Tweet Last week I discussed why I think "revolution" is too big a word for "craft beer". Some people didn't agree and Jeff, of Beervana fame, left a comment saying why he believes that, at least in the US, there is a revolution going. Although he supported this with solid arguments and data, I'm still not convinced, but, as someone said elsewhere, it's all a matter of semantics, really.
The following day, while I was reading this excellent article about the correlation between the fall of the Roman Empire and the rise of Islam, for some reason I remembered what I had read in Brew North, a history of brewing in Canada, and I thought that there might be another way to look at this phenomenon.
As we all know, the fall of the Western Roman Empire wasn't something that happened from one day to the other. It was a long process that started in the fourth century, if not before, and was the result of many factors. I won't pretend expertise on the subject, but according to what I read, it seems that the biggest factor was that the empire had become too big for its own good.
The Roman "business model" was based on growth and expansion. Once the zenith was reached, problems started. The military structure became basically too costly, but it couldn't be dismantled because of politics and because someone had to defend the borders. This became more and more difficult as the tribes that lived in the periphery became more aggressive. All this came together with political instability, hubris, lack of vision and, of course, the almost constant internal struggles that undermined the empire from the inside.
Doesn't that look somewhat similar to what is happening to the macros? Brew North tells the story of the fall of the Canadian brewing giants once continuous growth stopped being a viable model. The difference here is that these companies ended up being swallowed by even bigger ones.
Today, the three or four giants that dominate the world seek to expand in the emerging markets of Asia, Africa and Latin America, which still offer some growth potential, while they don't seem to know what to do to keep their model going in the mature markets of Europe and North America. Most of their new products are quite embarrassing, if not downright pathetic and whenever one of them is successful with a new product, the rest follow suit with stuff that aims at the same target consumer.
Meanwhile, smaller companies whose scales and structures makes them more flexible and dynamic keep on growing in the periphery of the macros and they are also getting deeper into the territories that the big ones are not interested or able to defend.
The macros don't seem to see them as a serious threat (and I don't think they are, at least not for the moment), they consider them more like a nuisance. They are trying to absorb some of their energy and to defend their most exposed flanks with lukewarm products or with acquisitions that only open the gates even wider, just like it happened to the Roman Empire when they started to include barbarians among their troops or to negotiate with the most powerful tribes.
But there's yet another parallel to make.
As the Vandals and Visigoths conquered more of the Roman territory they started to adopt some of the habits and customs of the empire, partly because it made them feel "more civilised", but also because they understood that it was the best way to manage and expand their newly conquered realms.
Aren't we seeing something similar? There are two or three "Craft Breweries" that have announced they will (or are planning to) open factories in other locations, the most ambitious of them is perhaps Stone with their brewery in Germany. On the other hand, Sam Adams has announced Boston Lager will be brewed under license in Britain, where BrewDog keep on expanding their chain of pubs, which is not too different to what Pivovary Lobkowicz, Únětické Pivovar and other regionals are doing in the Czech Republic.
The question is what is going to happen. The collapse of the Western Roman Empire was followed by a period of chaos that eventually left on one side the Feudal system and on the other the Muslim Caliphates, with the Pope pretending he was Caesar. However, it could also be that the most appropriate analogy for this decadent empire isn't the Roman, but one from among the many that throughout history ended up being replaced by some other ascending power without things changing too much in the end.
Either way, I still believe that the rise of the "alternative" beers is to a great extent a result of something broader, but that aside, what we might be witnessing isn't so much a revolution as it is the beginning of the fall of an empire.