Beer Theory is a monthly series that exists where geekdom relents. It’s the cross between prose, poetry, philosophy, and spilling a beer on your keyboard. Look for it the last Friday of every month.
For those of us familiar with the craft beer renaissance, this might come across as a joke, but after many travels and random conversations throughout the US of A, it seems as though the most common question still asked of fans of craft beer (and those trying to open a brewery) is: how will small breweries that brew “very bitter,” “dark,” and “strong” ales and lagers ever compete with the cheap domestic lagers that everyone knows as popular beer.
Craft beer’s success can be greatly attributed to a sense of honesty between the brewery and the consumer.
To this, I have only one answer: craft beer has done its part, and it’s now up to the macro-lager brewers to reclaim their lost customers.
Budweiser, Miller High Life, Coors Original, Pabst, Grain Belt, Hamm’s, Lone Star, Old Milwaukee, Rainier, Utica Club (to name a few); it’s all the same story – a consumer typically drinks these beers due to a location-based connection, a familiarity with the brand, and, perhaps more than anything, basic financial concerns. These connections and budgets are all well and good, and I’ll rarely throw any of these brands under the bus, but I’ll absolutely convey the mindset that these beers are now considered inferior to craft beer, and often only purchased for their constantly-reduced price point.
The backseat speculator might ask (as many of those who claim to know a thing or two about beer might attest), that there must be a bubble ready to burst. As if craft beer, housing prices, and gas and oil speculation all share a common tendency to implode.
Simply put: there is no comparison. Craft beer is perhaps America’s last great industry, and one that can’t be trivialized, exported, or manipulated without the ever-aware consumer taking notice. Craft beer is what people search out due to the fact that they live in the same neighborhood as the brewery and take pride in supporting a local business; or they’re beer geeks looking for new spots to visit and new beers to judge and dissect; or they’re just in town visiting family and looking to try something a little more flavorful or adventurous than Michelob Ultra. More than anything, craft beer’s success can be greatly attributed to a sense of honesty between the brewery and the consumer, or if viewed through the eyes of a marketing department: a sense of brand loyalty built less upon million-dollar advertisements and more on a feeling of closeness and community.
Also take into account that the big lager breweries try ever so hard to manipulate the market with craft beers of their own (i.e. Blue Moon, Shock Top, and the Craft Brewers Alliance of Redhook, Kona, Omission, and Widmer, in which Budweiser holds a formidable stake), and you start to visualize a marketplace where the producers of the bare-bones American lagers we’ve long-familiarized ourselves with are slowly (and somewhat sadly) looking to gain ground on the aforementioned “very bitter,” “dark,” and “strong” ales and lagers we as fans of craft beer might have previously drank on a daily basis – or hoarded in the darkest depths of our basements and closets.
More than anything, the current state of beer in America is one of a growing craft segment, and as much as people might think the major domestic lagers still run the game based on volume, the fact of the matter is craft beer is now the beer industry’s driving force. At this point, the big boys’ best resort would be to swallow their pride, keep brewing the incredibly consistent beer they’ve made for decades, and resign themselves to the fact that craft beer is slowing finding its way into every nook and cranny of consumer culture while the big dogs find themselves consumed in corporate struggle and failing to meet the needs of the ever-evolving American palate.