Penetration: At What Point Do We Stop Treating Craft Beer as the Underdog?

There's no doubt that craft breweries benefit greatly from the impression (often true) that they're playing the David role to Big Beer's Goliath.  Craft breweries' customers feel like they're supporting what are often small, local businesses rather than huge multinational beer conglomerates, and by doing so they're also getting a potentially superior product.  We'll leave the "craft beer quality" discussion aside, since it's been done to death (not that it's unimportant, though).  My question is a simpler one: is David even still David?  And if not, does that change how we feel about the beer we buy and drink?

Craft Beer Everywhere?

At the risk of pitching some boring stats, it's worth mentioning that craft beer now commands about a quarter of all beer dollars spent in the US (US Dept. of Commerce), exports of US craft beer are up by 16% (Brewers Association), and the number of permitted breweries in the US is more than 7,000, with nearly all being small, independent breweries (TTB).  Americans now drink about as much craft beer as they drink imported beer.  

It's still no small thing that big beer commands 3/4 of the market.  I'm not suggesting that they can't still use that size advantage to tilt the field in their favor.  But does craft beer really have a legitimate claim to underdog status?

Three years ago I was on a Christmastime pub crawl, traveling with a group decked out in Santa suits (having just completed the annual Philadelphia "Running of the Santas") - oh, and this has nothing to do with the point that'll follow in a second, but I just wanted to set the scene, because how often do you see that?  Anyways, there we were, celebrating in a variety of bars, several of which can be legitimately described as typical, run-of-the-mill, maybe-a-little-dive-y, corner, neighborhood bars.  In nearly all of them we found the usual suspects - big beer, macro lager.  But those boring big beer lagers had company: anywhere from half to three-quarters of the taps in these places were local craft brewery beers.  Even then, I thought, "we're winning."  Three years on, and it's becoming increasingly rare to find bars and restaurants that don't at least act like they care about craft beer, and a huge number actually do. 

I recognize that's not true everywhere.  But when I find a brewery in Lubec, ME (population 1,359, located at the extreme northern tip of the East Coast, several hours from the nearest small city), then it's certainly not unfair to ask the question.

Cultural Penetration

And forget market penetration (well, don't forget it, but don't only think of it) - what about cultural penetration?

One of my professional responsibilities is to advise students who are considering law school as an option, so I routinely browse internet sources for information on the kinds of questions they'll see on a certain graduate legal study admission test.  Last year a question appeared in the Writing section, and a small group of Reddit folk discussed it.  The question began thusly: "Tony is opening a craft brewery..."  The prompt asked examinees to explore the benefits of opening a brewpub vs. a small production brewery, given "Tony's" goals.  

What's remarkable about it is that these questions are designed to ask about topics which would be familiar to most people taking the test.  Other prompts on the same exam ask about public vs. private school choices for a hypothetical family, budget priorities for a municipal government, choosing to drive or fly on vacation, etc.  So when a question pops up that asks about a young person establishing a brewery and asking law school applicants to weigh in on Tony's desire to brew a variety of beers and his marketing plan to win over beer writers and critics, that's pretty telling.

Shaping the Discussion

I'm not suggesting that the local, independent, small-business brewery is a lie or a myth.  Individual craft breweries are definitely dwarfed by macro brewers.  But there's a collective strength to craft beer that begs the question.  It's the "many hands make light work" argument.  Your local brewery can get trampled by ABI.  5,000 of them can't, at least not nearly so easily.  As the saying goes, "quantity has a quality all its own." 

The reason I'm even writing about this is that a criticism lobbed at craft breweries (and craft beer people, to an extent), personified by the Super Bowl ads that knock craft beer, is that craft beer takes itself a bit too seriously.  That criticism can start to look like part of a larger inferiority complex if craft beer continues to treat itself as though it's still just a tiny part of the segment when in fact it's now the source of a great deal of the energy and growth in beer.  

So as we think about and talk about craft beer, maybe it's time to stop talking about it as the spunky upstart.  It may not be universally available, but it's getting there, especially if you're willing to look for it.  It may not be as big as "big" beer, but it's sure as hell growing into it (while big beer actually gets smaller).  On average, it's just not the underdog anymore.

I don't think this means we shouldn't keep buying it, or that we should think of craft beer "collectively" and suggest that it's the effective equivalent of big beer, but I also don't think we should open ourselves up to charges of hypocrisy by pretending that we're not part of a multi-billion-dollar market segment.  It just rings false, like a person that pleads poverty but lives in a sprawling McMansion.

Now, about those small brewery quality issues...

Keep it simple.

JJW