Been reading some interesting posts on other blogs lately (here and here*) talking about Greg Koch at Stone Brewing and his efforts to turn more people on to craft beer in the face of corporate conglomerates selling Bud, Miller and Coors.
I think Greg’s overall point, which he attempted to make as a panelist on the recent Beer Wars live Q&A and during his speech at the Craft Brewers Conference in Boston, is that if people took a more active role in their consumer choices and considered the quality of the ingredients in their beer and the passion of the people behind the beer, that most would change their minds on drinking the macro stuff. This is the same general argument espoused by other highly respected craft brewers such as Garrett Oliver at Brooklyn Brewing (i.e. “real bread” vs. “bread in a bag” analogy).
However, some critics have called this message “elitist”, “insulated” and “self-absorbed,” largely based on Greg’s comments during the CBC speech that characterized BMC drinkers as “wusses” and the same kinds of people who prefer white bread, instant coffee and Kenny G.
Now, I’m not interested in engaging in some kind of character assassination of Mr. Koch as someone who is doing irreparable harm to the future success of the craft industry, as I am certain his intentions are good. Rather, what I have been wrestling with, in particular since my viewing of Beer Wars several weeks ago, is whether or not this approach really makes the most sense, assuming the goal is to get more people interested in craft beer.
I think one of the fatal flaws in Greg’s logic is the premise that if someone knew more about what goes into their beer they would instantly choose to drink craft beer. I know what a farmers market looks like, yet I generally choose to buy most of my vegetables and fruit from the local megagrocer. I’m the same way with cars…I own a Toyota Camry because it’s relatively inexpensive, fuel efficient and will hopefully get me from Point A to Point B. I’m not preoccupied with its overall performance and handling, or whether or not it was built by an expert mechanic in Germany who REALLY loves making fine cars. When it comes down to it, I frankly don’t care that much about that particular purchase (well, to a degree, until I’m stranded on the side of the road and late for work). But that’s me, and my consumer choice.
And like most people who drink BMC, I don’t really think they care much about the kinds of criteria Greg is talking about either. Perhaps beer is not an important enough portion of most people’s budget, diet, or daily thought process that they invest the time to truly consider the value of their purchase when compared to other life decisions such as, say, where to send your kids to school or which doctor to see. For folks like Greg, whose world is in large part defined by the craft industry, it’s clearly an important choice to make. And for me, a guy who bases my dining decisions on what kind of craft beer is on tap at a particular restaurant, it’s also an important choice. But not for most. The general population tends to drink what they know and are familiar with. For some, it takes too much brainpower, time and research to make a switch in beer preference.
The obvious argument here is that it’s somewhat of a self-fulfilling prophecy…the macro brewers have had such a strangle hold for years on both the three tier distribution system and the mass media channels to pump out their watered down message that there’s hardly a chance consumers would even know the difference. The broader consumer palate has been trained for years that bland is good, and they’re not interested in beers brewed on a smaller scale that tend to be a little more bitter than your average can of Bud. But even if we had a more level playing field, I think the vast majority of people walking into a liquor store still wouldn’t say to themselves “I’m going to select this beer because it’s produced locally and isn’t made with corn adjuncts.” Greg calls these people “dispassionate consumers,” but in today’s society (maybe to our detriment) that’s what seems to win out, convenience and familiarity.
I think it could be the same reason why chain restaurants like Applebees thrive on a larger scale while smaller independently-owned restaurants that only use locally produced ingredients are only going to have a niche appeal. Sure, there’s certainly going to be a market for these small establishments (and they base much of their differentiation on this point), but just like the craft industry, I don’t know that they’re ever going to enjoy broader appeal compared to dumbed down versions of their product. Maybe that’s a defeatist (or realistic) attitude, but when it comes down to it, the craft segment really is a specialty category, and will likely be that way for some time to come.
As a PR practitioner, I think it’s a matter of perception, positioning, and how you want to go about waging this “war” to get more people interested in craft beer. I look at Greg as someone who has incredibly noble intentions as a passionate advocate for the craft beer industry. However, some of his comments lead me to believe he is staunchly focused on the David vs. Goliath argument, making a bogeyman out of the macrobrewers and castigating BMC drinkers as “fizzy yellow beer drinkers” who have yet to be touched by the craft beer message. Sam Calagione at Dogfish Head, on the otherhand, who was portrayed in the recent Beer Wars film as an equally passionate advocate for craft beer**, seems to be more interested and content in just making a really good tasting sling shot and hoping more Davids fall in line behind him. Call it the “push” vs. “pull” strategy of the craft beer world.
So am I an advocate for BMC offerings? Absolutely not. It’s garbage made by people who are more interested in creating shareholder value versus brewing a quality product. I love craft beer, spend probably too much of my time drinking/homebrewing/thinking/reading/writing about it, and hope for its continued success in this country. But I’m also not going to rub my friends’ noses in their light lagers next time I’m at a bar with them because it was mass produced in a gigantic brewhouse in St. Louis or Milwaukee.
* By the way, very cool of Greg to comment on that post. I think he’s a guy genuinely interested in furthering the craft conversation, even if it means he takes a little flak in the process.
** I’m well aware that Sam has taken up that same mantle to some degree and made his own public remarks of disdain about BMC, I’m not picking on Greg.