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Devil’s Advocate: Brewer’s Association

Periodically, the Brewer’s Association releases statements that I find a little bit suspect. This is mostly because they’re a lobbying group and their purpose is being optimistic about craft beer. I’m all for defending your own interest. After all, does it not say in the Talmud, “If I am not for myself, then who will be for me?” Good advice.

The thing is this: You should always be skeptical of an overwhelmingly positive statement released by a lobbying group’s staff economist. This should be self-evident, especially when it’s released as a PR move. I don’t mean to be an Agnew style nattering nabob of negativism, but I’d like to comb through some of the points that are being made in today’s BA press release, titled The Craft Beer (Non) Bubble.

The first thing that should be pointed out is that the graph representing the non-bubble argument is entirely misleading. For the obvious reason that it dwarfs the scale of the growth of craft breweries in the United States, the economist has chosen to compare the current situation of craft breweries in the United States with the NASDAQ dot com boom of the late 1990’s. This is nonsensical because the NASDAQ chart represents a monetary increment rather than a number of companies. Additionally, the Dotcom bubble may have subsequently depressed the NASDAQ, but it’s relatively clear from the graph that the market had stabilized by month 31 or so. Given that the chart runs from October 1998 to June 2004, and that the market seems to have stabilized from that bubble by approximately June of 2001, I think we have to attribute the subsequent drop in the market to an alternate cause. Probably it has something to do with the events of September 11, 2001. At any rate, the graph is bogus. If you listed the number of NASDAQ member companies, it would make more sense as a comparison but it wouldn’t prove anything.

So, the BA staff economist is representing the number of breweries in terms of monetary value on a non realistic timeline. The graph is irrelevant.

Secondly, “Everyone should stop talking and/or worrying about the number of breweries.” This is apparently because that number includes Brewpubs. This is a pointless obfuscation of the problem which conflicts data the BA has issued previously. According to the BA’s own stats, the number of brewpubs operating in 2011 was 1068. In 2012, 1132. By June, it was 1165. Those are increases of approximately 6%, year over year. That’s not really the massive expansion that he makes it out to be. Comparatively, 315 microbreweries opened between 2011 and 2012. As of June 2013, there were another 107, bringing the total to 1221. According to the BA itself, there are 1250 American breweries in planning. You’re realistically looking at an approximate 100% increase in breweries between 2011 and 2016. Isn’t that worrying? Think about how many additional brands that will create.

The answer provided to this issue? Don’t think about it. The numbers don’t matter. Until we know how much beer they’re making, it’s irrelevant. Never mind that this interpretation doesn’t jibe with the widely touted information on expansion that is frequently used to point out the segment’s expansion.

Thirdly, “It is much more relevant to talk about capacity and/or market share.” His points on capacity are essentially unassailable because they contain no concrete numerical information about volume being produced.  Market share on the other hand:

“That leads us to market share.  How long can craft keep gobbling up share points at the rate of 1 or 2 points a year?  The answer: as long as the consumer demand for full-flavored beer continues, and it shows no signs of slowing.  The craft revolution isn’t just built on innovative businesses, it stems primarily from a changing set of consumer preferences away from light adjunct lagers and toward full-flavored beers for more occasions.  Some of this demand is being met by new brands from large brewers, but market statistics continue to show that the vast majority is being met by local craft brewers.”

Essentially, everything will be fine as long as the consumer keeps wanting what they’re selling. They will continue to expand in market share as long as consumers want fuller flavoured beers. The fact that large brewers are now producing fuller flavored beers to compete seems rather less reassuring than it is intended to be. That seems like it could be a growth limiting factor and it is hand waved away.

What if, he goes on to say, everyone who drinks craft beer drank an extra craft beer a month? Well, that’d be a 2.7% market share bump right there. If they drank an extra beer a week, it’d be 11.7% market share to the good. Well, brother, that’s a whole lot of if in a country whose per capita consumption has been declining steadily for years.

All of this, he continues, is based on the quality of beers made by new breweries. If everything remains of high quality, everything will be fine. Define what the hell you mean by high quality, and maybe you’d have a cogent argument. As it stands, we get this:

Brewers that enter a more crowded market without high quality beers that differentiate them from the field will soon discover the harsh realities of the sector: increasingly crowded shelf-space, existing competitors with greater access to capital and/or technical knowledge, and global players that are increasingly carrying full-flavored, locally-targeted brands of their own.

Just for my own edification, would you please point out how brewers that enter a crowded market WITH high quality beers will not suffer from exactly the same problems of overcrowding and competition from all of the other companies in the market that are doing more or less the same thing? How is it any different, especially when you’re not defining what you mean by high quality? This is what you call developing a narrative structure. If you find in a few years that we are in a bubble and that things are not going well, we’re set up to blame the “low quality” of new entrants to the market. Suddenly, there’s a scapegoat, just in case. The staggeringly obvious thing is that there are 1250 new breweries in planning and they will begin to exist in short order. There is already in place a mechanism to blame them should things go bad.

He finishes by comparing breweries to restaurants. Again with the apples and oranges NASDAQ strategy.

Think again about restaurants, how many close every year – does that mean we are in a restaurant bubble?

Total logical fallacy. A moderately sized restaurant might do 300 covers a day. It feeds people in a local catchment area. A restaurant does not attempt to ship its steak au poivre to another state. Even in the case of chain restaurants like McDonald’s, they have to produce the food on site. That is in no way similar to a brewery.

Finally, it is worth noting that as craft develops further, a more mature market means that volume growth will inevitably slow and some entrants will fail.  But, slowing growth or a rising rate of closings doesn’t mean a bubble has burst.  At a certain point, a growing base means that 10 or 15% volume growth becomes more and more difficult, as the same percentage rate requires a greater growth in barrels produced every year.

This is not wrong, but notice how it expertly manages to cushion expectations. He acknowledges that a contraction is coming, but downplays the term bubble. This release is more or less an exercise in semantics. It’s an attempt to control the message by shrinking the expectation of growth that the Brewers Association’s numbers bear out. It is at best a caveat.

Craft Vs. Crafty

For a long time now, I’ve been thinking about the craft beer vs. crafty beer problem. While it has really only sprung up as a discourse over the last week, you would have to have been blind not to see the issue coming.

The problem here is that large breweries are putting together craft brands like Ten and Blake and Six Pints and they’re making beer that falls pretty solidly in the craft category. It puts people in an odd position where they have to ask questions about authenticity and it makes everyone involved in the discussion look like ridiculous scenesters quibbling over detail.

The problem is that this debate about whether something is a craft beer is more or less inevitable. Look at something like Goose Island or Granville Island. The people who founded the breweries wanted to go and do other things and they sold their companies. On some level it must have been heartbreaking to do. You put your entire career into building something and then at the end you have all of this capital and time sunk into something that has been helped along by a community that enjoys your product. You have to sell it in order to retire.

The odd part is semantic. Say it was a potato chip factory instead of a brewery. You’d never blame a potato chip magnate for selling out. Beer has taken on some kind of emotional significance to a portion of the population and this kind of thing feels enough like betrayal to promote angry messages on internet forums.

I find myself wondering whether the problem is essentially economic. Until the 1980’s there weren’t many small breweries. Since prohibition, large breweries had simply consolidated breweries that they purchased and reduced the number of brands available in order to become more profitable. Brewing is a business, never forget, and that model is a really good model. Not for beer drinkers, necessarily, but if you’re a huge corporation and you want to maximize profit, being the only game in town is a good way to go about it.

The craft breweries are a response as much to a global business model as they are a response to bland macro beer. In the face of huge multinational brands like Budweiser, which represent a global trend towards a single monolithic product, craft beers made locally are a response to unsated demand. Not only do they promote local business, provide employment and a sense of place, they reinforce the idea that manufacture is not dead within North America. If you look at the 2000 microbreweries in the US and the 150-200 in Canada, there is a lot of tertiary economic activity that surrounds them. You need equipment and chemicals and packaging and design and social media and advertising and…. Well, you get the idea.

There’s an economic theory that states that the health of an economy can be determined by the flow of capital through the marketplace. Given the pressures of the 2008 recession and peoples’ fondness for a refreshing beverage during hard times, this probably explains why the craft brewing industry has done relatively well during the last few years.  It’s very difficult to know where your money would end up if you bought a case of Budweiser. When you buy a craft beer, you know that you’re supporting a locally owned business. Craft beer supports local economies.

(It would be disingenuous to say that macro beer doesn’t support local economies. Imagine what would happen if the plant in Golden, Colorado shut down. If the Molson Downsview plant shut down there would be a lot of people out of work. What I’m suggesting is that not ALL of the purchase price of a macro brew goes to support local economies. There are huge parent companies to be considered.)

“Crafty” beer is the price that Craft Beer inevitably pays for its success. It is, however, at a significant disadvantage. It frequently does not have a sense of place associated with it. It almost never has a face associated with the brand.

The thing that I am continually baffled by is that people are drawing a line in the sand based on some aesthetic or intangible principle as to what craft beer is. This is an inefficient and, to be honest, downright silly way of going about the problem. Consider THIS letter from the August Schell brewery to the Brewers Association. I can certainly appreciate that the BA guidelines are fairly stringent when it comes to the use of adjunct in brewing. However, given the larger atmosphere at the moment, a situation in which “crafty” beers are going to continue coming down the pipe inexorably, there are other angles to be considered.

The problem here is that with multinationally owned brewers attempting to produce “crafty” beers that consumers may not be educated enough to differentiate from their Brewer’s Association approved “craft” counterparts, the delineation between the two products based on flavour ceases to be a reliable indicator of authenticity.

If you look at Yuengling or August Schell or say, Moosehead, these are all independently owned breweries that contribute massively to their local economies. They have a sense of place. They have representative faces and visibility and every single one of them is branching out into more interesting products. Aside from the adjunct issue, they fulfill basically every requirement for craft breweries. Perhaps most importantly, they contribute to the local or national economy in a nearly identical way to a craft brewery.

I would venture that the real battle here is not flavour based, but rather a struggle between economic forces and corporations that are globally relevant and locally relevant respectively. People like the idea that their beer is identifiably brewed by someone; that it supports the local economy in a demonstrable and tangible way.

The simple fact of the matter is that eventually, large multinational breweries and their subsidiaries will be able to produce beer that tastes like craft beer. They cannot, however, reproduce independent ownership. If this is the battle line that is currently being drawn, would the Brewer’s Association not re-examine their guidelines and allow large regional brewers like Yuengling a place within their ranks?

It seems to me that an alliance of independent brewers rather than craft brewers within a single nation has one very definite strength: We can discuss for hours the various nuances of what makes something craft. Ownership resides indelibly on a balance sheet.