I’ve lost track how often I do it – standing alone, head bobbing back and forth from one beer to another.
It seems absurd, but in reality, it’s also a growing “problem.”
Do I want to spend $8 on a 22-ounce bottle of locally-produced pale ale or stout or $6 on a seasonal specialty beer from a national brand?
For me, like many beer enthusiasts, “drinking local” is more than a mantra thrown around. It’s a key part of my passion toward appreciating beer. I like knowing exactly where a beer came from, but also that I’m supporting a small, local business.
But the fact of the matter is a penny saved is a penny earned and this is an expensive hobby.
More important, this kind of cost-benefit analysis is pivotal for the vast majority of shoppers: those unlike me, who don’t overthink the malt and hops in a beer. Often, the choice is simple – find a good beer for a good price. Or, rather, find a good price and plan for the best.
So why is this something to worry about, anyway?
It’s a question that’s been in the back of my mind since April 2013, brought to greater fruition in recent months with the continued explosion of breweries across the country. It all reminds me of a comment made by Natalie Cilurzo, co-owner of Russian River Brewing Company:
“I wonder if at some point there’s going to be more brand loyalty for consumers. I’m not sure there is at the moment. You get a lot of brand loyalty with the Budweiser and Coors drinkers of the world, but I think people who drink Russian River beer also drink Sierra Nevada beer, they drink Avery beer, the drink Dogfish Head, they drink Stone. So I wonder if at some point people are just going to be like, ‘I don’t want to try any more beers, I just want to stick to the brand I know and I’m comfortable with.”
This is not a problem that has to do with saturation, but rather one of localization and distribution. As more operations open up, breweries have stronger ties to their immediate community and customer base, but there’s also the issue of scale and money, particularly from the consumer endpoint.
I don’t doubt a consumer commitment to “local” by any means – in fact, I believe it’s only growing stronger within the beer industry and elsewhere for a variety of reasons. But that kind of commitment is simply not prevalent outside niche groups made of people like myself, who are passionate about a particular product. In one recent example, we know that low prices matters greatly for young beer drinkers.
Additionally, as sales volume slowly crawls in opposite directions for Big Beer (down) and craft beer (up), it seems that the stiffest competition may not necessarily be from AB InBev or MillerCoors, but from Sierra Nevada, New Belgium, Lagunitas and more.
Ultimately, it may come down to this: smaller, local breweries have at least as much to fear from regional or national brewery scale economy and volume price advantages as macro beer. No matter the number of breweries or brands, everyone will find their place, but it makes me curious at what price. Literally.
After all, there’s an $11 bottle of locally-produced “imperial amber ale” at my favorite bottle shop that’s screaming for attention, but nobody is hearing it. In the meantime, those bottles sit on a shelf with its twin brothers and sisters, collecting dust as its lower-priced cousins are rapidly adopted by customers and brought home.
That’s something to explore next.
“Don’t drink to get drunk. Drink to enjoy life.” — Jack Kerouac