Thinning the Herd: The Upside of Big Beer Buyouts

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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.

JJW

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In Praise of the Pounder: The Perfect Beer Package

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We're lucky enough to live in a beer world that no longer looks down its nose at a beer in a can.  Gone are the days when an amber (or, worse, green) bottle is some kind of nonsensical sign of sophistication.  Maybe someday soon we'll evolve past the idea that a cork has some kind of magical benefit, too.  In the meantime, however, please allow me to propose that the best of all possible beer packages is...

THE POUNDER.

Yes.  The 16-ounce can is the ideal beer package.  And I can prove it.

Keeping the Wolves Outside the Door

When it comes to beer quality, the two great enemies are light and oxygen.  One turns the beer into skunkwater, the other makes it a flaccid, flabby mess of a beer that tastes like something that once knew what a beer was but has since suffered severe head trauma and can now only mutter incoherent words like "biscuit" and "citrus" while shuffling around the glass, chewing cardboard and bumping into itself.  

Cans, generally speaking, solve both of these problems.  Bottles - even dark bottles - still allow in some of the evil UV light that will wreck your beer (assuming it has/had actual hop plant material in it - not all, but most, do).  It might take longer in that brown bottle, but it'll still happen.  And while glass isn't oxygen-permeable, that crown cap with its plastic gasket isn't a perfect seal - as the beer warms and cools, small amounts of air will make it in/out, and so you'll stale more quickly.

But not cans.  A real airtight seal, and no light penetration.  The staling and off-flavor producing wolves stay outside the door.  

If 12 is good, 16 is better

Then there's the actual volume.  Pour that 12 oz. can into a pint glass, and you know what you get?  Answer: not a pint.  It's psychologically unsatisfying.  

Now imagine you have that pounder.  You're pouring, gently, and you get a full, full glass with a slight head - and a little bit leftover in the can, like a kid with a milkshake.  What's better than that?  You get a full beer, and somehow, magically, you also get more beer!  

Also, think of transport.  If I'm carrying a six-pack around, I'm moving six beers, one way or another.  Six 8-oz. pony bottles?  48 ounces.  Six 12-oz. cans?  72 ounces.  Six pounders?  96 ounces, baby.  Now I can share two, or even three, and still feel good about it.

Then there's just how it feels in your hand.  A 12 feels immature, like something you drank back when you were 17 and hiding out in the woods with a six-pack between three of you (which it is, and which you did).  But a pounder feels like a real can of beer - and maybe something you could defend yourself with if accosted by a particularly rowdy Dallas Cowboys fan.  Throw in a dress sock and you've got yourself a legit deadly weapon.

The Odd Insanity of Beer Buyers

There's one more good reason to love the pounder: who came up with pricing strategies on these things?  Whomever it was saw deeper into the fundamental irrationality of humans than I ever will.

It's not an uncommon occurrence for me to see a case of 16s priced at an identical price to a case of 12s in the same store, on the same pallet, of highly similar beers, even from the same brewery.  Now, I can understand that, to an extent, because the per-case pricing has a lot of marketing juju behind it, and if Brewery A wants to sell all of its cases for about the same price, then I get that. 

What I'll never understand, to the day they pry that pounder can of Kostritzer Schwarzbier out of my cold, dead hands is why I also see a beer buyer buying that case of twelve-ounce cans when the 16s are right there.  It's insane.  And I'm not talking about "oh, I want a hefe, and the pounders are IPAs."  No, I mean a case of 12-oz. IPA cans, and a case of 16-oz. IPA cans, sitting right next to each other for the same price, and some jabroni happily whistling his way to the counter with the case of 12s.  

It's 33% more beer, bro.  WTH is the matter with you?

Pound It

Start asking for this, from your favorite breweries.  If they already do it, ask why they don't do it more.  Because until the day we can all drink from self-propelled hovering 10L mini-kegs that follow us from place to place, there will never be a better package for beer.

And don't even get me started on the crowler.

Keep it simple.

JJW

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A Year of Unique Beer: Into the Home Stretch

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Nine months into my Year of Unique Beer challenge, which means three months to go, but all the same I can't help feeling that it'll be an easy coast to the finish line.  

We've entered the Month of the Pumpkin.  All downhill from here.

For those who need a quick recap, I accepted a challenge, this year, to drink no more than one serving of any single beer, which means that the bottle of Victory Prima Pilsner I had on New Years Day was the only one I was allowed for all of 2017.  

Initially, of course, it was pretty easy: lots of beer out there, right?  As the weather got warmer, things started to tighten up, and I saw my first "available everywhere" macro beer go off the list (adios, PBR).  Summer was the hardest, what with the weekends at the beach that might knock off 20 varieties (which I had to supply myself) and bars with limited options on tap (RIP, Sam Adams, Miller, and Yuengling Lager).  

I have now, though, entered the victory lap, for I have come to the time of joy for one in my position.

The OPC Train

I've purchased my ticket for what I've come to call the "OPC Train."  OPC: Oktoberfest, Pumpkin, Christmas.  

From hereon in, the tap lists of the world will be a never-ending rotation of Oktoberfests and Marzens, which will roll right into the pumpkin beer glut that I'm already seeing, and from there it'll be wall-to-wall Christmas and Winter-spiced beers right through to 11:59PM on December 31st, 2017.

What to many is a cause for a groan and a head-shake is to me the sight of salvation.  No more wondering whether I've already had that particular "summer ale" or blonde, no more worrying I'll be stuck on vacation with nothing but Barefoot Chardonnay and a fridge full of Miller Lite.  Hell, I could throw darts at these tap lists and feel confident I'm getting something new!

Call it some kind of bizarro-world pumpkin ale Stockholm Syndrome if you will, but this year, for me, the smell of cinnamon and nutmeg is the best beer aroma I could hope for.

Pride Goeth After the Fall

Having said that, I'm not going to get complacent.  Fall will end, and when it does, a final dangerous beast looms: winter holidays.  What to do with the inevitable parties of the holiday season?  For that, I need something more: cold weather.  Once we get there, I can justify passing on the beer in favor of a glass of Scotch, if push comes to shove.

But I'm going to try to keep the beer thing going.  It's been wonderful to see how many friends and family members have gone out of their way to hold onto unusual beers, haul things back from vacation for me, or reserve one beer out of each case they buy as a gift.  Hopefully the spirit of the seasons of Thanksgiving and Christmas will keep the unique beer lines open and flowing.

I can't pretend, though, that it's not starting to wear on me a bit.  My mouth literally waters when I think about what it will be like to say, "I'll have another!" on January 1st.

And how, you might ask, will all of this end?

New Year's Eve with, oh, let's say 7-8 bottles of some special things I've been saving, as well as the rankest, most-ubiquitous macro lagers on the market, will round out the year.  

And then, at 12:01AM, the first of up to 24 Sierra Nevada Celebration IPAs.  Any bets on how many I can get through before the day ends?

Keep it simple.

JJW

Please help support BEER SIMPLE by visiting the Support page and saving the links there as your bookmarks, especially this Amazon link!  Every dollar you spend will help keep BS coming your way, and more often (which is at least as much a threat as a promise).