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Tuesday, February 11, 2014

The Bold New World of 2014 Looks Unsettlingly Like 1978

"It's a curious way to launch a product not dissimilar to Coors' Blue Moon or Anheuser-Busch's Shock Top..."
--Ezra Johnson-Greenough, discussing Stone Stochasticity Project
Yes, that object to the left is what
you think it is.
Ezra's comments about the new Stone launch follow an interesting article Stan linked to yesterday, by an Atlantic writer wondering if craft beer has gone too far.  They have a point.  Stone's corporate identity has always threatened to bleed over the thin line separating satire and self-importance, so maybe it's not the best example of craft beer's direction.  The Atlantic piece drives the point home more pointedly: "So is this the future of U.S. beer consumption – a country that stumbles over itself to buy beer made with wild-carrot seed, bee balm, chanterelle mushrooms , and aged in whiskey barrels?"

It go me thinking.  If the craft beer market has become a contest over the most outrageous, has craft beer finally grown up and become its nemesis, mass market beer?  Allow me to demonstrate.
  1. [Debased state]  Beer made with adjuncts and pitched at a mass audience.  Sales driven by slick marketing campaigns and gimmicks with little focus on craft, tradition, or flavor.
  2. [Reaction]  Artisanal beer, made with all-grain grists.  Sales driven exclusively by focus on beer flavor.
  3. [Diversification]  Beers that attempt to explore the full range of world styles.  Sales driven by focus on new flavors and styles.
  4. [Education]  More sophisticated beer styles and more polished recipes based on European standards.  Sales driven by focus on flavor and tradition.
  5. [Standardization]  As consumer palates evolve, favorite beer styles begin to emerge, creating a large market for a few styles (like IPAs).  Sales driven by standard styles.
  6. [Experimentation]  More exotic beers made in a variety of methods with a dazzling array of ingredients.  Sales driven by novelty.
  7. [ ??? ]  Beer made with wacky ingredients and pitched at a mass audience.  Sales driven by slick marketing campaigns and gimmicks with little focus on craft, tradition, or flavor.
Back in the 1970s, Bill Gates infused Microsoft with the ethos of not becoming IBM, a gigantic, unwieldy company that had no capacity to innovate or nimbly respond to new technologies.  In about 1995, Microsoft became IBM.  In the early 2000s, Google used "don't be evil" as a philosophical shorthand for directing the company not to become Microsoft.  (The motto was "a jab at a lot of the other companies, especially our competitors, who at the time, in our opinion, were kind of exploiting the users to some extent.")  Sometime in the last few years Google became Microsoft.

Some people were alarmed by the recent news that AB InBev was buying Long Island's Blue Point Brewing.  This marked another threat to craft brewing, so the fear goes, because it blurs the line between "craft" and "macro."  It's not entirely misplaced.  But the fear I have is that the real threat isn't from the outside; it's from craft breweries that have absorbed the business strategy the big companies had perfected by the 1970s--the very strategy that sparked craft brewing--of focusing on slick marketing and gimmicks rather than the flavor and craft of the beer.

We all become our parents, right?  That could be a problem. 


  1. Spot on. Great post. "The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, but in ourselves..."

  2. Bring back "micro" and cut the rest loose.

  3. Excuse me for being direct Alan, but what is "micro"? Am I being your straight man?

  4. I'm friends with the Rocky Mt Oyster Stout folks. It began as a video April Fools Day joke. It was not produced. The Wynkoop brand was seen as staid, so they thought a good laugh would help. I did, but then they had to make the product as promised. OhOh.

  5. IBM has a long history of innovation. They certainly did way more than copycats Microsoft ever did.

  6. Thanks for the interesting read. Not to be a speckled fish out of water but 'we' really enjoy the different tastes and sometimes (yes, gentlemen) we like to dazzled.