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.”
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.
— Jeremy Danner (@Jeremy_Danner) January 30, 2016
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?