craft brewers.” (Or as Alan McLeod has taken to calling breweries of this size, “big craft.”)

And then of course “craft” has been appropriated by the biggest players to varying degrees. And one year ago this month, All About Beer magazine declared they would (mostly) eliminate “craft” from the magazine’s vocabulary.

Is “indie” or “independent” better? I don’t know, I don’t think it’s bad, but not everyone’s a fan. For instance, Boulevard Brewing’s Jeremy Danner on Twitter got into a bit of a dust-up with some of the San Diego “indie beer” folks, and declared (among other things), “I’m not going to embrace or use the term “Indie Beer” as a replacement for “craft.” I’ll switch to drinking vodka tonics if I have to.”

It’s worth noting that Boulevard is owned by Duvel Moortgat, so they wouldn’t be considered “indie” by the “small, privately owned” standards. Then again, other breweries that wouldn’t qualify as “indie” would include Full Sail Brewing (private equity group), Lagunitas (Heineken), Firestone Walker (also Duvel Moortgat), Alpine Beer Company (Green Flash), and many, many others.

Beyond that, I don’t know… does “craft” need to be replaced? Is “indie” what should replace it? Is a qualifier/adjective even necessary?

4 Responses to The future of “craft”

  1. Cory M says:

    I understand the philosophy behind having a separate association with small, ‘independent’ brewers, but we have to step out from the forest from a second and realize that the word ‘craft’ has become a mainstream association with ‘good beer versus domestics’. We’re currently in a place in time where ‘craft beer’ is FINALLY getting recognition with everyday people – not just your cool buddy who liked it before everyone else did. The minute we start to change its meaning, we’re back in this whole mess of confusing people who are just getting started to like damn fine beer.

    We need the 10 Barrel/Ballast Point/Elysian/Bought Out breweries of the world to introduce good beer to those who didn’t have access to it before. I understand San Diego people are hurt by this whole ‘InBev’ charade, but now they have an even easier way of showing people better craft beer! Why be afraid? “Oh, you liked 10 Barrel? Awesome! Come and try So&So’s Brewing Company, the beer there is even better!”. Easy conversion. No more struggling for your average joe to understand why you’re so upset over the difference between a CDA/Black IPA.

    Think we all need to step back and see how this can be helpful for getting beer mainstream. Why try and start a civil war in our our industry?

  2. That Tom is shocked says more about him than the state of beer. Those of us who fully bought into the “craft” . . . . . movement? . . . whatever you call it . . can easily become insular – forgetting that the majority of the beer drinking world isn’t checking labels or downloading apps to help decipher between “indie” and non-indie. Even in a place like Portland, OR.

    “Craft beer” has only ever been capable of an idea, not a definition. Even Papazian said that before his organization decided to try and define/enumerate it.

    Modern beer drinkers as a general group prioritize drinking by taste, with notions of “local” being a pretty distant second. I don’t know anyone who is consuming poor quality beer simply because it is local. Conversely, I only know a few who have truly and completely boycotted big beer over their business practices.

    “Craft” worked when Big Beer only made/owned crappy beer. It stopped working when beer fans’ favorite beers started being bought out – and they weren’t willing to give them up, nor could people argue that Big Beer just made crappy beer.

    Craft beer got what it wanted. Explosive growth, market share and general awareness. Why are we shocked that this growth brought with it a multitude of problems?

    I’ve enjoyed romanticizing craft beer as much as the next guy, but when you dive down into the weeds – far away from the latest fluff piece – it’s beer and it’s a business at every level.

    • Alan, good points; it’s VERY easy to forget the majority of beer drinkers are light lager drinkers.

      I have run into drinkers (at least around here, in Bend area) that will drink “local” beer as a priority, even if the quality suffers. Odd, but true!

      Beer and business— for sure. It’s also very easy to forget that.