*Note: This marks the halfway point of three columns highlighting the bad – and good – side of America’s evolving beer tastes. Part three will run later this week. Read part one about why declining macro beer sales can be bad.
Apparently Graham Mackay, executive chairman of SABMiller, sees craft beer drinkers as some sort of proletariat group raging against companies like his. In a recent interview with CNN, here’s what he had to say about us beer-loving Bolsheviks:
The consumer has gone back to saying, “Let’s get a bit of interest, let’s have a bit of difference.” So, there’s been the growth of craft beer. But it’s also local, anti-marketing, anti-global, anti-big, and more focused on experience and knowing the brewer who produces it.
Admittedly, part of what I love about craft beer culture lies in the idea of the little guy succeeding against the giants who own 90 percent of the market’s production. But it’s not like craft beer culture or its consumers are built around a movement of anti-marketing, anti-global anger. The growth of craft beer has taken place because when brewers started making flavorful beer and customers decided they liked this flavorful beer, the best thing breweries could do was continue making it and not worry as much about becoming a corporate conglomerate. This is why New Glarus doesn’t want to leave Wisconsin. This is why the line is so damned long for Cigar City at the Great American Beer Festival. This is why it shouldn’t be a bad thing to want a unique beer experience and to know the brewer who makes your beer.
Let’s try to sort through Big Beer ignorance after the jump.
Why is it seemingly bad to become an enthused beer customer? Because Big Beer still doesn’t get it. Because … “a few immensely powerful corporations have taken it upon themselves to reengineer these balances, in order to better serve their private interests.”
There’s a huge debate in the craft world about us, all big brewers, because we’re like the enemy. We’re the other guys. They think we’re stealing their authenticity. What we say is, “Let the consumer decide.” If we’re authentic enough for the consumer, that’s authentic enough for anyone.
When AB InBev is selling the three fastest declining beers in America, they take many steps to rectify this financial problem. Among them, they launch new macro labels like Bud Light Platinum or Black Crown. They also buy their way into craft beer. When AB InBev buys Goose Island and its founder/CEO leaves along with a brewer/barrel manager, this isn’t “stealing their authenticity,” it’s just buying it. I don’t doubt the quality of Goose Island will suffer because of this purchase, but it is a result of macro beer’s decline and craft beer enthusiasm. Big Beer should know that when a large corporation buys out a beloved “little” guy, people are going to be upset. Not because they’re “anti-big,” but because they value their experience of knowing what they’re drinking and the Who of who made it.
Of course, all this came to a head last week when the Brewers Association released their “Crafty vs. Craft” statement, fittingly the same day I offered up similar thoughts. The gist of it? The Brewers Association is upset about Big Beer’s encroachment on the craft market and is privy to having labeling on beer that indicates the who – from the top, down – makes a beer. So when someone opens up an “artfully crafted” Blue Moon, they may realize that it’s a MillerCoors product and not some craft brewery:
The large, multinational brewers appear to be deliberately attempting to blur the lines between their crafty, craft-like beers and true craft beers from today’s small and independent brewers. We call for transparency in brand ownership and for information to be clearly presented in a way that allows beer drinkers to make an informed choice about who brewed the beer they are drinking.
I’m on the record as stating that I don’t care what anyone wants to drink, so long as it makes them happy and they do it responsibly. I’d prefer it to be a delicious craft beer, but to each their own. After all, buying out shelves of Michelob might just help save the other guys out there.
As part of this argument, Ashley Routson has pointed out that “most conscientious consumers believe in voting with their wallet,” which is increasingly tied to the premium tastes of craft beer. Which is why Big Beer continues to try and blur the line between their macro products and craft offerings in order to convince (trick?) beer drinkers to buy their brand, even if Big Beer doesn’t make it clear where that brand is coming from.
The problem here isn’t an issue of anti-capitalism or “anti-big,” as Mackey put it. The problem is because of the inherent differences of the fields in which Big Beer and everyone else play. When their brands fail, Big Beer “innovates” by moving into craft beer by any means necessary. It’s the prudent, financial thing to do. When small brewers want to innovate, they engage their audience (Sierra Nevada’s Beer Camp, New Belgium’s Tour de Fat) or play with what they offer consumers. Here in North Carolina, NoDa Brewing releases a specialty batch of beer every week. Innovation in the craft beer culture doesn’t equate to Big Beer simply buying their ticket to ride.
Mackey is right – consumers are focused on experiences and production, but it’s not just a beer thing. Farmers markets have gone nuts in recent years because people like knowing they can get superior quality from people they can see and talk to. It’s a level of comfort. Knowledge is power … it’s not a bad thing.
… and that’s why Big Beer doesn’t get to solve their problem of declining American light lager sales by taking over more of the craft beer industry and then throwing up their hands when they’re called out for impeding further on a market for which they already own 90 percent of production. Craft beer is “full of consumers who want to know what goes into their beer because craft beer is increasingly about who is making what and how.” People want to be educated, which leads to better consumers, which leads to better beer.
This is where it’s about letting the consumer decide. This is where we decide – with our taste buds and our wallet.