Saturday 18 October 2014

Craft Beer in a Post-Craft World

A pair of blog posts over at Jeff Alworth's Beervana (here and here) has roused me from current torpor with a few observations. In fact, this started as a comment on the blog, but quickly spiralled out of control.

The first thought is that although there is a big difference in the legislation between the UK and US markets (see here for a summary of the US three tier system. In the UK, this doesn't exist), it seems as though in practice it doesn't make any difference. So when Jeff writes "But having an invisible layer in between the producer and retailer also offers an opportunity for hard-to-stop corruption", the important word in that sentence is "opportunity". In practice, this doesn't happen, it just adds another layer of sweeteners and kickbacks.

The big problem is that whenever anyone writes about the beer business, the tend to focus on the "sexy" bit - the beer - at the expense of the "dull" bit - the business. These two, as we've seen from Dann Paquette's accusations, are inseparable. You can make great beer, as in my opinion Pretty Things do, but if you can't get it to drinkers, why bother?

But this isn't anything new. In conversation with Garrett Oliver in (I think) 2007, he listed a few bars in New York who would call the Brooklyn Brewery regularly and say that they had a line available if the brewery wanted to let them have a few free kegs. Garrett's response when asked "What have you got for us?" was always "Great beer at a fair price". But if anyone thinks this sort of integrity will carry on as the number of craft breweries continues to rise, in the UK, the US and worldwide, think again. Have a look at what Sam Calagione says here. Anecdotally, every small brewer in the UK has a story about being undercut by another brewer offering cheaper beer of lesser quality, or worse still, being told by landlords and beer buyers that quality is less important than price.

You can expect a lot more of this as we move into the post-craft era. Uh-oh, there's a buzz-phrase that's going to annoy a few people. But heads up, because here's some bigger news. Beer isn't going to get any better than it is now. I know, that's quite a rash prediction, but the beer business is going to stop being about beer, and become more about business.

Beer isn't going to get any better than it is now. That doesn't sound very sexy, does it? It will get more consistent, more reliable, but ultimately, the technology of craft beer - focusing on quality and flavour without cutting corners to maximise profits -  has reached endgame. There is nowhere else to go. What this means is that craft beer will have to focus on the dull business of making great, reliable beer, giving people what they want every time. In short, they will become big brands, go mainstream, and flood the country - the world! - with great tasting, flavourful beer, free of production flaws, tasting the same every time you buy it. This is exactly what the top tier of UK craft beer producers has done - build a brand built around consistency and great tasting beer. Once the beer is good enough, you have to focus on the business end of things. Price. Distribution. Brand-building.

Beer isn't going to get any better than it is now. It will be cleaner, more consistent, more reliable, less of a lottery. You might not like it, but Punk IPA will become the craft beer movement's Carling - a best seller, reliable, widely available, and reasonable priced. It's already happened. We all screamed "Judas!" when Punk IPA appeared in Tesco, but Bob Dylan's response to being called Judas was to simply say "I don't believe you, you're a liar" before telling his band to "Play it fucking loud!", and never looking back.

For earlier discussions of post-craft beer, please see Boak and Bailey, Pete Brown, The Pub Curmudgeon, and Justin Mason. They all (in the nicest possible way) focus on the sexy beer bit rather than the dull business bit.