27 Jul 2012

In Praise of macro brewers


Craftophiles and micro brewers, mutually feeding their respective rhetorics, enjoy throwing shit at the macro breweries. They accuse them of being greedy mega corporations, whose only interest is to produce profit for their shareholders, and through the brain detergent that is their marketing they sell their shit beer, full of adjuncts and chemical additives, while defecating on proper beer culture.

Let's be honest, this is is something that most of us, at some point or another, have said, and not without reason. Some of the business practices of the large brewers are not too ethical and should be condemned. But, how ethical is it to, knowingly or not, sell an evidently flawed product? And, aren't micro breweries also commercial enterprises whose purpose is to generate profits for their owners? And isn't that the reason why some of them will sell a beer even though it's contaminated?

The stuff about quality, adjuncts, etc. has been discussed enough. Regarding "beer culture", it's undeniable that it's been the microbreweries that have done the most to enrich it, if not only for the sheer variety they offer. But "Beer Culture" isn't only sipping a barrel aged Imperial Stout from a tulip glass or discussing the virtues of this or that hop variety. Beer Culture is also being at the pub with friends, drinking four or five pints of whatever they happen to serve there (you don't go to have a "Farmouse Ale" or a "Wet Hop IPA" with your mates!), and that is more or less what beer means to most people and it's something you see very often in the adversing of the big brands. Which brings me to marketing.

Just like the marketing for alternative beers, the big brands' want to speak to its target consumer. We might not like it, but the macros sell what people want to drink, and what most people want is their beer to be mildly alcoholic, refreshing, easy to drink and inexpensive (basically, the reasons why pale lager took over the world). Some of you will refuse to believe this, but it's true, and, if you replace some words, the same can be applied to food, music, films, etc. I love complex, challenging and even experimental beers, but if given the choice between the dumbest Holywood blockbuster and an Igmar Bergman film, bring in the Transformers!

Either way, the macros are not only very good when it comes to make that sort of beer, but they are also very efficient at selling, distributing and making it available in every corner of the world.

But let's forget about all this for a moment. Nobody is arguing about the meaning of "Beer Culture". We all know that micro beer marketing can be as full of shit as macro beer marketing (Beer for Punks, anyone?) and that any beer is good if you like it. Let's look at things from a winder, much wider, perspective.

According to Brew Like a Monk, in 2004 Chimay was employing more than 100 people in one of the poorest regions in Belgium. How many people does Westvleteren employ? And if Chimay, that by no means is a macro, gives jobs to so many people, how many does Interbrew, Belgian's largest brewer, employ? If Alvinne or Struise were to close tomorrow, hardly anyone would notice, if the Leuven brewery went bankrupt the whole country would feel it.

The fact is that macros, all over the world, give jobs to a lot of people. In many cases, those people actually like working for those companies. And those companies might not pay that bad. A Brew Master friend of mine was telling me once about his son, also a brewer, who works at Prazdroj. When I asked him why didn't he work at a micro brewery, he told me that they pay him better in Pilsen. It's hard to argue with money.

On top of it, there are also many companies that supply the macros with services or goods, who owe them at least a substantial part of their income and prosperity. And the only reason that many farmers have to grow barley (not to mention hops) is because they know that, either directly or indirectly, their harvests will be bought by big brewers. A good example of this is Žatec. Japanese big breweries have long been one of the most important buyers of Saaz hops, at some point, they were buying 70% of the annual production. Due to different economic crises, the volume of hops exported to Japan dropped considerably five or six years ago, and the micro brewing boom and the regional renaissance have not been able to compensate for the loss yet.

All that barley and hops are used to make millions and millions of hl of beer, which in turn, pay A LOT of money in beer duties alone.

It also worth mentioning the financial support macros give in some countries to restaurant owners. Of course, this is not with unselfish purposes, there is a price for that (and I must confess, it is something that I don't quite like), but if you look at it from the point of view of someone who is setting up a small company, or wants to improve the one they already have (aren't usually pubs, etc. small companies?), things will take on a different shade.

And all this is only the present. If we look back in history, we'll see that it was the brewers that we'd call macros today the first who took a technological and scientific approach to beer making. They understood it was the best way to assure the quality of their products, which would allow them to grow as companies. Without those advances, some of which are taken for granted even by homebrewers, while others have benefited other industries, beer making would still rely very much on good intentions and "Dej Bůh štěstí".

So, we might not like their products, we might despise their brands (Stella Artois, I'm talking to you), but the truth is that, all things considered, it turns out that macro breweries might not be that evil after all.

But well, these are not things that should concern us, the consumers, very much. What's really important is that is being able to drink good beer, regardless of the size of the company that makes it.

Just one more thing before I finish. Dear alternative brewers, instead of critisising the macros and their beers so much, you should be grateful that they make the shit they make and wish them success and prosperity with that rubbish. It is thanks to them that there are so many people willing to pay your premium prices and, believe me, I don't think you'd like it if the macros started making "good beer".

Na Zdraví!

8 comments:

  1. A good read. But Transformers over Ingmar Bergmann, u gotta be kiddin' me :-) I am not sure about your conclusion, and lotta shit companies employ a lotta people. In fact the shittier the product the more people they employ. That's fcking sad. Does not make them relevant other than beeing responsible for peoples livelihood. Making good and experimental beer is expensive so macros will never do that. I goess BrewDog or as you call em BigDog, could be an interesting example to follow. I mean they expand all the time, employ Beer Bloggers like Beer Sweden and latest with BrewDog Stockholm and they lower their prices, puttin' their beers in the discount supermarkets all over Europe. And it's still good shit they make, even though I have lost interest in them. Whats you view on BrewDog compared to this blog post of yours?

    Best Regards,
    Martin, Allbeer

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    1. The point I want to make is that small company isn't better than a big one just because it's small, but at the end of the day, it is the beer that should speak for itself.

      As for BrewDog, I've got bored with their silly marketing. I like some of their beers, not a big fan of some others. I don't buy them very often because I can get stuff that I like more/find more interesting that is cheaper. That said, as a company, they are brilliant and theirs should be a case study (minus the fake-punk bollocks, that is).

      PS: I like Bergman actually, best cure for insomnia :)

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  2. i disagree at one point: i think they left people with no choice, the only product avaible was what they wanted to sell (a flat and cheap piece of shit). i live in brazil, not belgium or germany. so beer to me was a watery pilsen. It was not the product i wanted, it was the only one on earth! nowadays it changed a lot, and more people are engaging on quality beer day by day. its like a dictatorship when you ignorantize the people and by that way you control them!
    nice post!
    cheers

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    1. But that's the thing with mass market. Big companies will obviously make the kind of stuff that makes the most money for them. If there's a minority of people who don't like it, bad luck to them.

      Belgium is a great example, and proof that big brewers make what people want. You can find there some of the most wonderful beers in the world, and it's not that hard, yet, at least 80% of the beer that is sold is farty, pissy lager like Jupiler and Stella Artois, while many, if not most, of the independent brewers depend on exports to stay alive.

      What's happening now is that the number of people who want something different has reached a certain mass and momentum that has made it viable for smaller, independent producers to be successful in the long term by catering to the needs of a growing niche (provided they be both good brewers and good managers).

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    2. Max, I agree and have made similar points in the past. In my hometown of Portland, Oregon, we used to have an industrial brewery in the heart of downtown. It made the usual mainstream US adjunct lager (one of my favorite photos from the old days is a rail car parked out front labeled "corn syrup"), though in later days made all-grain, higher-quality lagers that helped usher in the microbrew movement. They shuttered the place in 1998, and about 200 workers lost their union jobs. I had been writing about beer for a couple of years for the local paper where I eulogized them. That turned out to be controversial as a lot of people effectively said, "good riddance." For years afterward, though, I'd find workers or family of workers who thanked me for writing that.

      As much as we love the micros here now, the jobs are nowhere near as good as those old jobs at Weinhard's. Union workers were getting good pay, benefits, and pensions--something the micros can't begin to afford.

      Another interesting thing is that the old Weinhard brewery, located in the heart of downtown, always scented the city with boiling wort. When it closed, it was a bit like having the heart of the city torn out. A lot of people loved that old brewery and, despite the rabid talk by beer geeks, a lot of people enjoyed the beer. It was a million-barrel brewery when it closed; not enough to make money for its new mega-owner, but a damned lot of beer in absolute terms. (As a state, it took 100+ micros until last year to finally match what Weinhard was brewing in its single plant.)

      There's room for macro and micro, and now that the market has diversified, there's no reason not to praise the big boys.

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  3. Maxwell Power31 July 2012 12:18

    I can't agree with the 'it's not so bad as macros employ loads of people' viewpoint. You could argue that supermarkets in the UK employ loads of people and that's a good thing but if say Tesco went bust, there's still a massive customer base that needs food. Just as nature abhors a vacuum, so does business. Someone would fill that gap and due to its size, that would probably be multiple companies.

    Although that may mean slightly higher prices initially due to the doubling of processes from multiple companies offering a similar product/service, there would be a decrease in unemployment meaning that more people could afford the product/service which would eventually drive down prices through increased buying power.

    It might seem slightly backward, as efficiency has usually meant doing more with less, but with greater employment would come greater sales.

    Love the term 'brain detergent' for marketing by the way :)

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    1. There's a big point in your argument that you are ignoring, the likes of Tesco treat much of their staff and certainly their suppliers like shit. Macro brewers are not quite like that, as far as I know, they treat their workers fairly (generally speaking) and pay good salaries, better than those of the microbreweries.

      On the other hand, if, say, Plzeňský Prazdroj, by far the largest Czech brewer, went bust it would take many years for someone, anyone, to be able to fill their place (other than some large brewer from abroad) and the economy of the whole country would suffer, many pubs would have to close because they wouldn't have what to sell (and no, "Craft beer" isn't often an option). As for the decrease in unemployment, if you read Jeff's post above, you'll see that such might not end up being the case.

      Big brewers are a necessary thing, there has to be someone who serves the needs and wishes of the mass market and they are very good at that, unfortunately, sometimes they are not very keen on the concept of free market and fair competition, but that's another story.

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  4. Both- if it wasn’t mandatory, then I don’t think the industry would go away. But it would certainly be bought by the macros and they would push out a lot of the little guys.Licence Agreements

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