March 27, 2011

I hate "craft beer"

It's the last night of the Craft Brewers Conference so, yes, I'm a mite craft beered out. But that's not why I'm saying I hate "craft beer," because the fact is, I'll always love it and I pledge my undying love for it. The fact that ANYONE can ever try it and then go back to "macro" or industrial beer is beyond me, but that's for another post, perhaps one about Ron Lindenbusch's "craft beer onion" that I heard him talk about (oh gawd, I think it was's been a long, beerful week) at the Lagunitas Brewery where he serves as "Beer Weasel." OK, fine, since I'm on this tangent early on I'll stick with it and make it transition back to my subject at hand about how I hate "craft beer." He was talking about layers of craft beer drinkers being like the layers of an onion. How you have the diehard beer geeks at the small core. Then around it, a larger circle of folks who drink brands by larger craft breweries. One think I learned at the Lagunitas/Anchor retreat (among the many; man did they pull out all the stops!) was that the five largest craft brewers rake in 45% of the craft segment of the beer industry.
By the numbers: an interlude
For those that know me, you know I'm not a numbers guy. But I am a guy who knows the numbers. Here's some interesting and pertinent ones, and all of these are rounded up or down, so if I'm off a percentage point here or a million dollars there, just deal. The US Beer industry does $100 billion/yr. It does so by brewing 200 million barrels/yr. Of that, the craft segment accounts for 5% by volume (meaning 10 million barrels) and almost 7% by revenue (so almost $7 billion). That barrelage and dollarage is divvied up among the 1700 smaller breweries ranging from large regionals to mid-sized microbrewers to a ton of pint-sized nanobreweries. Collectively, the craft industry grew by 11% last year, continuing its steady growth, despite the economy and increased competition.

Ask the smaller guys and the competition is the industrial, foreign-owned brands. Ask the larger ones and they'll shy away from admitting that the competition is the other larger small-brewers. So let's get back to those top 5 and keep in mind that the largest 8% of the producers account for 80% of the volume, so sayeth the Brewers Association's industry publication The New Brewer. You know the ones. Boston Beer Co. (aka Sam Adams). Sierra Nevada. New Belgium (aka Fat Tire to some folks). Pyramid. And I guess there's one other, but for some reason it's not Widmer Bros or Widmer/Redhook/Kona/Goose Island. Don't ask me the reason, it's too long-winded. But, for better and for worse (but mostly for the better), these are all "craft breweries" and will remain so for the foreseeable future. How many craft breweries outgrow that title and become macrobreweries? Roughly none. But there's some wiggle room because of the likes of Widmer, Redhook, BridgePort, Pyramid, and others. And this has very little to do with the few things I don't like about the craft beer industry and nothing to do with what I hate about "craft beer."

OK, so quit beating around the bush, right? What I hate about "craft beer" is the title. I guess I agree that it's the best name it's been given, which is a result of a years-long marketing push by the BA and members of the craft beer community on the whole--community meaning those in the industry as well as fans and supporters alike. Originally it was "microbrew" but that'd be a super tiny beer, wouldn't it. Then the Big Boys fought back and there was a media backlash and it was cynically labeled "boutique beer." So now it's called "craft beer" and it makes my mouth tired having to say "craft" all the time and it makes my ears more tired hearing people say it.

It's "beer." Can't we just call it beer?!? Since we beer lovers, by and large, like making fun of wine people (they even have a fancy name for themselves: oenophiles), tell me your nose doesn't crinkle a little every time you hear the phrase "fine wine" or "a nice bottle of wine." It's a given that oenophiles are drinking fine wine, since no way would they be pounding goblets of boxed or jug wine. Likewise, no one reading this slams tallboys of Bud or does kegstands sucking down (or up) Natty Light (anymore). YES, Miller Lite and Schlitz and Sam Adams Boston Lager and Russian River Pliny the Younger are all technically beer even if we are remiss to refer to the first two as actually being so. But while the latter two are enjoyed by different crowds, consumers of the former two would never, ever imbibe a Sammy or a Pliny. That's because those consumers are sheeple. They do not know that beer is artful and indulgent and philanthropic and tasty. To them, and those manufacturers, it is a commodity. To those on the craft side, it is an artisan product.

As I've always said, take the music industry. There are major labels and there are indie labels. The majors record, release, and promote their products, which is how Justin Bieber blew up and why Miley Cyrus is huge. Those records are easily marketed to impressionable consumers but they are not art. It is a commodity, intended to be sold or downloaded by the millions/minions. In fact, the industry measures in terms of "units." Indie bands get their start in garages, much like microbrewery founders started homebrewing in the garages next door. And just like music is broken down into styles (bubblegum, rock'n'roll, metal, punk, folk, psycho-thrash-screamo-core) and beer is likewise (American Premium Light Lager, IPA, stout, Maibock, Barrel-aged Imperial Schwarzbier refermented with Brettanomyces), in the end, music is music and beer is beer. You don't have to like it all. But ideally, anyone who listens to the stuff that isn't commoditized can respect something else they don't purchase and anyone who drinks the stuff not advertised during the Super Bowl, et al can respect something they don't choose to imbibe. One thing craft/indie fans have in common is that we get all sanctimonious and say "(Insert Top 40 Band Here)? That's not music!" or "Bud Select 55?" That's not beer!"

So given that, why can't we just call "craft beer" what it IS--BEER. Why let 3-4 brewing concerns ruin it for the other 1700 by co-opting the term? Can't we call our side of the spectrum beer and label that side something else, perhaps "crap beer"? Why do the Big Boys get to be called "domestics" when not a single one of those companies is American-owned? All the true domestics have owners who live in our own communities. So let us never turn into people who might one day say "I enjoy a nice, little Berlinerweisse" or "Like a fine Bavarian Pilsner" because if it's worth your money, your time, and your consumption, of course it's good. It'd save 50% of our breath from uttering craft beer and we'd get to drinking it that much sooner.