The State Of Craft Beer: You Sold Us On Choice

This month’s Session asked what beer book we’d like to see published that hasn’t been written yet.  I picked “What’s Really Going on in Craft Beer,” a comprehensive look at the entire system, warts and all.

Lo and behold, while the book hasn’t been written yet, several articles hit the beer world this week which provided some interesting peeks behind the Curtain of OZ.

Is Sam Adams Getting Left Behind?

First up was Andy Crouch’s article in Boston Magazine on the idea that craft beer is leaving Boston Beer/Samuel Adams behind.

It is a well balanced piece that shows owner Jim Koch in one of his more forgettable moments, explains his place in the history of craft beer pioneers, and asks whether Boston Beer is getting left behind. There is a nice follow up, also in Boston Magazine, at this link.

Jim’s forgettable moment (though he tells he story himself) stems from a rant he engaged in at an upscale beer bar when he discovered the bar did not carry Sam Adams products.  From there Crouch traces the history of Boston Beer Co., Koch’s reluctance to enter the IPA race, and quotes a few bar owners who essentially say Sam Adams just doesn’t cut it anymore in the craft beer world.

Antihero Brewing Capture

Vinny (he withholds his last name) writes the Anti-Hero Brewing blog about his homebrewing adventures and provided a companion/response piece that quickly garnered a lot of attention.

Vinny capably defends Koch’s place in beer history against those who set aside his positive contributions for the much easier toss-off argument of “you’re too big for us to care anymore.”

Millennials and hipsters won’t like the rather pointed comments about their attitudes being the cause of the problem. (Hey, they’re an easy target.) But Vinny’s comments and those quoted in Crouch’s piece demonstrate the “problem” being addressed by both articles: that the search for the new and exciting and the disdain for the “old” creates challenging marketing and loyalty issues. Take this passage from Crouch’s article:

“Right now, it’s about what is shiny and new,” says Jamie Walsh, bar manager of Stoddard’s Fine Food and Ale, a brewpub near Boston Common. Dann Paquette, a veteran brewer and cofounder of Pretty Things Beer and Ale Project, agrees, telling me there’s now an “annoying young hipster attitude toward beer. It’s the same sort of attitude that you find in music. ‘Oh, that brewery was so last year.’ People want to try new stuff all the time, [and] there are two sides to the coin on that for Boston Beer.

None of this is particularly new. More than two years ago, Bob Sullivan, then vice president of sales and marketing at Boulevard Brewing, candidly admitted to the Shanken Daily News that he and his brewery weren’t fond of the increasing trend toward rotating tap handles:

Bars that refuse to dedicate draft handles to particular brews, but rather regularly rotate beers in and out are “becoming more prevalent,” remarks Bob Sullivan, vice president of sales and marketing at Boulevard Brewing in Kansas City, Missouri, the tenth-largest craft brewer. The tactic—while often a successful strategy for on-premise operators—is damaging to all craft brewers, new and established, Sullivan says, as it doesn’t give brewers a chance to build their brands. “The on-premise is a critical place to engage our consumers and build brands,” he adds, and the “in and out” or “one and done” approach to draft brews by an increasing number of bars has begun to “dramatically impact our share.” Sullivan adds that other craft brewers report similar concern.

Far be it for me to defend the attitudes and beliefs of millennials and hipsters (I’m too old and clean-shaven to even understand them), but the sentiment expressed by those quoted in Crouch’s and Vinny’s articles incorrectly mixes two issues into one. The search for the shiny and new is not automatically linked to a disdain for the old.

We’re reading more and more how the throng of craft beer fans has no brand loyalty. Spoken as fact, it’s certainly true and an issue every business owner in every industry faces.  Spoken as a complaint, it falls on deaf ears.

“Oh, that brewery was so last year,” is indeed a crappy attitude that reeks of snotty snobity. Yet seeking the shiny and new is exactly what we’ve been taught to do for the 40 years of craft beer.

Photo Credit: Me.

Photo Credit: Sambla Finland.

The pioneers of craft brewing, Fritz Maytag, Jack McAuliffe, Ken Grossman, and, later, Jim Koch, specifically set out to brew beers with far different flavors than those generally available. Many of these were historical styles which had all but disappeared in America.  Many others were new twists, or even entirely new concoctions.  Today there isn’t anything taboo in recipe formulation.

Charlie Papazian started homebrewing in 1970 and wrote his first Joy of Homebrewing in 1976. He pitched then, as he and the American Homebrewers Association continue to pitch today, that homebrewing provides the freedom be as creative as you dare to be.

We have been taught from the beginning that “craft beer” is about immersing ourselves in an exploration of flavors.  We have embraced that immersion and we covet it.

If “chasing the shiny and new” is code for rejecting those who dismissively waive off a cream ale (a featured style in this month’s Zymurgy magazine) because it lacks the punch of a imperial IPA aged in oak barrels with thyme and pink peppercorns – or because the brewer who made either “got too big” –  count me in on the sentiment.

But don’t cast a look down your nose at me because I get bored with the rarely rotating tap handles at an otherwise well run bar/restaurant. Don’t call me part of the problem because it’s been years since I purchased a six pack of one of your flagships.

You, the craft beer industry, have spent years distinguishing yourself from Big Beer by touting choice and variety.  Don’t complain that we’ve taken you up on your offer.

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Epilogue: Though probably impossible to compile/survey, it would be interesting to see a statistical break down of the “classes” of craft beer drinkers. I.e. the newbies, the casuals, the cross-catagoricals, the regulars, the enthusiasts, and the snobby elite.  The snobby elite – the dismissive, patronizing, self-proclaimed experts – are getting plenty of press and are most often automatically connected to the millennials and hipsters. (In my experience there are plenty of older ones, too.) But is that the group that is driving the trend away from the Sam Adams of the world and into the shiny and new? Are the brewers themselves not creating many of these shiny and new items because that’s exactly what they want to do?

Epilogue Two: I chase the shiny and new. I also pick up nearly a case of Sam Adams OctoberFest each fall. Its long been in my top ten beer list. For many of us, chasing the shiny and new has nothing to do with being dismissive of “old” styles, or last year’s breweries.  It’s about the fun of exploring the world the industry has created. I’m just as likely to sample a new cream ale as I am an imperial IPA. (Though if you have a coffee stout or porter on tap, you’re just about guaranteed to get some of my cash.)

9 thoughts on “The State Of Craft Beer: You Sold Us On Choice

  1. Jim Koch complaining about the anti Sam Adams movement is like Meryl Streep complaining about Jennifer Lawrence winning an Oscar. Did Jim Koch help pioneer the craft beer movement for the sake of craft beer or for his own pocket? Somehow, I think he’s going to survive.

    • Name me a brewer who didn’t start a brewery to line his or her own pockets. Sure, Koch – way before “craft beer” was a phrase – saw an opportunity to make a “new” product, figured out how to do it without investing tons of money (by contract brewing initially), aligned it with an historical figure (Sam Adams) purely for marketing purposes, and took a few “based on a true story” anecdotes i.e. (Boston Lager was his grandfathers’ recipe) and spun them into even better marketing. So whether we laud him as a marketing genius (true) or a very important part of helping advance the industry we all enjoy today (also true), I don’t know why there is this general sense he deserves less credit because he didn’t do it the same way Grossman, McAullife and others did it.

      But yes, Koch will survive quite well. My only significant beef with the article is that it suggests all of this is a surprise to Koch. Someone who is that savvy at marketing undoubtedly has intimate knowledge on trends, etc.

      And it’s not like he’s actually refusing to create “new and shiny beers.” That picture is one I took while in the JP barrel room tasting that year’s Utopias. We also got to sample some pre-release Kosmic Mother Funk this past August, an excellent sour. That’s just not the kind of stuff they choose to mass produce – not unlike many smaller (yet still big) craft breweries.

      • I don’t think he deserves less credit; I just don’t see what his fuss is all about. People buy what they want for reasons that are their own. Some people are always on the lookout for the new cool thing, be it beer, music, art, or whatever. And some people (like me), mostly prefer to listen to Let It Bleed for the umpteenth time while drinking Inversion IPA.

        • No disagreement here at all. I like to explore the shiny and new. But for me, that means seeing what the local breweries have come up with this week, or what’s new on the shelf. It has nothing to do, for example, with an attitude that my local brewery was “so last year.” And every once in a while, I pick up an Obsidian Stout and am reminded just how good it has always been.

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  4. Epilogue 2 ferments an interesting thought process over the difference between the challenges of experimentation against the challenges of constancy. No doubt either can break down into entropy and mediocrity. As tired as I am personally of beer lists dominated by over-hyped IPAs, I am loathe to consider what innovation may have its like sucked out with the next trend. At the same time I am aware of the difficulties natural product lends to the production process. So, for a producer to continue to produce a product at distribution levels every year – without falling to a burnt coffee level of quality – is something impressive to consider.

    • Indeed, nothing about my post is intended to address quality issues. Well, except to the extent that someone ridiculously thinks something lacks quality because that was “so last year.” I don’t understand the super hype some beers get. I’ve had Pliny and Heddy and find them to be excellent beers. But I’ve had locally brewed beers which are their equal. I’ve also had Dark Lord and Mexican Cake and a host of others and thought someone must be pulling my leg. For sure, part of that is a personal palate issue, part of it is undeserved hype.

      As I noted in the comment above, I do return from time to time to old favorites such as Deschutes’ Obsidian Stout and am often reminded that the shiny and new is more often than not the “less than impressive.” Consistency is an undervalued quality. And the bigger a brewery gets, the more it can spend on increasing consistency. And just because it is last decade’s beer has nothing to do with its quality.

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