Sometime within the last few hours, I received a reply to my latest post on the skeevy shenanigans of Budweiser’s parent company, AB/InBev (or whatever they’re calling themselves this week) in which a woman by the name of Cassandra Rosen wrote the following:
“Between this, and the SWS/Glazers merger et al, ‘making it’ as a small brand is becoming more and more difficult.
IMHO, the only way to succeed is to empower the people, to educate them, and to rally them as your troops, pushing demand ahead of availability. If a retailer knows their customers want it, they WILL stock it on the shelf.
The other aspect to encourage, although it’s a bit like finding a polka-dotted unicorn…as a small brand, be persistent to seek out a distribution partner that will work with you, and fight for you, not simply put your brand as a line item on a list. They too are competing for market share, and allies are more important than ever as the beer/wine/spirits industry continues to evolve.”
While I whole-heartedly agree with the thrust of Ms. Rosen’s comment, I have certain points on which we differ and I thought it might be valuable to lay those out here. First, there is no question that, in general terms, “making it” is harder today than it was five or ten years ago, when craft brewing was not the massive, unwieldy battleship it is now. Trying to get your one thing noticed, out of a field of 4,000+ other similar things is always going to be a chore. But I think we have to start seeing the problem from the ground up, not from a lofty perch atop Mount Assumption:
Brewers, as with any other start-up businesspersons, need to have realistic expectations and, out of the 100 or so I’ve spoken with in the past decade, most of them started their breweries with the desire to make great beer and, beyond that, seem willing to take life as it comes. “Making it‘” as a brewing concern seems, in the minds of many people, to equate to the eventual goal of growing to the size of a Boston Beer Company or Dogfish or Stone or Deschutes or some other nationally-known brand. There seems to be the widespread assumption that every brewer who starts out wants to become a craft beer mogul and be able to make enough money to retire to the Bahamas and their own private island. In fact, most of the brewers I know seek, mainly, to satisfy the requests of their customers, pick up a little momentum year by year, foot the bills, pay their mortgages, and buy a new car every couple of years. Those desires, coupled with the quest to continually up their games as brewers, seem to me like the most reasonable and laudable of achievable goals. Many of the breweries I’ve profiled and visited sell the lion’s share of what they make in their own taproom or pub and in local restaurants, pubs, taverns, and bottle shops. Most struggle just to keep up with current demand.
One thing you can always count on: American businesspeople will do what is in their best financial interests. If your brewery makes beer that is so surpassingly good that the majority of the people who taste it go away and talk about it to anyone who will listen, a distributor will be calling YOU, not the other way around. It’s arguable that the central principle of beer distribution is Keeping Your Ear To The Ground. Distributors watch and listen and know, quite well, what breweries in their service areas are making a splash. It’s the death of their business to get aced out of the hot new breweries by their competitors and, given the trendy nature of beer, roster churn is not only common, it’s a necessity. If your brewery makes beers that generate buzz, it will probably be every distribution “partner” in your area, not just one or two, ringing your phone with a Proposal. A notable two dozen or so, here in the Pacific Northwest, are driven by the demand for their wares to expand and increase their market reach and do so only very judiciously. Case in point: Reuben’s Brews in Seattle, my 2015 Northwest Brewery of The Year. Reuben’s has seen interest in their uniformly excellent beers escalate at a pace that owner Adam Robbings once described to me as “dizzying”, but he trusts his skills and has been unafraid to make moves that grow his brand. And in the Reuben’s scenario lies my first divergence with Ms. Rosen.
The notion that “the only way to succeed is to empower the people, to educate them, and to rally them as your troops, pushing demand ahead of availability” is, IMO, backwards reasoning. I do not believe that demand can be “driven“. Demand can be supported and must be addressed – and should, depending on what you want your brewery’s future to be – be satisfied but it cannot be artificially inflated, not if you expect to remain in business and see your brand settle in as a permanent beer icon. Demand grows organically, out of a recognition that the product in demand is clearly desirable and exceptional and irreplaceable. As a former marketing and advertising planner, I know this is heresy but demand is earned, not driven. “Driven” presumes that you can push people into buying your goods. In fact, you can push (actually, more like “nudge”) people into buying them ONCE. After that, the quality of those goods determines demand. If they don’t like your beer, there is no amount of persuasion in any form that will guarantee the sort of solid market position that serves as the basis for real, sustainable growth. There is also, far more certainly, no earthly way to “educate” the “people” (a vestigial term, left over from the Sixties, in which “The People” was loosely defined as “everybody except anybody who’s in a position of power, authority, or influence“.) Masses of people become educated only according to their own interests and then only very slowly. We’ve been “educating” people since the 50s about the perils of smoking and cigarettes are still a multi-billion dollar business. People will become educated if they want to be educated and no one has ever devised a way to force them into it. Need proof?
The Republican Party. Jay Leno’s old “Jaywalking” segments. American college graduates who can’t find Canada on a map. Pyramids as “grain storage”…
Recruiting Americans in any numbers sufficient to the advancement of a Cause is even more unlikely. Even among the very people at the heart of the marketplace wars between craft beer and cynical mega-“brewing” corporations, there isn’t enough unanimity of opinion to rally even a significant percentage of the whole, much less numbers that would qualify as “troops”. The craft brewing culture can’t even agree on what constitutes a craft brewery. A certain Young Lion brewmaster from the PNW, in responding to a question I sent him via email, said that, to him, Stone, Dogfish, Deschutes, Great Divide, Full Sail, Anchor, Russian River, Sam Adams, New Belgium, and any of that size are no longer craft breweries. While I value his opinions and respect his intelligence greatly, that’s just penalizing people for their success and CANNOT be the basis upon which we determine who is Our Brother and who is The Enemy. If success is punishable by virtual banishment, we help create the class of businesspeople that represent everything we all find distasteful in American business. Casting someone like Dick Cantwell or Gary Fish as just another callous, greedy Fat Cat is not only unfair but wildly arrogant. “You can only have integrity if you stay small and obscure“; a form of reverse snobbery that’s painfully petty and pathetically naive.
But Cassandra’s overall point is indisputable, even if misplaced. SOMEBODY has to tell craft brewing’s side of the story…if craft beer is going to realize its destiny as the replacement for the century+ sickness of All The Same Beer, All The Damned Time -as personified by Bud and Miller And Coors and Pabst and Keystone and Schlitz and Schmidt’s and every other watery, insipid adjunct Pilsner. There is an inescapable narrative that goes untold; at best, spread by word of mouth among craft beer freaks and often not even by those True Believers. It’s a story with which even the reactionary conservatives and Teabagger freaks can’t argue, if they hope to keep their All-American cred intact. The story is of thousands of small, independent businesses, run by your neighbors down the street and the guy from your church or country club or Elk’s Lodge or CrossFit, started up in garages and industrial parks and abandoned buildings and old barns and any place else where you can enclose 500+ feet within some sort of walls. It’s the story of dreaming and then making those dreams come true. It’s about the cooperation and support and shared enthusiasm of average Americans. It’s about Do It Yourself, in the most literal possible way. It’s the farmer who hauls out his one good suit, drives in terror to a bank, and signs for a loan that carries no guarantee that his Big Idea will bear fruit and which may, in fact, cost his family their future…and about how that guy carefully hangs up his one suit and then mops the floors and wipes out the brew kettle, by himself, at midnight. It’s about the two gals from the insurance office who pool their resources and rent an old storefront and haul brew tanks back in a borrowed pickup and cannot wait to make that first batch and sip the first beer in their own new brewery. It’s about all the businesses in their communities that make their own livings off those breweries: the yeast labs and grain suppliers and equipment manufacturers and label printers and hops farmers and alarm companies and construction crews and office supply stores and restaurant suppliers and bottle makers and keg factories and those woodworkers and metalcrafters who make tap handles and…well, an entire economy full of people who receive real, tangible benefit from a new business. And it’s about literally BILLIONS of tax dollars, flowing into the coffers of cities and states and national governments, all over the world, from the brewing industry…And, most of all, it’s about keeping those many, many billions of dollars that go to buying beer, HERE, in our own economy and our own pockets. Like it or not, believe it or not, this is NOT one of those facts that you can summarily waive out of existence by saying “Well, I just don’t buy that”: There is NO brand of those traditional adjunct Pilsners like BudMillerCoors etc., etc., etc., that’s made by an American-owned company. NONE. Not any more. Budweiser and that whole family of beers is owned by a Belgian/Brazilian conglomerate…which has now bought MillerCoors and all those subsidiary brands. ALL are now foreign companies and I DEFY any Bud-sucking throwback to try to claim that sending American dollars overseas, when we make the world’s best craft beers right here, is a Good Thing.
The American craft brewing community’s biggest threat is that it’s not unified – even philosophically, much less in more tangible terms – so that there is nobody speaking up for the very real, American, Norman-Rockwell, home-grown, bedrock virtues of craft beer. Instead, we continue to have one side, with impossibly deep pockets and the moral scruples and business ethics of a sack of rattlesnakes, casting all of us who love craft beer as effete, artsy poseurs who flit from this new peach pumpkin ale to that new shitaake mushroom Amber, motivated only by trendiness and some perverse desire to set ourselves against all ideas and habits that are embraced by “real Americans”. THAT story is told daily.
Our story…is rarely told at all.