Okay, opinions are like bungholes in that every brewer (with a barrel program) has several if not many, so as requested by Daniel, a recent commenter on the Creeping Crap in Craft Beer post, I’m going to delve into the topic of “Big Beer” with the help of some local San Diego craft beer brewers. This entire conversation was sparked by the announcement by AB InBev pwned (it’s not a typo) 10 Barrel Brewing of their intent to open a facility in the East Village.
Just to set the stage, Daniel’s comment read in part, “What I’d love to see is an article summarizing the reasons why we should oppose big beer.” You mean other than the fact it can be a somewhat mundane experience for your palate? Let’s see what the brewers think.
One of the more outspoken voices I’ve encountered on the matter is undoubtedly Mike Hess, so it seems appropriate to have him kick it off:
“What the argument is that it’s confusing to consumers… This goes to the ‘craft, not craft discussion’. And, it’s almost like a trademark thing. If craft brewers have, if you will, trademarked craft beer and we own it, then 10 Barrel, who is owned by AB/InBev shouldn’t be able to call themselves a craft brewery. And I’m not a fan of 10 Barrel coming in here but there’s 115 other breweries [as of the time of our conversation] we’re already competing against so, it’s one more but the difference is they come in with an essentially unlimited budget…”
From a practical standpoint, I think the key takeaway here is the “unlimited budget” portion of Mike’s comments… Loosely translated, 10 Barrel probably isn’t under any pressure to actually be profitable from their East Village location in the early going. You can do A LOT of things to challenge the competition when you don’t have to actually make money. Big Beer 1, Craft Beer 0 due to financial advantage.
Former Monkey Paw (and South Park) Brewer Cosimo Sorrentino was uniquely positioned to directly observe the effects of the presence of The Dark Side as Ab/InBev had chosen what was practically his doorstep as the site for their incursion.
“Obviously it’s easy to attack that and the big box kind of mentality. …beer for me is nearly an every day experience so a good portion of my time, my effort, my money goes into it. I would hope that if you are someone who does drink beer on a regular basis, a little bit of effort paying attention to where your dollars [are] going, you know, making your decisions based on what you like but also on who makes it and the quality of the ingredients and that kind of thing. …beer is such a regular purchase for me it’s one thing I pay a lot of attention to. I would hope that you could take a little effort and even dive deeper and support someone that’s closer to your location. You’re getting fresher beer (and can provide) honest feedback, constructive criticism to that person [the brewery] letting them know what you’re looking for… Really diving in and paying attention to the day to day of where the money’s going and taking it deeper than just saying Budweiser, Elysian, 10 Barrel, those guys are bad.”
I think Cosimo’s point here hinges largely on how you view your beer consumption… If you’re simply looking for a means to an end then you could conceivably go drink a bottle of mouthwash and still get where you’re going if the possibility of going blind doesn’t concern you. Then again, if you’re the socially conscious type, why WOULDN’T you consider where your money is going and why wouldn’t you want to support your local craftsmen? Craft Beer 1, Big Beer 0 on the topic of supporting local commerce.
Supporting local commerce is a pretty big deal when you consider that according to Peter Zien at Alesmith, it took him about twelve years before his brewery actually became profitable:
“I cried on my knees in despair in front of fermenting beer saying, ‘What have I done? Is this going to work? Why am I working 14 hour days just so I can write a paycheck to my two employees out of my own personal checking account? Is this happening? [But] I’m not going to criticize anyone or any business decisions… People want to sell their breweries, that’s up to them. It’s a very personal decision. Believe me, I know… I stay focused on my job and what I need to do to keep Alesmith on the forefront of craft beer… I think it’s very flattering they’re buying up our breweries. I wish they’d take it easy on some of those commercials though but… We’re in their sight now and for years they just ignored us. Now we’ve [the craft beer industry] come into focus. They’re still selling a lot more beer than us but now, here we are at almost 20% market share. No one really believed that would ever really happen… I play nice, I’m the good guy out there. Anheuser Busch or the other big boys want to come play in my backyard? Bring your ‘A’ game, make the beer good. I have faith in our customers, I have faith in craft beer drinkers that they know the difference and if they don’t enjoy a beer, they’re going to push it aside, they’re going to buy my beer or another quality made craft beer…”
This one looks like a wash: Big Beer 0, Craft Beer 0 in that Zien is clearly not worried one way or the other. Perhaps in the end, he’s offered the most sage wisdom of all in that the smart play is for craft brewers to stay focused on making the finest product possible and not worry too much about what “the other guy” is doing, Big Beer or not.
So, did we answer Daniel’s question as to why Big Beer should be opposed? Probably not… But hopefully we provided some additional info that will help Daniel and others make up their own minds from a more informed position.
Me personally? I think it’s obvious where my allegiance resides 😉