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Thursday, July 02, 2009

The Tension Between Art and Commerce

Charlie Papazian has a very insightful (if slightly scattered) post up today about the trajectory of German brewing. He set the stage yesterday with a post alluding to the huge changes both in the drinking culture and beer of Germany:
There are many reasons for this. The competitive nature of the beer business is purely based on price, forcing many to call it quits. Large breweries buy out small breweries to eliminate competition and international global brewers buy out large breweries to do the same.... The variety and wonderful nuances of different brands of pilseners, Helles lager, dark beers, wheat beers, etc. in Germany are disappearing.
In the first post he fingers consolidation, but of course, consolidation is nothing new; it is a trend dating back at least decades and perhaps centuries. In today's post, he points to a more disturbing phenomenon--one that goes to the heart of what makes a good beer country good.
There is one technical theme I have noticed throughout the decades. Innovations and new techniques are borne of the need to control the character of beer.

Here’s where my perception may get a bit controversial. The basis of brewing science is being able to identify beer character; flavor, aroma, appearance, mouthfeel, etc. It seems that the majority of scientific papers about beer focus on first identifying a character and then technology is further pursued to eliminate or reduce that character.

It’s the identifiable characters in beer that differentiate beers from one another. These characters lend personality and flavor and aromas of interest – but the most delicious and interesting are often not very stable. If a character in flavorful beer is not stable, then for mass beer producing brewers it’s not a good thing. For them consistency in character is king. If a beer changes on the shelves or while in the distribution system, well then, you can’t advertise its character. Why? Because it changes....

That is why whole or natural forms of hops are often not used in these kinds of beers. Hops of different varieties lend character nuances that are not as stable as beers that have been formulated with hop extract, which has no flavor or aroma character, just bitterness.

I have said since I started blogging that we are living in a golden age of brewing. Our brewers are now world-class. They have the luxury of appealing to a large customer base willing to try their new experiments--and this encourages further innovation and improvisation. Charlie is describing the death-spiral that happens when this trend reverses itself. Customers don't care about or understand good beer; they just want something cheap and predictable. Breweries can no longer appeal on the basis of quality or flavor, just cost, meaning only the biggest, most-efficient breweries survive.

Nothing lasts forever, and in 50 years, Oregon may no longer be Beervana. We might have just a handful of large breweries (or two, or one, or none) brewing a handful of boring styles (or two, or one, or none). It's a good reminder as we head into day two of Craft Beer Month. Sometimes we grow complacent about our bounty, but let Germany be a reminder: this really is one of the beeriest place on earth.


  1. When did Charlie have a stroke? ;-}

  2. I should probably leave this comment with Charlie's post, but it's easier to hone in yours.

    If you were a one-trick pony, talking only about the honest pint, then you'd like many CAMRA members - focusing on the price of beer as much as the quality of the beer.

    Instead you are talking to a niche, even in Oregon. Smaller breweries must continue to upgrade the quality of their products (I tasted enough off flavors in Oregon for a seminar) without losing track of everything else.

    Technically great and great are two very different things. From what I just saw in Oregon both brewers and consumers understand this.

  3. Stan, although I used Oregon as the example here, the golden age extends across the country (if not to all regions of the country). We have something like 1400 independent breweries here, perhaps a high-water mark, but certainly an example of customer interest and brewer exuberence.

    I don't think you comment about quality in any way disputes my point. It's true that off-flavors can damage a market or skew an audience (I'm reminded of the story about how Redhook's early diacetyl beer became a mark of "house character" that they had a hard time backing away from), but that's a different point from the one Charlie was making or I was riffing off.

  4. Jeff,

    I think this is your third post recently that discusses what happens as a brewing industry grows and matures, and the risks of abandoning variety in a product line. My own belief is that the trajectory of our own excellent Oregon breweries will grow in the pattern described in Papazian's cautionary tale. That may take some time, but I believe it will happen. I think your post recently about Full Sail poses this as a possible outcome.
    I disagree with Papazian that consolidation and decrease of competition is "purely based on price." It is based on far more than that including brand and product line interests, costs of distribution, operational efficiencies, etc. Those may have an influence on price, but they almost certainly have as much to do with cost of production and marketing. Hence, consolidation serves the bottom line regardless of what happens to the price of a unit of beer.
    Finally, the United States may be a cautionary tale for Germany and other beer cultures. If they see what happened here with the big breweries consolidating and buying out regionals then competing based on things like "indicator" cans, cheap 30-packs and beer babes, they might take a breath. Any of the Big 3 brewers would like to have anything like the profit margins and growth of the better craft brewers, I imagine.