Thinning the Herd: The Upside of Big Beer Buyouts


I know that there are good reasons to be deeply concerned about the effects of Big Beer getting into the game of buying out craft breweries.  Ownership confusion, pricing effects, tap and shelf space, and all the rest are real...but I still can't help but think that we're overlooking at least one big benefit and one significant advantage.

Bear with me here.

The Benefit: Rationalizing the Market

In some markets, you only have a few real craft breweries.  For the most part, though, these aren't the places that see buyouts.  Now, that doesn't mean that Goose Island being available everywhere can't choke out a small production brewery in a place with a nascent craft beer scene - I'll concede that risk.

I mention it only because it's in the crowded beer markets that this can be a good thing for we craft beer enthusiasts.  How so?

Let's say you have ten breweries in your metro area.  Each is only getting 1/10th of your beer money.  Now let's imagine one of your breweries takes a buyout.  What's the effect?

Well, if you think, "oh well, don't care," then the action has no real impact on the other local breweries - you're still spreading your cash around in the same way (each gets 10%).  But if you're in the "Never ABI" camp, then you're never going to patronize that bought-out brewery again, which means that the other local breweries are about to see an increase in their sales (each gets 11.1%), thanks to you and those like you.

So, in this case, in terms of the local economic impact, it's either neutral or positive with respect to the spending of what we might call the "core" and "aware" segment of the local beer drinking community.  ["But that's not enough to keep a brewery going!!!," I can already hear you saying - I'll get back to that, I promise.]

A corollary benefit is that it simplifies the market a bit.  As it is now, my metro beer market is so crowded I need to take a special "tour" every May to the local breweries I haven't had the chance to visit yet.  Now, that might not be true everywhere, but it certainly is in craft-heavy markets.  One bought out means one more I don't need to consider buying, which means I can try out something new.

The Advantage: Beating Big Beer

The strongest objection to this "benefit" is that it's ignoring the idea that most people aren't craft beer geeks like me/us.  Believe me, I'm aware of it.  Someone recently told me they don't like Dunkelweizen because it "finishes so hoppy."  I don't expect most people to be intimate with beer styles, the merits of canning v. bottling, or the differences in strains of Brett (why would they???  It's a waste of time and brainpower!).  And I also know that most aren't going to be paying attention to who owns whom, so when they're at a restaurant or their local beer shop, they're going to buy based on something other than local, independent ownership (or not).

Doesn't matter.  Because the way to beat big beer is to keep things small and local and brewing in-house.  And that brewery actually can be kept going by a combination of beer geeks and local sentiment.

I live just over the river from Phoenixville, PA.  Now, you may not know it, but Phoenixville ranks 10th in the United States for breweries per capita.  How does a place with about 50K people in a 5-mile radius support ten breweries?  Easy - they're all relatively small.  

You can't outcompete Big Beer as a massive production brewery.  You might not even be able to do it as a small production brewery.  But you can do so at street-level.  These breweries in P-ville compete, but only in the same general way that restaurants on the same busy main street compete with each other.  Then there's the fact that brewpubs yield a higher return on their beer products than production breweries do (no packaging, shipping, etc. and a captive population).  And since they're not sustaining a massive brewing and distribution infrastructure to do it, they're not as susceptible to the kinds of pressure and market distortions that the big breweries can bring to bear.

Big beer can choke off access to ingredients and supplies, buy off competitors, lobby for advantages in distribution rules, and more.  But they can't do much about a local, 3-barrel, 75-cover brewpub.

The Right Outcome

I also have to say that I think a trend towards smaller breweries in general (and brewpubs in particular) is exactly what we should want in our beer world.  It means that you get a high level of product diversity and fresher beer.  It should mean better beer, because market pressures will thin out the herd of a larger collection of smaller breweries in a way that they probably won't for 2-3 medium-sized local breweries.  Brewpubs often do, also, bootstrap small production operations off of their on-premises sale profits.  Hell, it probably even has sustainable economic benefits - more small breweries mean more hiring in what is already a labor-intensive sector, compared to larger automated craft breweries.  

The masses will never be sold on buying Saison and Bock and even IPA (the most popular craft beer style is still pretty polarizing among non-craft beer people).  And craft breweries that try to outcompete Big Beer on lite lager have a massive uphill battle, undoing decades of brand loyalty, to say nothing of the maybe-monopolistic tactics of those breweries.  

Let's stick with what we might call the "Phoenixville Model." 

Keep it simple.


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"Nothin' Wrong With the Good Ol' Missionary Position": An Examination of One Craft Beer Drinker's Motives

So I was talking to my wife about the blog, and we were discussing the rather complex craft beer world we live in today.  So many new breweries.  So many styles of beer.  So many specialty ingredients.  So many methods, tips, tricks, innovations, and permutations.  And then she hit me with this one: "You know - there's nothin' wrong with the good ol' missionary position."  I'm thinking she wasn't (necessarily) talking about our sex life, but rather that it's easy to lose focus on what I suspect drew most of us to craft beer/homebrewing in the first place: the search for beer that we like.  

But then it also occurred to me that a lot of craft beer drinkers (this one included) have, in our deliberations and discussions, overlooked that basic qualifier, at least based on the anecdotal evidence I have at hand.  Like most everything else around here at Beer Simple, I think that we're due for some "back to basics" thinking, especially in the midst of an industry-wide gut check on beer quality, extreme beer, and the proliferation of breweries.  

The Triumph and Tragedy of Attempted Objectivity

If the first comment out of our mouths when we try a new beer isn't something in the vein of "that's pretty good/not great," then we're probably putting the cart ahead of the horse from an evaluation standpoint.  I do this all the time.  The beer shows up, and after five minutes of sniffing and sipping and looking, I start talking about levels of bitterness, whether the oak is adding wood flavor or just tannic structure, if the alcohols are hot or just warm...but I don't always say whether I think it's any good.  Or if I do, I'm qualifying or conditioning it in some way (as in, "this would be great paired with a dessert").  What a jackass.

Some might think that the good/not good dynamic is one that is obvious or goes without saying, but like so many other things it's easy to overlook the obvious once you up your level of experience and/or expertise a bit.  It's a forest/trees thing.  

People often ask me to describe and evaluate beer, and once I get into that mindset, I'm trying to be as objective as possible.  I've discovered that it's now become a, that's too addiction that I have a hard time shaking.  Every sensory evaluation turns into an attempt to tie the description to some objective standard, whether it's the BJCP or BA style guidelines, my impression of what one finds in the marketplace, the flavor profile of the prevailing "classic" example of that beer style, or something else.  Why the hell don't I start with whether or not I like it?  The answer is probably that, as a beer judge, I'm constantly trying to minimize the subjective, fuzzy, and artistic qualities of beer evaluation, which is a natural outgrowth of defending the idea of judging beer in the first place.  

Plus - no one ever asks me if I like a beer or not.  But why does that stop me from starting there?  It shouldn't.  In fact, it should probably be the first thing I decide on and mention, if only to provide a preview of and context for what's about to follow.

Fault Hunting

Then there's the way a lot of us approach beer evaluation in the first place: we're looking for something to be wrong.  Now, maybe this is because we expect great things from craft brewers, especially when we're potentially paying over the odds for a special or unique beer.  It might also be because we're test-driving this beer or brewery, and trying to decide whether it goes onto our list of "good" breweries: we're kicking the tires, just like we would on the car lot.  It may even be because someday we're convinced that we're going to find that "perfect" beer (*cough* Rodenbach Grand Cru *cough*), and in case this one might be it, we want to be sure that we've considered all of the variables.  

But it's still probably a bad habit to get into.

Imagine if every time you met someone, you immediately started picking apart every small thing about their appearance, personality, depth, political views, moral ideals, and professional utility.  Wouldn't that make it kind of hard to make friends?  And what would you think of a person who approached people with that mindset?  You'd end up dismissing a lot of people that might turn out to be "worth" their foibles and faults.  As sloppy and inarticulate as it is, maybe the right move is to just ask whether you like their "vibe."  

Next time I open a beer or the bartender finishes pulling my draft, I'm just going to take a big sip, then another, and ask if I like it.  Not if it's perfect or not, or whether the brewery is new or old, big or small, in New England or in Belgium, or if the bittering level is appropriate for an English Mild or more like a Brown Porter - just whether I like it.  Maybe I'll eventually come to the conclusion that it's a little too hoppy/roasty/alcoholic/sour for my taste, but I really think I'm currently doing that too quickly.

Going Public

Then there's the use of the much-maligned online drinker rating sites.  Ask any professional about them, and I'm willing to bet that they're going to go with some variation of "they're awful, inaccurate, and populated by an unacceptable number of idiots/aleholes." 

I get that.  I recently had the joy of seeing a beer based on one of my recipes released by Noble Brewer, and it was fun seeing the reactions of real beer drinkers - but it was also a little frustrating.  Some of these people clearly just weren't getting it.  They were expecting something else.  They were criticizing it for what one might call less-than-learned reasons (my favorite: "Much more like a Cascadian Dark Ale than an American Brown.  Not very hoppy, though."  WHAT?).  You read enough of what you consider off-target reviews, and it's very easy to dismiss the notion of mass-market, user-generated review sites entirely. But you shouldn't - as a brewer, or as a drinker.  

Why not?  Because these sites are measuring a very simple variable: whatever the sophistication of the consumers that are populating them, you're getting a large sample of the reaction of beer drinkers to the very simple question of whether they liked a beer or not.  In fact, knowing my own shortcomings in this area (see the previous section), I think that the reactions of the uncertified, unCiceroned, unwashed beer masses might be a better barometer than my "Expert Reviews" of whether you're going to like a beer or not.  

And you may well say that a lot (even most) of those raters don't know what they're talking about, don't know how what they're drinking differs from the classics, don't have sensitive or trained palates - and you may well be right.  But that doesn't make them wrong.

I suspect a lot of the nonsensical exposition on why a beer isn't higher-rated comes from a lack of communicative ability, not a lack of accuracy.  Unless they're a homebrewer (and frequently even if they are), they're probably not all that clear on how beer is made and what might have made it turn out that way and what the style designation (if there was one) should connote/lead you to expect.  But it doesn't mean they're wrong when they criticize the beer.  The individual who critiqued my American Brown Ale may have given an asinine explanation for why s/he didn't like my beer, but the rating is still an accurate reflection of his/her enjoyment of it.  Let's not be so quick to dismiss the Public as a basic guide to what will probably taste good.

Just Drink It

Ultimately, I think I need to get back to just drinking and enjoying beer.  There's a lot of fun to be had in lining up a great selection of out-there and extreme beers - but there's also a lot of fun in just having a few bottles of a beer you enjoy (something I was reminded of recently when I was cleaning up the last of my annual Christmas case of Sierra Nevada Celebration).  I looked in the beer fridge the other day and saw that I had not a single can or bottle of a "normal" beer.  I had a Belgian IPA, an oak-aged Russian Imperial, two different sours, a Barrel-aged Rye Pumpkin, and a variety of strong ales.  To paraphrase Coleridge, "beer, beer, everywhere, nor any drop to drink."

I'm not disparaging the idea of being a connoisseur.  I'm not knocking the idea of sophisticated or objective evaluation.  I'm definitely not saying just open any old thing and pinch your nose and knock it back.  But I am saying that I need to get out of the habit of treating every beer like it's a sensory panel subject.  I need to just "enjoy" a little more.  I need to relax, not worry, and have a homebrew.  

Because you know what?  There's nothing wrong with the good ol' missionary position.

Keep it simple.


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