Redefining Macro, Micro, and Craft

Seems like every few years Boston Beer Co. reaches a new milestone in the annual barrel count, and the Colorado captains of craft have to redefine the rules for membership in their club.

With annual revenues of $950 million and a market cap of $2.1 billion — yes, that’s illion with a b — it’s getting harder and harder for those with even a passing interest to lump Sam in the same “craft beer” category as the 7-barrel brewpub downtown.

Some other big Pennsylvania craft breweries (I said that) lobbied to join the club after much quibbling over corn and other adjuncts.  Yuengling, located not too far from Sam’s massive Lehigh Valley brewhouse, was finally admitted and went straight to the top of the heap.

On the flip side of this crazy bottle cap are the brewers who get tired of busting their butts and cash out to big beer.  This sell out usually results in being cast out of the craft club, no big boys allowed.  Glaring example of this is Goose Island, which was assimilated by the Borg a couple years ago.

Blurred Lines

Consider the extent of Yuengling’s offerings, which aside from the occasional venture into IPL or seasonals such as Bock or Summer Wheat, is a straightforward mix of adjunct laden offerings.  Seldom does this mini giant foray into anything qualifying as the average boozehound’s understanding of “craft.”

Another east coast midsize player that comes to mind is FX Matt in Utica New York, known mostly for their Saranac brand , also as a contract brewer for Brooklyn and Lake Placid’s mass-distributed stuff.  While Saranac’s tepid offerings are noticeably more exotic than anything coming out of Pottsville, they are equally safe for the masses and seldom attain the creativity of even their contracted offerings.  If anything, FX Matt is a 21st century version of what FX Matt was in the 20th century,  a regional giant carving out a nice niche.  The difference is that now the Legacy IPA competes against Magic Hat #9, as opposed to the Utica Club vs. Genny Cream of 40 years ago.

Meet the new boss, same as the old boss

And so the US brew scene has — arguably — finally come full circle following the debacle of Prohibition.  The industry made headlines last year when the number of breweries reached pre-Prohibition levels.   Prior to Prohibition the brewscape consisted of a handful of nationally-distributed behemoths, a number of regional giants,  and a countless and constantly changing landscape of local breweries and brewpubs that offered fresher and more exotic stuff, where beerfans of the day brought their empties back to be refilled.

Sound familiar?

Update the product mix, blur the distribution lines a bit, and you can see that the playing field is more or less the same as it was prior to the government’s nearly successful attempt to eliminate the industry.  As any biologist will tell you, nature tends to balance things out, and life somehow finds a way.  Since beer is comprised of and created by living organisms, it shouldn’t be a surprise.

Take that thought a bit further.  In the years following prohibition, it was the national giants and a handful of regional players who were equipped to bring the brew craft back from the dead.  There was little or no sign of life from brewpubs or neighborhood breweries.  Without Budweiser, Miller, Schlitz, along with the likes of FX Matt and Yuengling,  would we have a thriving brew scene today?   Those who are so quick to knock today’s Bud/Miller/Coors monsters seldom bother to understand that, for much of the last 70 years, those same terrible breweries were continuously experimenting and test marketing premium beer offerings, only to find that America’s palate wasn’t quite ready.

And yet the labels are here, battle lines are drawn.   Craft snobs pour a bomber of Matilda and look down their noses at anyone carrying a case of Bud, while NASCAR fans eye anyone with a six of Goose Island with suspicion.  It’s absurd, it’s childish, and it’s stupid.

We’re in a golden age of high quality national brands, excellent regional value, and superior local craft.  It’s time to forget the labels and just enjoy the beer.

— Rick Bolger, July 2016