Monday, August 22, 2011

'Big beer' and Craft beer, at odds?

As promised in my previous post, a new article to tackle a very interesting question. The large breweries (Budweiser, Coors, Miller, to name the infamous 'Big Three') are looking for inroads to profit from the booming craft beer market. I just read the half year numbers from the Brewers Association:

Boulder, CO • August 8, 2011 - The Brewers Association, the trade association representing the majority of U.S. brewing companies, has released strong mid-year numbers for America's small and independent craft brewers¹. Dollar sales were up 15 percent in the first half of 2011, excluding brewers who left the craft segment in 2010². Volume of craft brewed beer sold grew 14 percent for the first six months in 2011, compared to 9 percent growth in the first half of 2010.
Barrels sold by craft brewers for the first half of the year are an estimated 5.1 million barrels. Despite many challenges, the mid-year numbers show signs of continued growth for craft breweries. The industry currently provides an estimated 100,000 jobs, contributing significantly to the U.S. economy. (excerpt from a press release, found here)
 Seeing this continued growth, when the big breweries are seeing a continued decline, their move into the craft beer segment doesn't come as a surprise. By definition, their beers are not 'craft beer', as they are not brewed by independent breweries. Some people hate to see the large corporations trying to wiggle between the small craft breweries and take away from the profits they could (should) be making. Or that they might even drive the smaller craft breweries out of business because of their overwhelming economic power and organisation. Other people take a different view, and point out that the huge success and nationwide distribution and marketing of, say, Blue Moon, has helped a growing number of people who would otherwise never stray from their mass produced lager to try something new. In this case a Belgian style White. Which then opens up the door to all the other craft beers. Many bartenders will undoubtedly be able to tell you about people at their bar asking: 'Hey, I really like Blue Moon, what else like that do you have?'

Some people would even go as far as to point at Hoegaarden, and say that since they are owned by InBev, who also owns Anheuser-Busch, that Hoegaarden is not craft beer. Well, it isn't, it is Belgian beer. When InBev tried to relocate the brewery from the original brewery in idyllic Hoegaarden, in the Flemish part Belgium, an uproar of discontent and even a difference in taste brought it back really quickly. So corporately owned? Definitely, that is indisputable. But therefore any less tasty and important? I would disagree with that.

The size of a brewery is not important. What should matter is the quality of the beers they make, the efforts they support in maintaining and fostering a diverse and quality drinking culture. I can only applaud that the big breweries are recognizing that there is more to beer than watering down lagers to the cheapest and most singular form possible. In a way, they are admitting defeat. The single pebble from David lodged in Goliath's forehead. What they are saying is that there is so much more to beer than what they have to offer. And there is no way that any single brewery can satisfy the huge diverse range of different tastes that American beer drinkers have developed over the last few decades. Their attempts to get into the market will only serve to give craft beer a broader appeal, bring it to more drinkers who would never have tried new, more tasty beers. And that is where this creates a golden opportunity for craft breweries: make great beers, that can appeal to everyone. Not necessarily very courageous new, style definition redefining brews, but superb examples of established styles. Beers that everyone can enjoy, and that can become standards for their respective styles. Become 'comfort beers'.

Gravensteencantus, beer and culture in perfect marriage, celebrating
the KVHV student club's occupation of the castle in the heart of Ghent.
The wonderfully new and bold off-centered beers have conquered for themselves a place to stay. There will always be a place for the small local nano-breweries, brewpubs, and the larger craft breweries who devote themselves to pushing the envelope. This as well I applaud and am thrilled about! But we need to understand that the American craft beer movement was a reaction against bland mass produced lagers. As such, they will (and have) go all the way to the other extreme, before there will be a natural move to a more balanced approach, where the distinction between 'mass beer' and 'craft beer' will blur into the artificial distinction it really is. Beer is beer. People want not just good beer, but great beer. Beer is culture, and the brewery that manages to evoke that 'joy-de-vivre' in celebrating life with friends and good beer, will always thrive. Beer is social, so the small brewery in the neighborhood will locally always have the advantage over even the biggest brewery in the world. Lets not overly focus on the definition and the distinctions, but indeed promote quality in beer and the culture of enjoying that quality in good company. That is what beer is about. And it so happens that this is what Saint William is all about. Live life to the full, but balanced. So go out, and savor the legend!


Do you agree or not? We are very interested to hear your comments and opinion, so let us know!

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