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Monday, December 12, 2016

Get Your David-and-Goliath Story Straight

Boak and Bailey direct our attention to a spat  that, despite its ordinariness (these debates are hundreds of years old), captivated me. It's the classic little guy versus behemoth throw-down. Perhaps I've become more sensitive to truth and reality lately, for reasons that have absolutely nothing to do with politics. In any case, the whole thing got me thinking. But first, let's pick up the debate at Honest Brew, a British beer retailer, who is battling Beer Hawk, an ABI-owned beer retailer:
You see, the honest truth about Beer Hawk is that they are owned by AB InBev, the multinational behemoth behind Budweiser. For simplicity’s sake, let’s call them Blandy. Blandy likes a world where mediocre beer is made as cheaply as possible, sold at profit-maximising prices, and where as much shelf (and online) space as possible is colonised by its own ubiquitous brands.
To which, surprise upon surprises, Beer Hawk took exception:
In fact, the change has enabled us to do a better job of hunting out the world’s best beers. We have been able to secure a warehouse five times as large and employ twice as many people. As a result, we have added 300 new beers to our stock and reduced delivery charges by nearly 30%, making all our beer even more accessible to beer lovers.
There is of course a great deal more in the arguments of both companies, and connoisseurs of the "craft versus crafty" genre of fan fiction will know them intimately. I selected these excerpts because I think they illustrate the different stories people on both sides of the debate tell themselves, and where the true drifts into projection.

Since this post doesn't lend
itself to an obvious picture,
here's glowing beer.
Let's start with the pro-indie camp. Particularly in Great Britain, where brewing gigantism is far older and more nefarious than in the US, the David and Goliath stories are shot-through with moral overtones. Big companies exist do cause harm--harm to smaller breweries they wish to crush, harm to palates they wish to destroy. That leads to sentences like this one, which contradict themselves halfway through: "Blandy likes a world where mediocre beer is made as cheaply as possible, sold at profit-maximising prices...."

On the other hand, Goliaths are no great defenders of reality-based environments. One of the first arguments any whale makes when gobbling a minnow is that this is somehow an act in service of diversity and variety. This is also laughably self-contradicting (and self-serving).

To little breweries and retailers I would say: no one is more concerned with quality than big breweries. Their empires depend on it. Furthermore, they have no interest in leading the market to any particular flavor profile (bland or otherwise); their interest lies in following customers' every whim. The great IBU drop in 1960s and '70s was not a conspiracy to crush America's palate. It followed national trends toward hyper-sweet foods and beverages. Everything got sweeter, not just beer. Now that the national palate is moving into other flavors, ABI is moving right with them. It's a habit of mind for good beer fans to think that there's a structural barrier that keeps people from drinking saisons and IPAs. There is not: people just want to drink Bud Light.

But the bigs err, um, bigly when they think all we only care about price. One of the central lessons of the "craft" backlash is that people care a lot about things like localness and invention. Little breweries are quirky and they make oddball beers. They do so because they're not chasing a market of 35 million people. Although I hate the word "innovative," it's manifestly true that all the great things about good beer we now love and celebrate have all come from little breweries. Not a single one came out of St. Louis, Golden, or Milwaukee. Were we to leave beer-brewing to them, they would quickly dump all the marginal sellers (take that, variety!) and devote R&D money to consistency and efficiency.

If I were writing the talking points for the little players, I would tell them to stick to the facts. Cynicism is born of falsehoods, intentional or un-.  For the most part, an entirely-honest PR war between little companies and big companies would be won in a landslide by the little guys. There's really no reason to make up stories about the malignant effects of big companies. Just stick with the actual stories and everything will be fine.


  1. And yet 'craft' beer is often the culprit, displaying breathless hype, disregard for facts and history, and pay-no-attention-to-the-faults-behind-the-curtain (we're LOCAL). Just today, I read that pasteurization arose only a mere few decades ago, post-truthing Louis Pasteur's 14-decades-old "Etudes sur la Biere," written in 1876).

  2. Nicely stated.

    I'll add one bit from my stint in the "innovation" industry (a bit of a contradiction in itself).

    While I agree that the consumer-facing innovations in beer largely come from small breweries, and perhaps to such a degree that was can reasonably say "all" that's a bit of a bias in terms of where to look for innovation.

    My point being, that as companies get bigger, and in the case of AB-Inbev, much, much bigger, innovation doesn't typically happen in the consumer parlance of an "offering", but rather in the system behind the scenes. And that's where we find innovation from the conglomerates - either in transportation (self-driving trucks), chemistry (lab processes), biology (disease resistance ingredients, new hops, grains, etc), logistics (refrigerated rails cars!), etc.

    And those innovations certainly support the larger system from which consumer-facing innovations, like new beer styles from small craft brewers, can spring.

  3. Not sure why that turned up as "unknown." It's your old pal Kiser.

  4. Michael, not sure why Google didn't recognize you either--Google's ways are strange indeed!

    Agreed on your comment, though--which I alluded to in my "consistency and efficiency" note.

    It is worth noting that the R&D on things drinkers care about, like the way hops impart flavors and aromas, is being conducted by the little guys. They're now paying for the research into those aspects of brewing.

  5. You might glance at the top left side banner on your blog. There you'll find an advert for a large company that introduced a popular innovation to beer. I seem to recall you writing about it.