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The Buzz

A Beerfly's view. If you see anything here that seems crazy, click here.

Fresh Buzz

Vintage Buzz

2007 Buzz

Apr. '07: Deadly Serious

Mar. '07: Defined or Divided?

Feb. '07: Intro to Blog

Jan. '07: Best of 2006

2006 Buzz

Dec. '06: 10 Predictions

Nov. '06: Cold November Rain

Oct. '06: Just Because You Can

Sept. '06: It's Worth It

August '06: Messin' With Us

July '06: Break the Chains

June '06: Viva El Hefe!

May '06: Just Like Wine

Apr. '06: Mixed Messages

Mar. '06: We Print the Truth

Feb. '06: The Fairer Sex

Jan. '06: Best of 2005

2005 Buzz

Dec. '05: Look at Me Drink!

Nov. '05: Malt Monsters

Oct. '05: Sweetness

Sep. '05: When to Fold

Aug. '05: Little Nightmares

July '05: American Spirit

June '05: Miller Time 

May. '05: Breathing Beer 

April '05: Now It's Personal

Mar. '05: 7% Ain't Enough

Feb. '05: Down to 18 

Jan. '05: Best of 2004 

2004 Buzz

Dec. '04: Joys of the Dark 

Nov. '04: The Next Store 

Oct. '04: Beer's Image 

Sept. '04: Clearly Insane 

August '04: Love of Lager

July '04: Speak Up!

June '04: Get Drafted

May '04: Shedding Tiers

April '04: Keg Party

March '04: Ultra Madness

February '04: Case Law

January '04: Best of 2003

2003 Buzz

Dec. '03: Wine good!

Nov. '03: Say Anything

Oct. '03: Shots at Saveur

Sept. '03: Pay For It!

August '03: Subtlety

July '03: RIP, Corner Bar

June '03: Screw 'Em!

May '03: Extreme Beer?

April '03: Liquor Taxes

March '03: St. Patrick's

February '03: Coffee

January '03: Taxes


May, 2007

They're Baaaack...

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 don't...mostly), bars are adding crafts to their line-up because they know people want them. It's a great time to be a beer lover.

There 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. 

But 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 way around. 

All's good, right? Not quite. Because success doesn't solve all the problems. There's a major one left: Money Brewers

Some 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 look smart.

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 groups. 

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. 

And 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. 

But these 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. 

I've 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, too. 

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. 

The 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. 

It's about the beer. Stay staunch. Spread the word. 

Copyright 2008 Lew Bryson. All rights reserved. 
Fee required for reprints in any commercial media.
Revised: June 01, 2007