The news on the craft brewing front is all good and
rosy. Sustained growth for three years, continuing into this year,
fastest growing segment of the entire alcohol beverage market. Brewers,
good brewers, who have been staying alive for years are finally hitting
the take-off point. Loans are easier to get, chefs are getting to know
and respect beer (even if wine writers still
are adding crafts to their line-up because they know people want
them. It's a great time to be a beer lover.
are clouds on the horizon, of course; there always are. One big one
is that booming demand means supply has to grow to meet it. If more
craft brew sells, more must be brewed, in bigger and more numerous
breweries. That means a lot more stainless steel, more floor space, more
wastewater treatment, more more more. It's been estimated that to expand
craft beer to 10% of the market, it would take over $2 billion
dollars worth of equipment alone. Still, as mentioned, loans are easier
to get, especially the bigger and more successful you are. Craft brewing
is reputable again.
Another problem is
getting to market. As long as the three-tier system remains in place
-- the government-mandated system that requires brewers to sell only to
wholesalers, who then sell the beer to retailers (there are some
exceptions made for brewpubs and small producers to self-distribute) --
craft brewers will have to pick their way through a constantly changing
landscape of people that they are allowed to sell their beer to.
Wholesalers merge, go under, and open up shop all the time, and a
brewer's got to stay alert to stay on the shelves.
to be truthful, both of these problems will actually get easier as
craft grows. They're receding problems. As more craft brewers are
successful, capital eases. As craft beer brands develop larger
followings, wholesalers will go looking for them, instead of the other
All's good, right? Not
quite. Because success doesn't solve all the problems. There's a
major one left: Money Brewers.
of you may not remember these venomous losers from the 1990s. They
didn't understand craft beer at all, not in the least. They saw us as
sheep, lining up to be shorn by some guy with a fancy hat and shiny
shears. Beer was all the same, after all, and the only reason people
drank it was to get drunk. So the real reason we were drinking this
"fancy" beer was because of marketing, a funny name or a cute
label. The beer didn't matter.
So we got Bad
Frog, Wanker, Red Ass, Rhino Chaser, Brewski, and a hundred little
micros that cropped up across the country making lousy, thoughtless,
half-assed beer and packaging it haphazardly so that it went sour or
stanky or stale. They were all going to make money hand over fist,
though, because it didn't really matter if the beer was actually
different, or even good: people were drinking it because it had a cute
name, or because it was local, or because it cost more and made them
One of the worst examples was
Black Sheep. This was a plain old garden-variety lager with a story
to sell it: this was a beer for gay men. Why? Because the guys who
marketed it said so. And they got tons of press, because "gay"
was just starting to become newsworthy, and the whole "microbrew
craze" was newsworthy, and no one had the brains to stand up
and say, "This is a totally brainless idea and you're all going to
lose your shirts."
It was a terrible
time for the industry. Everyone had been talking about "The
Shakeout" for years, waiting for the million-pound hammer to fall.
We knew that not everyone could make it -- they never do -- but I don't
think we've ever blamed these vicious idiots enough for their
role in it. They sucked up a lot of the money and shelf space and media
attention and wholesaler slots that should have gone to the people who
were in the business to make real beer and understood what that meant,
the folks who knew that what this was really about was good beer and variety,
not cute labels or silly names or identification with demographic
It was a foregone conclusion
that these folks would fail. They didn't understand the business
they were in, they didn't understand the product they were making, and
they had no idea how much success would cost. But when they went down,
they took good brewers with them. When they fell, the money dried up.
People stopped experimenting with microbeers.
now they're back. I'm starting to see some of them already. Beers
for women, beers for African-Americans, another gay beer. "Great
Sex" beer was floated as a project. Once again, these guys just
don't get it. You can't sell beer on a label. The big beers, the ones
that seem to sell on a label, are actually selling on a brand.
The craft beers aren't selling on the label; they're hooking you with
the label and the beer is the finisher that gets you to nod and say,
yeah, I'll have another.
losers have none of that. They're gimmicks, like "Stampede
Plus," the vitamin-enriched beer. Wow, what a gimmick:
Stampede Plus is "enhanced" with B vitamins and folic
acid...the same vitamins you find in unfiltered beer. It would
be funny, except that like the sappy crappy fruit beers of the
mid-90s, it leads people to believe that all beers that aren't
mainstream are gimmicks.
It's not funny, it's
scary. Folks with money to invest won't necessarily be able to
identify them as bad risks. Brewers who need a couple of bucks will brew
their beer for them (under contract) and never realize the damage they
might be doing to their own business. Ignorant journalists -- sorry,
colleagues, but it's true -- will give them gallons of ink because the
story's new and different (it's new because they're barging into
brewing, it's different because it's stupid). People who want a beer
will try their swill and think "This is micro brew? Forget
that!" It'll be the mid-90s all over again.
been accused of being too easy on beers, of never saying anything
bad about beers or breweries. Those of you who read me regularly,
especially on the new Seen Through A Glass blog,
know that's not true. But when these beers start coming out, trust me:
I'll be scathing. I've already ripped Stampede in a quote in someone
else's article. I'll ask everyone with a byline to jump in with me,
We need to stop them. I do not
want to put up with this whole cycle again, caused by some dim-witted
graspers. Brewers: don't take contracts from these guys,
you'll be shooting yourself in the foot for some short-term cash. Wholesalers:
if you buy these brands, you're going to take a bath on them. Retailers:
these beers will sell once, and then clog your floor or your cooler. All
of you: you'll look like a sap and a poser if you have anything to
do with these beers. This is not craft beer, and your customers
will know it.
It's fair. We owe
these people nothing. We've seen their ilk before, and they are
worse than the most dismissive wine freak, worse than the most ignorant
lager lout, worse than the most needle-nosed neo-prohibitionist. After
years of raising craft beer to a level where it's finally being taken
seriously, they want to drag it back into the mud of dopery and jokery. They
don't get it, and to take that ignorance and go to market it with
it, to pretend that they're about the beer when they're really all about
the Benjamins (not realizing that in craft brewing, it's mostly about
all about the Hamiltons), to pose as one of the good guys...well, that
just chaps my ass.
Don't let this
happen. Don't invest, don't give them anything but incredulously
dismissive press, don't buy it, don't encourage it. And if someone you
know is thinking about doing this, thinking they can make a small
fortune in beer, just remind them how you make a small fortune in beer: start
with a large one. That ought to scare them off.
craft beer revolution is not about money. It's not about labels, or
niches, or marketing to demographic segments. It's not about sex, or
cartoons, or funny animals, or fruity flavors. It's not about great
sales techniques that can sell swimming pools to fish.
about the beer. Stay staunch. Spread the word.