Earlier this month, Brian Grossman, the son of Sierra Nevada’s founder, Ken, and a leader at one of America’s pioneering breweries, said something that may raise an eyebrow.
“We all know it’s a dying art,” he opined at the act of brewing, a curious statement captured by Good Beer Hunting’s Dave Eisenberg.
In some ways, one could argue brewing and many other acts of production have been on life support for centuries during humanity’s slow march forward with machinery and automation. Our innovation and ingenuity has dwindled romanticized approaches we hold dear, as “artisans” shift from laborious hands on work to efforts that require more button pushing than muscle straining.
But art doesn’t “die,” it merely evolves with the times. The same can be said about brewing. Just because computers can do more work in the process of creating a fermented beverage doesn’t mean human beings are suffering from a lack of creativity. It’s likely to be a successful argument that rather than dying, brewing has never been more alive.
So perhaps the issue Brian Grossman brings up isn’t a life-or-death scenario. Rather, it’s a worried thought about what it means to be associated with the “craft” of brewing and the quality of what comes from it.
Here’s a grandiose statement once uttered in hushed tones around fellow beer geeks: you don’t have to make good beer to succeed in the industry.
When we talk about “good” beer, it’s valuable to consider that word outside the context of all the “best of” lists that beer enthusiasts so often rely. “Good” itself is a subjective term and when applied to the full mass of American beer drinkers, finds such a wide swath of definitions it seems a fool’s errand to pigeonhole the statement.
Certainly, otherworldly beer will attract devotees, but so will perfectly fine, enjoyably drinkable beer that doesn’t knock the socks off of every long-bearded craft beer evangelist. There’s a reason that a realtor’s mantra is “location, location, location,” after all.
Beer is a business and if we’re to fairly determine the worth of a company, the most unemotional path is in their numbers. If you pull yourself out of the “red,” and become a profitable brewery, does it matter if your beer is “good,” “bad” or downright ugly?
Like so many other industries, there are many sides to this broader question:
It’s no longer enough for breweries to just deliver great beer. Customers have a growing insistence for brands that represent something bigger than them, and they attach themselves to brands that are aligned with their beer drinking preferences, lifestyle and beliefs.
For example, the simple act of bringing politics into your business – while creating the chance you may ostracize some customers – can be a good thing that connects many to your beer and brand. The quality of a product doesn’t necessarily have to do with it, although it can certainly help, but people do make purchasing decisions on many factors outside of perceived quality.
The importance of Good Beer is clearly important to the Brewers Association, who, in recent years, have brought on its own “quality ambassador” in 2015 and 2017. A decision by beer store franchise Craft Beer Cellar was even made to use a list of “approved beers” to sell in stores, based on judgments of quality from company administrators and other employees.
“Whether it is a local brewery, or one from further afield, one thing is true: it should stand up as the most positively reputable beers that are available in any market a Craft Beer Cellar is located,” Craft Beer Cellar Co-Founder Kate Baker said in a statement on the company’s blog.
The backlash was swift, with a banned brewery considering a lawsuit. What if “good” and “popular” don’t have to be the same thing? There are plenty of examples of that throughout business and society. We don’t have to look beyond the Man Bun for a terribly off-putting example.
“Survival as a brewery over a certain size … is not going to depend simply on beer quality,” Jordan St. John recently wrote. “It needs marketing, logistics, sales reps, quality control, packaging, design work, accounting, and a business plan that doesn’t suck. A lot of the time beer isn’t about beer. At this point you’re better off poaching an excellent sales rep than a talented cellarman.”
There have been many conversations I’ve had where myself and others openly ponder, “I wonder how [INSERT BREWERY] does it” because our perception of their product is decidedly “meh” and best, but are a wild hit with others, especially casual drinkers.
If anything, let’s not forget that when we talk about “good” beer, we can also look at it in the context of our modern movement, in which our “bad” beer would likely be well ahead of many brands made a decade or two ago. Not only do we live in a Golden Age of American beer, but we’re also all experts. The democratization of opinion as worth means that “good” and “bad” and everything in between brings an array of outcomes. It’s easy to heap praise on singular breweries or beers, but does that kind of action have significant impact when we can so easily polarize ourselves on social media, rating sites and with friends real and digital?
To some degree, this discussion surrounds the credo and soul of “craft beer,” as pointed out by Ryan Moses:
Eventually, even if you have a great story, you are a local brewery and represent something greater than yourself, you must make good beer to be successful long-term. One of my core beliefs about craft beer is the liquid in the glass is all that matters.
What that liquid is and presents to the success or failure of a business is wide open to interpretation.
“Where we’re at today, there are not a lot of barriers to entry,” Brian Grossman mentioned in the Good Beer Hunting inteview. “Five thousand bucks, you can get a warehouse, you can get a brew system, and you can be making beer. And that’s happened all over the country.”
Perhaps there’s a reason for this ubiquity.
“Don’t drink to get drunk. Drink to enjoy life.” — Jack Kerouac