Baseball's Billy Beane Brings Moneyball to Beer

Colin D. Laursen, May 24, 2016

The first week of May, Philadelphia hosted Craft Brewers Conference, the annual gathering of craft beer industry people in the US.

The Craft Brewers Conference has grown larger each year, making this year’s meeting with 13,000+ in attendance, arguably, the largest gathering of American brewers on record. This year’s keynote speaker was Oakland Athletics Executive Vice President of Baseball Operations Billy Beane, of Moneyball fame.

While the connection might not be immediately clear, the baseball revolutionary had a lot of applicable lessons for the craft beer industry.

On a personal level, this was special. I work for a brewery in Missouri, but I grew up in the Bay Area going to A’s games back when Billy was still in uniform. As a brewer who has recently transitioned into the sales and marketing end of the business, the story of a ballplayer who made the very odd decision to become a scout and later an executive is particularly inspirational.

The over-arching pitch from the Brewers Association, when presenting Beane, was that he was a man who had toppled foes with much greater capital resources. That introduction relied on the obvious comparison of low budget craft brewers taking on macro behemoths.

However, I found some of the best takeaways from Beane’s speech had little to do with this metaphor.

Here are, in my opinion, the four top takeaways:

“We didn’t invent anything; we just took other people’s ideas that were less popular because they came from outside the game.”
Or in the words of film director, Jean Luc Goddard, “It’s not where you take ideas from, its where you take them to.” So much of what we do, honestly, the foundation of the industry, is new riffs on old styles.

This is why I originally pitched Eno with the idea to write “5 beers You’re Sleeping On.” There is a lot of beauty in the history of brewing and most beer trends, from the Saison, to the use of hops, to spontaneous fermentation, were the result of material necessity rather than some ideal or principle.

As a brewer, it is precisely when you reach outside the dominant paradigm that you start having fun. And oftentimes, success. In the early days of craft beer, that meant big flavorful ales that rivaled the endless iterations of corporate rice-lagers dominating the beer aisle.

But there is still room for the outsider’s perspective to what is rapidly becoming the new dominant paradigm. In fact, one of the best panels I saw all week at CBC was on “Going Hopless” about the wide varieties of herbs one can use to brew a gruit.

“Any advantage we have is short lived.”
This is a corollary to the first point. There are only so many styles or hybrids of styles to be brewed and seemingly a new brewery opening every day. It’s hard for craft beer to not look like a copycat industry. As soon as an idea becomes popular, everyone is doing it. The Black IPA, smoked everything, the session, farmhouse, the craft lager, the kettle sour, the fruit IPA, extreme haze, the gose.

Recursion in the beer industry is even more immediate than it is in baseball because the requisite sample size to establish success is smaller. All the beer world requires is a little hype and a couple months of good sales and suddenly the shelves are dominated with a number of similar offerings.

Fortunately for brewers, unlike with baseball, it’s not about who does it first, it’s about who does it best.

“In the early `90s [we had the second highest payroll in baseball yet] we weren’t a proper business. We were basically donating to a public park.”
Ouch. But yeah, you would be stunned by how much this resonates with your favorite craft brewery. In the past 10 years I’ve worked for wineries, distilleries, and breweries in different modes of ownership and production. The small independently owned ones I’ve worked for often seemed the most fun, the busiest, and the most successful.

They were, across the board, the ones staring down their own mortality on a day-to-day basis.

Simply put, raw ingredients, packaging materials, and infrastructure are incredibly expensive. While big, ingredient- and time-intensive beers tend to fetch the highest dollar, they can also be some of the least profitable beers on a cost-per-barrel basis.

For craft brewers, the trick to success is discovering how to keep people’s excitement up while moving a high volume of their less-extreme flagship brands.

“The best impact we had was not what we did but who we brought into the game.”
Amen. Eno probably doesn’t have his job at FanGraphs without Bill James and Billy Beane. Same goes for Andrew Friedman, Theo Epstein, and everyone else who has since outpaced the OG of SABR metrics.

For my part, I would probably still be playing around with my banjo burner and ice-chest mash tun if it weren’t for New Albion, Sierra Nevada, and all of those early pioneers.

We are now 30+ years deep in the craft revolution and the absolute best part about it is that innovation has bred more innovation. After Beane’s presentation I wasn’t sure if people would get it. The connection isn’t immediately clear and he didn’t make an overt effort to directly tie his experiences to our industry.

But as the week went on I saw several brewers asking their panels things like, “So what is the OBP of beer sales?”

Always looking for that angle, always experimenting, always willing to try a new approach to an old problem. That’s what draws people toward this industry, and that’s what keeps us coming back for more.


Photo © Brewers Association.