Maybe I’m a sucker, but I can’t help but root for the underdog.
There’s always someone bigger, someone more powerful, someone with more resources out there to put you in your place. The government will raise your taxes and then squander them; mega corporations will gut you on prices and then provide half-assed service and second-rate products. It’s always encouraging to see someone stand up against that kind of behavior and try to do something different. Sometimes it’s almost enough to renew your faith in society.
At least until the underdog gets crushed beneath a heavy boot… or hoof.
It may sound silly to say, but the craft beer community has always been that caretaker of hope for me. Run by a bunch of rowdy, eccentric lunatics who refuse to buckle under the rigid structure of conformity, who frequently help one another procure ingredients and supplies, collaborate on crafting fun new beers, and offer their customers a product that consistently yearns to be original and creative and demonstrate individuality. And they’ve actually been successful at it.
When I drop my Lincoln on a pint at my favorite beer bar or craft brewery, I actually feel like I’m getting something for my money, and unlike most of my other expenses, I’m actually happy with where it’s going to end up.
That is, until those assholes upstairs put their dog-kicking boots on.
You’d have to be living under a fermenter to not hear how Anheuser-Busch has been actively and aggressively pursuing craft breweries to buy out, from New York’s Blue Point to Illinois’ Goose Island, and most recently, the Northwest’s own 10 Barrel and Elysian breweries. There are plenty of people out there angry about this, and of course, there are also plenty of people confused by all the people angry about this.
That latter group, and anyone else who has stood idly by or raised a pint upon hearing of A-B’s buyouts, insists there are a number of benefits to this kind of arrangement. Here are a few of their better arguments:
1) Skilled, talented, imaginative brewers now have greater access to the ingredients and facilities they need to really cut loose. Being small has held them back.
2) Great craft breweries (and therefore their fans) will now benefit from greater distribution, meaning that the next time you have that awful family reunion in Montgomery, Alabama, you just might find a sixer of Elysian Immortal IPA at the local grocery store (assuming they can get the ABV down to 6%).
3) Expanded presence of craft beer in the marketplace will be a tacit admission on the part of Big Beer that the larger American audience craves something beyond flavorless adjunct lagers. That’s a win for the little guys. The rebellion against Big Beer is winning!
4) It’s the American dream to start as a little guy, pull yourself up by your bootstraps and make millions off your hard-earned efforts. When you criticize these buyouts, you’re forgetting that this is a huge success story for these small craft brewery owners. What would you do if A-B came to your door with a winning lottery ticket?
5) Stop complaining, you hypocrite. You buy Apple or Microsoft products, don’t you? You listen to music from a major label studio. You watch Hollywood movies and insist on buying Heinz ketchup because that store brand SUCKS. Everyone’s a sell-out. Grow up already.
I’ve been mulling over these points ever since 10 Barrel’s buyout and had just about convinced myself of their legitimacy until I heard about Elysian. In response, I broke a few beer bottles, punched a bag of malted barley and stomped on a vine of hops until I had downgraded my furor from Homicidal Rage to Mad Dog Angry. I thought I’d gotten most of it out of my system when I saw A-B’s tactless Super Bowl commercial. No, not the one with the puppy and the horse.
The problems with the ad are myriad and many of them have already been addressed by craft brewers and skeptical viewers alike. But the larger issue of the commercial is how it relates to the buyout of craft brands.
The corporate speak surrounding the recent buyouts would suggest that A-B is thrilled to be adding craft brands to its catalog to diversify its audience and bring craft beer to the larger masses; but the Super Bowl ad casts these buyouts in a different light altogether.
For anyone who hasn’t watched it yet, it’s essentially one minute of corporate pornography, assailing you with stock footage of flying bottle caps, tall glasses getting filled with golden suds, and perhaps most perplexing, molten metal processing. It’s supposed to somehow prove that the people most impressed that Anheuser-Busch predates the invention of the telephone are attractive frat boys and sorority chicks who probably can’t name a movie or song that existed prior to 1999. As for those people who actually think beer should have “flavor” to be “appreciated” and “enjoyed,” they’re a bunch of lily-livered, mamby-pamby fairies with waxed mustaches and suspenders who ought to be forced to confront what real life is REALLY about: getting drunk on cheap adjunct lager with your shallow friends in the corporate bar of a chain restaurant or hotel.
Sure, it may only be one advertisement, but let’s keep in mind the audience that A-B expected to garner for that one advertisement: the largest in US televised history. Then there’s the amount of money they would have spent on that spot just to broadcast it: at least $4.5 million. When you’re going to spend that kind of money expecting that kind of audience, that’s not just another half-assed decision in the marketing department; that’s a mission statement. They are drawing a line in the sand between themselves and craft beer, and you’re either on their side or you’re not. It’s a big, fat rallying cry for Beer The Way It’s Supposed To Be: The Way it Always Was.
It’s time to confront an uncomfortable reality: A-B has no intention of allowing craft beer to co-exist in the market. They didn’t buy 10 Barrel or Elysian to spread the gospel of good beer. They bought them to prevent those two breweries from becoming the next Sierra Nevada or Sam Adams. Their interest in procuring them is to keep their enemies closer (and under their control); they can smother them any time they wish.
Now, why would they do that when craft brands offer them opportunities to diversify their portfolio of offerings and cut a larger swath of the market? Because they have no interest in the craft market beyond its growing threat to their bottom line. Good beer is expensive to make, both in terms of the way in which you operate and the ingredients you must use. There’s a reason that macro brewers often use adjuncts like rice and corn in their beers and it has little to do with flavor considerations; they are cheaper than barley.
Now consider the amount and variety of hops that craft brewers use, or the amount of time they age beer in specialty barrels when it could be churned out and on grocery store shelves already, or all the expensive, exotic fruits, chili peppers, chocolates, coffee or other ingredients that might be desired for certain styles of beer. It may not be a huge cost difference per beer but when you consider the sheer volume of beer that Budweiser produces on a mass scale, the price tag skyrockets. A-B mocks these styles because they don’t want to change and they don’t want their audience to want them to change. That just means higher costs for them in the future.
Now, to be clear, I’m not suggesting that the cost of producing craft beers at their current level is of any real concern to A-B’s deep coffers. Rather, I’m speaking to A-B’s desire to keep the popularity of craft styles at or below the level they’ve reached thus far; the bean counters at A-B don’t ever want to reach a point where they’re forced to shift their business model to replicating craft beer styles for the mainstream market.
And the reason why goes beyond just the ingredients. Large companies like A-B just aren’t built for the kind of flexibility, versatility, and experimentation that makes a good brewery. Those traits are difficult to adhere to when it means moving resources (ingredients and personnel, time and money) away from a proven commodity and into something else that may not do as well. Instead they focus on one thing and one thing only: pumping out the same popular product as efficiently and as quickly as possible. Change is not desirable; rather, the illusion of change and the careful maintenance of a popular product is the key. It’s the same reason that Hollywood movies are mostly all the same predictable, special effects extravaganzas; that the iPhone is the same product it has always been with only minor adjustments for each new generation; that record studios identify popular sounds and replicate them with overproduction and similar sounding singers.
By contrast, smaller companies that lack the lumbering infrastructure of their gigantic brethren are free to tinker while the risk is relatively low. A brewpub releases a small batch beer that is infected or unpopular; that’s a shame and there’s a cost inherent to that, but millions of dollars aren’t on the line. Dump it and move on. But a mega brewery releases a beer that’s infected or unpopular? That’s a boondoggle right there, and not worth the risk of happening in the first place. It’s one of the reasons why the only thing everyone agrees about Budweiser is that they brew a consistent product, always the same, no matter where you buy it. That’s impressive, sure, but you can say the same thing about McDonald’s. Just because you know how to run a conveyor belt doesn’t mean you have anything original or creative or exciting to run down it.
Craft beer is one of the last vestiges of the successful small business in the modern world. Corporations have gotten so big they make underdogs look like underants by comparison. When I got into craft beer, I identified the quality of the product as being superior to the mainstream offerings and became invested in the humble success stories of dreamers. I’ve both witnessed and subsequently joined this community that was built around like-minded, creative people doing something they love, and it has been a refuge from the large shadow cast upon us in all the areas of our commercialism where we have no other choice but to buy from the big guys.
My own sense is that we have a right to be angered by the news of favorite, local breweries turning to the Dark Side. There may be silver linings in these storm clouds, but that doesn’t change the fact that a shit storm is coming.