30 Mar 2012

No, really..


Could you please stop associating "craft beer" with "revolution"?

Let's forget for a second that I believe "craft" doesn't mean a lot more than "premium". Whether I like it or not, the truth is that there are many people for whom "craft beer" is something more or less concrete, but whatever that is, is not a "revolution".

A revolution is something that results in a radical change to the status quo, even when a revolution fails, things are never the same.

The last phenomenon in the brewing industry that I believe could be called a revolution took place in the last decades of the 19th century with the development of efficient systems of artificial refrigeration, which resulted in lagers taking over the world. The change was relatively quick and, in some places, brutal, it basically wiped out styles with a lot of history and tradition behind them.

Craft beer hasn't done anything like this, anywhere. Not even in the US, where not few "craft breweries" are already into their third or fourth decade. Today, the 1800 or more Craft breweries in that country have around 5% market share (and this includes that millions of hl that Sam Adams produces every year). In some regions, like the Northwest, the figure is higher, but it's still a small piece of the pie. The fact is that the best selling beers of today are more or less the same as those 20 or 30 years ago, something that you can see in every country in the world.

Some will wield the industry figures of the last few years as an argument for the revolution. It's clear, sales and production volumes of the major industrial brewers are going down (or at best stagnated), while those of small, independent producers are growing significantly, sometimes in two percentage figures. So?

These two things aren't as correlated as many seem to believe. People aren't drinking less but better, they are simply drinking less. The reasons for that have already been discussed, and they are very much besides the point. The growth of craft beers is due to different factors, they've become more widely available, they've been getting more and more attention from the media and, to a lesser extent, but still quite important, they have made important inroads in places where beer was always, at best, a second class product. If they are taking market share away from someone, it's from wine.

Others will point at the products some macros have launched in recent years (those which some moron has dubbed "faux craft") as proof of a revolution (or even worse, as proof that the macros "are afraid"). You can call the macros a number of things, but stupid is not one of them. They have people working for them whose job is to follow the market, and they have realised that there is a growing demand for beers that move away from the usual lines. Therefore, these products are nothing but a response to this trend, and actually, I think they respond more to macro-brewed imported beers than to craft brews, that's why Fénix, for example, is a wheat beer and not an IPA. In other words, what SAB-Miller, AB-InBev or Heineken are doing is not too different to what most craft breweries always do, to follow the steps and copy someone who's been successful in a given segment.

The acquisition of breweries like Goose Island or Kunstmann by giants like AB-InBev or CCU isn't proof of a revolution, either. It's basically the same as what I say above, only that these companies have decided that it'd be better to take over a well established brand than to build a new one from scratch.

It's not my intention to underrate the success small and independent breweries are having in many countries. It's something remarkable and more than welcome, but it's not a revolution. It's actually part of something deeper that is happening in our societies and, just like it has done throughout the ages, beer is mirroring it.

There are more and more people who want an alternative to globalised uniformity, rediscovering the "traditional", "local", "regional", "authentic", etc and are looking for products with which they can identify and have a more personal relationship. This doesn't necessarily mean that they will forget about Big Mac or Heineken, but they will now complement them with free-range chicken and a bottle of craft beer.

Of course, if believing you are part of a revolution makes you feel better with yourself, it's your thing and I have nothing against it, I just wanted to say you are wrong.

Na Zdraví!

12 comments:

  1. To me, there is no such thing as "craft beer", there's only "good beer" and "crap beer". So it could be "good beer revolution"? Shouldn't revolution be struggling for something new? Because we already had "good beer" before. Oh, my...

    ReplyDelete
  2. Craft Beer revolution was made by DogFish Head couple years ago, when they really have started brewing different and new styles. Even now they brew them.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Well, if that is a revolution, it's a rather limited one, at best.

      Delete
    2. Could be, but it is something not ordinary. I would go with they slogan "Off-centered stuff for off-centered people" :)
      Anyway, the book Brewing Up Your Business, written by Sam Cologione (DogFish Head Founder) shows this pretty good.

      Delete
    3. And how many of these revolutionary beers from Dogfish would you wish to drink every day as your only beer? Personally I drink very few DFH beers and I live only 30 miles from the brewery. Sam is very innovative, willing to dump anything into his brew kettle but many are curiosities rather than tasty beers.

      Delete
  3. As an active, organising, grassroots campaigner for greater beer choice in my home country I find "revolution" is a very useful propaganda term. I'm not about to abandon it.

    ReplyDelete
  4. Been saying this for nearly 2 years now:

    http://www.fuggled.net/2010/05/revolutionary-tosh.html

    ReplyDelete
  5. I think you have to separate North America from everyone else. I will grant the argument elsewhere without hesitation. But I've seen the change, and trust me, it's been revolutionary.

    If you beam back to about 1980, this is what you'd find. The US had one beer style: light lager. (I think Canada was similar, but since I'm ignorant, I'll confine myself to the US.) Way less than one percent of the population was aware that ales existed, never mind what they were. If you were a hardcore beer geek, you could track down some imports, but they were sold in places like ethnic grocery stores or the very rare British-themed pub (where you might get Watneys and Guinness). From a consumer's perspective, you literally good not buy a good beer anywhere at any price.

    The market for good beer is now about 10% in the US (the Brewers Association numbers understate even craft beer numbers and don't capture good imports), but the market penetration for good beer approaches 100%. You can't walk into a pub or grocery store without at least one option.

    There's been a similar change in drinking habits. While 90% of the beer sold is shite, it is consumed by well less than 90% of the beer-drinking public. A recent market research firm found that half the beer drinkers they surveyed regularly drank craft beer. The thing is, they might have a bottle or two a week, whereas lite beer drinkers polish off a case.

    It is revolutionary when the drinking habits of half the population shift over the course of 30 years. Moreover, it's clear we're not at the terminal point of saturation. If craft beer came to occupy 25% of the market, would that be revolutionary? I would call that likely--we're just not there yet. (It would put the US behind only Germany and Czech Republic in terms of good-beer percentages and well ahead of Britain and tied with Belgium.)

    But really, I have to go with my own experience. When I started drinking good beer in the late 80s, it was hard to find. Now I can walk into any pub in America and find it. A revolutionary change.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thanks for the insight. And certainly, it's a good point. However, (and this is an honest question, because I really don't know) hasn't that been the result of other changes in consuming habits of a big part of the population? Take wine, cafés, restaurants and food in general? Would craft beer been able to thrive as much as it's doing now if those changes hadn't taken place?

      Delete
    2. You're definitely right on the larger context. In the 70s, America was a wasteland. In the 80s, the move towars non-processed, non-industrial foods took hold. But I'd argue that each product ran on different tracks. Coffee became ubiquitous--even more than beer--but good wine is popular only among the well-off. American food habits are mixed.

      I'd still call it a revolution--but you're right, it's a revolution in the context of a larger one.

      Delete
  6. It certainly feels like a revolution in London, with the number of breweries doubling, tripling, quadrupling and still going, in the last five years. And, as Beer Nut says, it's a catchy bit of language. Not for the first time, we ask: if we stop using all the words or phrases people find imprecise or irritating, what are we left with? "Good", "Bad" and...? Pointing and grunting?

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. "Pointing and grunting" What else is the Internet for? :) Anyway, I've come up with another way to look at this, I'll be posting about it soon... Stay tuned...

      Delete