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Wednesday, February 01, 2012

Why Everyone's Open and Friendly in America

Two days back (really three, since we trail England by a day already), British writer and blogger Melissa Cole sparked multinational debate about which country's breweries were more open, the US or Britain. In one corner, BrewDog's James Watt, author of the hypothesis. In the other, Melissa and the rest of Britain. She concludes her spirited assault this way:
I also know for a fact that brewers all over the country regularly borrow raw ingredients off each other, seek advice on things that have gone wrong or just ring each other up for a natter about their next beer; I could go on but it would seem pointless in a way because I'm pretty sure it will fall on deaf doggy ears.

What I will say is this though: this is utter, utter rubbish and I would implore you not to listen to it.

The UK brewing industry is not only booming and forward-thinking, it is also fabulously friendly and I feel, quite strongly, that BrewDog owes the industry as a whole a bloody enormous apology.*
I will leave the debate to her comment thread (where James and other brewing luminaries duke it out), but there's some context here that's very important: the US and Britain have very different markets. They are structurally very different--British breweries can own pubs, for example--but also different in terms of development. In Britain's ale market you have new craft breweries competing against venerable brewing institutions. American craft brewing is brand new by comparison with only a couple older, regional breweries in the mix.

But the biggest difference is growth: the American market has been growing in double digits for years now. To fail, a brewery has to make unwise business decisions or produce terrible beer. In an expanding market, competition means fighting for those new drinkers, not protecting your core line. Britain's market is stable and the ale segment is even growing a bit, but at nothing like the rate it is here. Over the past generation, there has been huge churn in British brewing, and it was quite possible to steward your company wisely, make good beer, and fail. In that environment, you're fighting not to see how fast you can grow, but to see if you can survive.

Sometimes we forget these are businesses. They aren't community organizations. If American breweries are open and friendly, it's because their livelihoods aren't jeopardized. If British breweries are more wary, it's because the market is tighter and they feel the sense of competition far more keenly. It's not one big happy family, it's a market. Collaborations are not only fun, they're profitable. At a certain point, America will find equilibrium in its ale segment, and then things will change. There's nothing innately open about US craft breweries; it's the market that's open. Wide open.

*Melissa muddies the water when she brings "friendly" into it. James never said anything about friendly, he said "open." It's not a small difference.


  1. I can also see where James is coming from and am wondering if their bolshy attitude towards most other uk brewers wasn't at least in part inspired by how they were treated in their formative months/years

  2. Jeff - just to take issue with one point, the 'ale segment' isn't in growth as such, but is experiencing the least decline, and therefore growing its share of the market. The "craft beer" (whatever that means in the UK context) sector is seeing strong growth, but again, in a declining market.

  3. Steve, help a Yank out: "bolshy?" I get your meaning, but that's a fine-sounding adjective and I'd like to know how to use it.

    Zak, no dispute here. That's one of the characteristics I was gesturing toward--the markets are very different. Mostly, Americans have a hard time wrapping their heads around the idea that breweries like Fuller's and Thornbridge don't share the same psychic space in Britain. To us, they both make exceptional ales and would, in the US, definitely be in the same mental group.

    I would fault Melissa for not recognizing this difference in dynamic, too. All US craft breweries are first-gen companies operated by the people who founded them. Once they cease to be labors of love and become some descendent's source of a monthly dividend check, things may look very different.

    That's really my point. They're just totally different situations.


    I guess its an ok "punk" adjective

  5. You know, if I was looking for a rude and point-missing and baiting sort of post on the neediness of a beer market, that post might be what I was looking for. It's almost Protzian in its misplaced grandeur. But really - liars? Why wouldn't James of BrewDog be pissed after that sort of insult?

  6. The interesting point you make about the difference in the US and UK beer markets is moot, because you take James Watt's statement as good coin, whereas everyone over here knows by now that he's full of bullshit. This bit in the book is just another example of Brewdog talking horsecrap about European brewing to a foreign audience that they think doesn't know any better.

    Perhaps there's a reason why dozens of other brewers have said they find British brewing an open and friendly scene, and only James perceives it as inhospitable?