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.