Big Beer's Grand Plan Is Working

Eno Sarris, April 06, 2016

Two news items dominated the beerwaves yesterday. 

The first was the sheer amount of footnoting the Brewer's Association had to go through in order to release their top breweries list. Beervana broke it down, but after the corporate restructuring and buyouts of the past year, only Yuengling, Sierra Nevada, New Belgium, Deschutes, Stone, and Brooklyn Brewing qualify as independent craft brewers without any asterisks.  

The second item was a mere 200 word business piece. The state of North Carolina will investigate MillerCoors' decision to close a plant that makes 4% of the beer in America. The crux of the matter is that MillerCoors and AnheuserInBev are in the midst of merging, and if they can be seen as mucking with the supply in order to drive up price in a market they dominate, that would have anti-trust implications. 

This isn't the sort of thing that I got into beer to write about, and it honestly turns me in circles. But while running around in circles trying to make sense of what's happening to the industry around us, I do find myself banging around like a pinball between items just like these two. 

Big Beer -- as much as we can label that amorphous thing -- is treating beer like a business, as much as any business will, and will not hesitate to alter the playing field to its advantage. Whether it be through pay to play practices, strong arming distrubitors, big corporate relationships, or even anti-competitive and perhaps illegal strategies, they'll do their best to grow more. They owe it to their shareholders, the standard defense goes. 

On the other side of the ping pong table is the fact that there are now many beers I enjoy that are owned by bigger companies. Ballast Point Sculpin was an early favorite. Elysian Space Dust tastes great. Lagunitas Sucks. Firestone Walker Double Jack was an elation, at first. 

Look that list and you start to come to the same conclusion: which beer at the supermarket is not owned by a conglomerate or investment vehicle of some sort? 

This could be considered another part of the plan. Muddy the waters until the inevitable conclusion is reached. As Beervana said, "Craft beer is dead. Long live beer." 

In a post-craft world, it doesn't matter who made the beer, and it only matters how it tastes. That sounds wonderful. I can get behind that, actually. It means fewer posts like this, less time spent thinking about the provenance of my beer. It sounds like meritocracy. In the end, it *does* mean better beer at the supermarket.

I saw a marker for Elysian Space Dust (sold out) at the Safeway beer aisle that has failed to produce a single beer I want to buy in the last six months. That gets my attention. 

But there's a bit more to the story, as you can see from that last bit. Whether it's the Beer Hunter in me, the beer tourist always wanting to try the next beer, the baseball card collector putting beers in my book -- no matter what the drive is, I'm always looking around for new (better?) beer. It's great. It's another kind of traveling, and one I can do from my own home with the benefit of trading beer. 

The fact that I trade beer alone puts me in a different category than perhaps even the target audience for these new big beers. I'm more interested in finding the next Sculpin than buying a Sculpin, so I'll go to Bagby Beer in San Diego, or Cloudburst in Seattle, or Cellarmaker in San Franciso, or Night Shift in Boston, instead of buying the beer that is easily available to me. 

And by doing that, I'm rewarding the smaller breweries that follow the stricter definition of craft brewing. My palate is doing the background work on the provenance of my beer. Even if I say I don't care who owns my beer, my actual spending habits say otherwise. 

So here's why it's a pinball game. I care and I don't care! I want to look away from transactions page. For days at a time, I manage it. And then there are news items like this that bring me right back onto the flipper, headed back into the cabinet, bouncing around, hoping for the reprieve of a ramp. 

Head out into beer twitter, and you'll hear plenty of voices that don't seemingly bother with any of this. They're sure of things. Buyouts reward good brewers -- more money in brewing is good. Big beer doesn't have the same values of innovation and community -- the buyouts are bad. You'll get mocked from both sides if you show any indecisiveness to those that see clear lines drawn in the sand. 

I want my favorite brewers to be rewarded for their hard work! I want great beer whenever I want it. All that matters is the taste. I don't care who's buying whom. 

I want my favorite brewers to be unshackled by marketing departments, and to make unpopular, weird beers! I want them to be innovative! I want to know their names, and to see them working in the back! I want them to provide a local space that feels home grown and has roots in the community! I don't want to be manipulated by my brewer! I care about who's buying whom. 

And so it goes, beat around by the bumpers some more, just searching for beautiful beer.