Apr 27 2009

Craft Brewers as Locavores?

There was a landslide of pictures and tweets coming out of the Craft Brewers Conference in Boston last week. It is an industry event aimed at breweries and brewpubs, but that didn’t make me any less jealous to hear about the brewers in attendance and unusual beers being poured.

Greg Koch, the CEO of Stone Brewing Inc. , gave the opening keynote speech during which he played his “I am a Craft Brewer” video. (If you haven’t seen this toast, do yourself a favor and watch it. It is everything that is right with the craft beer movement.) This was a feel good event that, despite the recession, has every reason to be positive. During 2008, 56 microbreweries were opened and 10 closed. That is good news, but considering the timing of the US economic downturn, I imagine it only captured a portion of the closings. I’m sure Q1 of 2009 will not be quite as wonderful with all the breweries that limped through the holidays only to see the economy turn even worse.

Quality was still on the minds of the craft industry as a differentiator from the macro breweries, and Koch threw out this piece of genius during the address, “Nobody ever went broke underestimating the taste of the American public. That’s not our market.” He correctly pointed out later that craft brewer creativity goes into their brew kettles, while macro brewer creativity goes into marketing campaigns. The truth hurts.

Another theme he hit upon is calling craft brewers “locavores”. Locavores are essentially people who only eat food grown or produced within a 100 mile radius of their home. I’d like to hear what exactly he said because this is a pretty loose and elastic term despite being the New Oxford American Dictionary’s Word of the Year for 2007. Clearly he is referring to the craft brewers as production locavores, or the supply side of this equation.

I think the metaphor of the locavore is interesting and iconic.

Quality control and consistency is the cornerstone of manufacturing, and macros want everyone in the world to be drinking the same exact beer with different marketing-driven labels. If you want to be part of the crowd, stick with their beers.

Meanwhile, the tomato you get from your garden, or at the farmer’s market, is different than the ones set by rail across the country being pumped with ethylene. It just tastes better, and it is not the same weight, shape and size of all the other ones in the cheap, mass-produced bin.

These products do intersect at the grocery store. The vegetables are segregated in bins for the regular tomatoes and bins for the organic ones. In the same way, you see a 6-pack of Stone’s Pale Ale sitting just down the row from the PBR.

I think consumers “get” the positive effects of personality in locavore products. There is a uniqueness to each handcrafted ale. It is full of the local techniques and it is full of the brewer’s personality. And I’d hate to a craft brewer go broke just because what he makes is different and challenges the American public a little more than they are used to. But that is the game at play until consumers care more about the food and drinks they buy.


Apr 10 2009

Beer Wars (or How Not to Get All Sideways on Ladder 49)




Beer Wars is coming. 


For those of you that are not painfully distracted by all things beer, this is a new documentary about the brewing industry.  It premieres on April 16th (that day and that day only) to only 440 theaters.  Unless, of course, the distribution gods smile on Beer Wars….


This is interesting in many ways.  The one night showing is novel and makes the event feel like a huge beer-centric event.  Perhaps this is normal for what has to be the difficult road it getting a documentary out before the public, but it does create a buzz.  (Pun unintended.)


The funny thing is that is a movie that no one has seen, but it is already started a bit of controversy.  As a side note, craft brewers have a chip on their shoulder with a back note of a Napoleon complex.    This is well earned because wrestling market share and distribution away from the macros is herculean.   They are a tight-knit group that fosters a lot of sharing and support for each other.  Perhaps, in a absurd way, they should be thankful to the macros for their community created by oppression.


The director and writer for Beer Wars is Anat Baron, and she was, for a time, the general manager of Mike’s Hard Lemonade.  She offers up in interviews that she knows a lot about the craft brew industry by having her products sit on the same shelf as the micros.  I’m having a hard time comfortably swallowing that, but not as much as more vocal members of the beer world.  But it is some sort of perspective.  It is a start.


The rockstars for the film are Sam Calagione from Dogfish Head and Ronda Kallman for New Century Brewing. (No, I’ve never heard of NCB, either)  Sam is the poet laureate of beer, despite often sounding like a defensive lineman in a post game interview.  Ronda started out with Jim Koch, of Sam Adams fame, but split off to start her own company.  Charlie Papazian, the grandfather of homebrewing, and Greg Koch of Stone Brewing seem to have nice moments, too.


The running theme throughout the film is the big guy vs. the little guy, and we should take that for what it is.  If you feel like this will be a defining moment in the world of craft beer, prepare to be disappointed.  It is supposed to be moving and controversial, but I don’t think Anat is trying to make the Ladder 49 of brewing.  Chill out.


I hope there will be balance and there will be moments that will surprise everyone who doesn’t know a lot about the industry:


Blue Moon from Coors



I hope there will be some nice human and business growing moments as well.


Greg from Stone Brewing: 



Am I going to see this?  Yeah, at some point.  I’m looking forward to it.  But let’s just say I’m not fired up enough to drive an hour and a half to Richmond to a theater that is showing this on a Thursday night.  I want it to be good, but I really don’t have a dog in this hunt.


Sometimes we just have to let go and understand that beer brewing, and the industry, is great fodder stories and bigger metaphors.  I’m sure one day we will get our own Sideways, but perhaps we should just be happy to be the muse for now.