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Craft Beer… The New Oxymoron

It was a nice summer evening in Florida. As it typically is this time of year. Decided it would be a good idea to visit one of the local breweries for a craft beer or two. I wanted to visit a new place also. So the wife and I decided to visit a local community based brewery called Soggy Bottom Brewing. Being a nano sized brewery they are truly serving the community around them.

On this visit we were able to have good conversations with the bartender/part owner. Through our conversation I started really thinking about the current state of craft beer.

Many people in the industry are concerned with the stability of craft beer by its definition. Not in the sense that people will stop buying local beer. More of the sense that the craft beer scene is exploding everywhere, it has tons of room to grow, but its getting harder as a craft brewer to stand out. Largely this is in part to large macro-breweries buying and opening their own “craft beer” breweries.

There is no doubt that craft beer does not have the same meaning that it used to.

Big name companies like Coors, Constellation, and InBev have been buying microbreweries for years. This is nothing new.

Yet in the past it had more of a stigma about it.

Being a craft brewer had elicited thoughts of being a rebel. You built a business for the local community. You were going against big beer to provide hand crafted quality. It was about personality and passion. You were an artist.

Of course as the craft beer scene caught on and grew bigger, big names like Budweiser took notice and started putting up a fight. There millions in profits took a hit and they took notice.

The solution was to start buying microbreweries and selling that craft beer themselves. Years ago this was a slap in the face. People took offense at a micro-brewery selling out.

That is not quite the case today. Craft beer has exploded in growth and it is no longer a place for beer nerds exclusively.

Stop by any local brewery and you will find all kinds of faces young to old. People everywhere are enjoying craft beer.

The beers have changed as well. We are seeing less of the in your face hop explosion that a few liked. Instead we see more balance with NEIPA’s, more stouts, and the rebirth of the Berlinner Weisse. Beer is reaching a broader audience.

This is a good thing with an exception.

The lines between Craft Beer and Big Beer are getting Blurry

Truth is most people don’t care about Budweiser or Coors against the little guy. Most in fact could care less about the moral wrongs of companies like Constellation Brands. Truth is there will always be a place for big name brands and local breweries.

While big name brands have been buying up craft breweries for a long time, the industry really started seeing an impact with recent transactions. For instance when InBev bought Goose Island back in 2011, that was huge. That was a successful and well loved brand that many now would call a sell out.

Most recently was last year when Lagunitas sold all shares to Heineken. This one kind of hit me a little because I grew up on their beer.

I understand their view point though. As a local craft brand you can only grow so fast. Granted they were a large company and very successful. However, in order to see global distribution you need the financial backing of a big corporation like Heineken. While many people might hate these companies for the choices they made, most with big ambitions would agree they are just making fundamental business decisions.

However, is it really craft beer anymore? Ask most people who just want a good beer, they would never know the difference. It looks like craft beer, taste and smells like craft beer, it must be craft beer.

Beer geeks and nerds will disagree but this is where the lines get blurry.

Go to a local grocery store or restaurant and you will find your typical Bud, Coors, Miller, Pabst, Corona, Busch, and so on. Then in the tiny “craft” beer section you see things like Lagunitas, Goose Island, Elysian, Shock Top, and Blue Moon.

It is very easy to purchase a “craft” brand and not realize you are simply buying a big name beer. All of these brands look like craft beer but behind the label is a commercial brewery. Unless you were to educate yourself on every beer you see, you would go along thinking it is craft.

On top of that you have local breweries opening up that are actually owned by big companies. For instance, in Miami there is Veza Sur Brewing Co. which was opened and owned by AB-InBev. How “micro” is that microbrewery?

I’m not rallying against big breweries. I appreciate everyone’s right to choice when it comes to beer. You can’t tell people what to drink but you can educate. Whether people listen or really care is a different story. For those of us beer geeks, nerds, and snobs, the key issue is what is truly craft anymore?

Distribution Nightmares

With these lines getting blurry, it can be hard for a small brick and mortar brewery to find a comfy space to reside. The interesting thing is in the craft beer scene, brewers are the nicest of people. There is a sense of community involved when you have a local brewery. Even the competition around you is friendly.

In fact, go to Dunedin one night on a beer crawl. There is so many good breweries to visit in the little city and ask any one of the breweries how they view the competition. They will tell you we are all friends and have been for a long time before even opening up this brewery.

The opposite though is what we see in commercial brewing. It is not a friendly competition and they don’t want to see you succeed. They would like nothing more than to be the only player in the game.

I think it would be fair to say that most breweries open with a desire to distribute their beer. Whether starting out as a distributor or working towards it, that is usually the goal. Even if that is not the goal, once you get to a certain point, you have no choice but to distribute or stay small and local.

Distribution is a nightmare though.

If you are beer lover you may at times have asked why it is so hard to find good local beer at the grocery store or restaurants.

You would think that as a beer brewer you could just go knock on doors and say, “hey, will you serve my beer on tap at your restaurant?” In Florida that would be breaking the law. It is like this in many other states as well.

If the restaurant next door wanted your beer on tap, there is no placing a keg on a dolly and rolling it over. You would need to hire a distributor to pick up the keg, and drive it over to the restaurant. It is ridiculous but true.

The word distribution can sound so attractive to a brewer who wants to expand. It can mean saving thousand to millions in new overhead costs. However, the laws are so lop-sided in favor of the distributor that you practically give up all power. They own your brand and can choose how much of an effort to put in towards selling your beer.

With such large accounts distributing large macro-brewery beers and not really craft beer brands, getting your little brand on the shelf is difficult. It can be hard to get space in an already overcrowded field.

What is the solution?

Serving the Community

I don’t know if there is one true solution to it all or not. However there is something to be said for staying small and serving the community.

With the term craft beer becoming such an oxymoron I personally envision a time when craft beer returns to its true meaning. Small, locally owned, brick and mortar, place that makes good quality beer with a passion of building community. If you serve the same 5,000 people all year long you are building a community of support and friendship.

Of course being small has it’s challenges. Profits won’t be as high, you probably won’t get rich, but less headaches and stress fighting for a small square inch of the market.

I think in order for craft beer to remain true to it’s name we are going to see a trend shift. I believe we could see more and more nano-breweries and brewpubs open up. More places that you get to by walking down the street or going for a short drive. No more going to the store for buying beer that may or may not be craft.

I could be completely wrong. It happened once before. But I truly believe that in order to see craft beer lines get less blurry, new trends of staying small could be the key.

After all, “if you brew it they will come.”

The Pool Boy

A lover of all things food and beverage related, Ron Nattress is on the constant hunt to learn and experience all he can. A man of many hats, he takes his passion from grain to glass to readers.

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