Should we Fear Big Beer?

Eons ago, when I first became a craft beer drinker, I watched the documentary Beer Wars. Like many other documentaries it warned us about the evils of mass-production, globalization and monopolies while highlighting the David and Goliath like struggles of little companies against the big guys that are out to squash them. Beer Wars spoke of the big brewers buying up retail space to highlight their brand, throwing millions of dollars into ad campaigns designed to fog the mind and tug at the heart strings (thanks Simpsons) or at least stimulate the thirst centres of our brains, manipulating distribution in a Machiavellian fashion and just generally being jerks.

 

Beer Thirst Poster

 

But when you get right down to things is Big Beer a threat to the craft beer industry (and oh yes it is an industry)? Are we even talking about competition for the same market? Does Big Beer put under many up-and-coming craft brewers today? If there are restrictions holding back the craft beer industry who or what is responsible?

 

If we look to history as our teacher when beer production first emerged there were many small players but through competition and consolidation Big Beer emerged to dominate and unfortunately homogenize the beer scene. As Big Beer continued its slow and steady march towards mediocrity it is true that many small breweries fell victim to its expansion BUT in these cases we were almost always speaking about small breweries that had been established for many years succumbing to outside pressures not emergent craft brewers selling out to the highest bidder.

 

Beer Taps

 

If the 1970’s were a veritable wasteland for beer lovers, the 1990’s bore the brunt of developing small breweries who attempted to start at the top and dominate this re-emergence of craft beer enthusiasts; however, the big business tactics that worked so well for the top three did not fit this new beer culture. Early missteps fostered an environment for the sustainable growth of craft beer as quality became a mantra, loyal customers supported the small breweries and business sense was tempered first and foremost by the aforementioned traits.

 

Total Breweries

 

If the craft beer movement as we know it today emerged as the antithesis of Big Beer than no one can argue that craft beer has made astonishing progress. There are new breweries opening faster than bloggers can commentate, craft beer is increasingly popping up on the menus at local restaurants and pubs, craft beer festivals, communities of home brewers, beer judging etc. etc. etc. all indicate that craft beer has created not a niche market but rather a viable and thriving alternative market to the big beer complex. If the Big Beer market has become stagnant craft beer market is a bottle conditioned beauty brimming with possibilities.

 

Alibi Room Samples

When it gets right down to it I am not sure Big Beer and craft beer could even be considered to be in direct competition with one another. I mean, honestly, do you know anyone who goes to their local beer store and cannot decide between Labatt’s Blue and Driftwood’s Fat Tug IPA? Are Molson and Parallel 49 really in competition for the rights to distribution at your local arena? Is Brewery Creek worried about allocating enough floor space to 24’s of Lucky Lager that R&B Brewing is in danger of being pushed out of the market?

 

Perhaps our biggest fear should be the feeble attempts of Big Beer to market faux-craft offerings but to any savvy beer lover (one with taste buds and a smartphone) there really is no danger of mistaking Molson Canadian with a old-time bike on the label as a craft beer.

If you really want to get right to the heart of the matter the biggest obstacles to the continued growth of the craft beer industry have more to do with local, provincial and federal laws and regulations than direct competition from Big Beer. Convincing Big Beer drinkers to make the switch …well that’s a whole other blog post.

 

*Thanks to CNN for the tap handle photo and the Brewers Association for the craft beer charts.

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2 responses to “Should we Fear Big Beer?

  • Paul Hodgson

    Good subject to bring up; beer is big business, I’ve been an enthusiast for decades now, and have more than a dozen books on the subject.

    Historically, there seems to have been a trend – particularly in the US and Canada – for artisan brewers to spring up, gain a small market share, then expand on this until they’re becoming a major player (that would still typically mean less than 5 or 10 percent of the total industrial output) at which point they’re assimilated into one of the mega-beer corporations. This has been a repeating cycle for a long time, and has only led to a restriction of tastes and choices – particularly edging beer drinkers back toward what I would call ‘sweet’ beers vs ‘flavourful’ beers. Then, after a while, the unique beer flavours disappear, either being transmogrified into something quite different – Budweiser being a case in point – or quashed, as with Shaftebury ESB. (Come to think of it, once the big corporation – I think it was Molson/O’Keefe – paid those guys more than they could refuse for their business, eliminating their superb ESB was only a first step toward wiping out their company name and product line.)

    This assimilation of small brewers is ongoing, and nothing we can do about it (except to patronize them and their products … )

    But maybe that’s why in recent years, whilst the process goes on – whether it be Sleemans or Okanagan, they’re actually just Molson products, if I’m not mistaken – those big brewers have been realizing that current trends don’t necessarily favour stamping out the competition and removing them, when they can build on the name and distinction that that same small brewer has established; thereafter, carefully homogenizing the taste (while cutting ingredient costs by subtle changes) so that hopefully nobody will notice.

    Granville Island Brewery got going with a very good lager. Built on this. And as of a few years ago, their summer released Hefeweizen was second to none in the market, while their Winter Solstice ale was one of the finest brews of the winter to look forward to. These days, both have completely lost their original fine balance; the Hefeweizen is middling, the Winter Solstice totally overwhelmed by vanilla.

    Beer distribution, in terms of cost/marketing, is highly significant from a business point of view; doesn’t matter whether you’re Red Hook in Seattle or St Austell in Cornwall UK (both of which have become major players in this – and while I’m thinking about it, what the hell happened to Red Hook ESB, it just ain’t the same, neither so there). So that factors in.

    So my perception is that the assimilation and acquisition of the high quality independent craft brewers continues, with the significant change being that they cheapen/sweeten the ingredient mix, whilst keeping the ‘badge’ so that foolish beer drinkers with no developed taste can hook up with what they think is their own unique beer …

    Anybody want an Alexander Keith’s IPA?

  • mikescraftbeer

    Thanks for this post! A very well written and interesting article. Big beer is just evil although I would agree that they are not in direct competition. I look forward to your next post!

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