If you’re a fan of “True Detective,” you’re probably familiar with this final scene from season one (It’s the last line of the season, so possible minor spoiler if you haven’t seen it). Matthew McConaughey’s last line is one way I feel about the craft beer industry these days. It’s been a long battle, but the good guys are prevailing. Where I’m getting fed up is the battle lines being drawn in the sand at this point. According to plenty of craft beer “evangelists,” “purists” and whatever other nomenclature these bored-ass motherfuckers come up with, Big Beer is more evil than pure devil semen on the chin of a demon that is ripping the head off a puppy, only to use that puppy’s head to beat a kitten to death. Statements like this are overkill in our modern beer age.
I’m going to come right out and say this: without Big Beer, the rest of the domestic beer industry would implode.
Some say Big Beer uses its massive influence to steal prime shelf space, push around distributors and generally suppress craft beer from reaching a wider audience. Others claim they gobble up raw materials like hops and grains to try and block craft brewers from making their beers. Some feel they use the incomprehensible power of marketing to convince us their beer is the only one we should be drinking, and we live richer, fuller lives.
These are just the first three arguments that pop into my head, so before I dive into a quick three-part analysis, I think we should look at some facts. These numbers I’m about to share aren’t new, and certainly not secret. They’re taken directly from a report on the Brewer’s Association website. In 2013, the total beer market was $100 billion and totalled 196,241,321 barrels produced. That’s a lot of six packs. Beer sales as whole were down 1.9% over 2012. The import of beer was also down by 0.6%. Despite these stats, the portion of the industry now considered to be craft in nature was actually up by 17.2% while the export of craft beer was up by 49%. Uh, that’s pretty impressive. Ask any business if they would like to increase market share by 17% in a down market and you’d have to fight their boner back with a fencing sword.
Now, here are my thoughts on the three arguments listed earlier:
- They use their influence to occupy prime shelf space and muscle around distributors
Boo fucking hoo. This would be a great argument if we weren’t one of the most educated generations of shoppers the world has ever seen. Rarely does one walk into a beer store and buy simply the only beer that is at eye level. Many people have some sort of idea of what they want, even if that idea is as broad as “I want a craft beer today.” If you want to cite craft vs. crafty, here are my thoughts on that topic.
- They cock block craft brewers by buying up raw materials
You know what the cool thing about supply shortages in America is? IT CREATES OPPORTUNITIES. Yes, the American dream does still exist, albeit not how we envisioned it 50 years ago. Raise your hand if you remember the great hop shortage of 2007 and 2008. My hand is up. That’s when I started homebrewing in Michigan. Over the years, I witnessed hundreds of acres of vineyards convert to hops. According to data on usahops.org, the amount of acreage designated to hops harvesting has grown by just under 5,000 acres since 2007, and the annual US yield of hops has increased by 10.5 million pounds in that same time span. Sierra Nevada has worked out its own deal with grain growers (even if it is in Canada, but they can use the help) to supply their needs, and while I didn’t look up specific data, you can bet your ass this industry is growing and will continue to do so as the demand increases. Those pesky guys in Big Beer! Helping to grow thriving industries!
- They use their huge marketing budgets to brainwash people
As a man who’s worked in marketing positions for nearly 10 years, I feel like I can safely say no one trusts that shit anymore. Sure, it might spawn some recognition but modern marketing is all about engaging customers and educating them. Craft beer, and all those craft beer geeks, are doing that in spades. We aren’t the blind cattle consumers we were even 10 years ago. As I said in point #1, we are far and away the most educated group of consumers in history. Their huge marketing spend is the most pungent of the desperation aromas coming off of Big Beer right now.
So these Big Beer guys are losing both market and market share. Naturally they are going to shit their pants and do whatever they can to stay in business. When was the last time you heard a multi-billion dollar company shrug their shoulders and say, “Meh, fuck it. They got us good!”? Probably never. So AB starts snatching up breweries like Goose Island, Blue Point and 10 Barrels. MillerCoors expands their already established–and successful–Blue Moon brand. They fight for the best shelf space with their distributors because they know they can. They make commercials and try to brainwash us like it’s fucking A Clockwork Orange. Does desperation really make you that evil or just, you know, desperate? I mean, they aren’t even getting creative.
I guess the question remaining is what is my point, and what do I really want, right? I want people to stop being so combative about the beer industry and turning it into an “Us versus Them” type of fight. It might have made sense 10 years ago since the general public still wouldn’t know a craft beer if it bit them in the dick, but times have changed. That attitude, coupled with the elitist attitudes is really making beer an intolerable trend to want to explore for curious beer drinkers. All of the passion, community and fun is being sucked right the fuck out of it before our very eyes.
Sure Big Beer was allowed to run amok and unchallenged for damn near 75 years after Prohibition, but who really thinks we can undo seven and a half decades of damage in anything short of several more decades of work? Here’s a thought: what happens if they suddenly did disappear? Demand skyrockets. There will be a supply gap of 153,399,125 domestic barrels so we’d either need to start importing like motherfuckers, nix exports and figure out how to ramp up 2,500 small breweries to meet that capacity immediately, or we can watch a six pack of pale ale skyrocket to God knows what price. Think whalez are hard to find now? Good luck getting a simple pilsner.
Tens of thousands of jobs will be lost, the lack of production will annihilate hop and grain farmers and by the time our army of small brewers ramp up production, the supplier infrastructure that had been built up over the years would be gone. Poof. We’d have to start the process all over again. Hello more hop shortages. Just one setback after another. Then by the time we get back to the production that we already had, interest from the general public will have disappeared. Fucking wiped off the face of the planet. They’ll have moved on to wine and all us beer bloggers will be like, “Yep, the Wench was right.”
But in my mind, the numbers don’t lie. Craft is chipping away slowly and surely. Can’t we all just get along and watch the slow death spiral of Big Beer. “The way I see it, the light is winning.” It might not be the pace people want to see, but it’s happening at an increasing rate. So instead of polarizing people and making the beer culture a hard pill to swallow, let’s just keep fighting the good fight. Let’s try to avoid doing that typical human thing of taking a fundamentally good concept, and turning it into something people can’t stand by pushing personal beliefs onto those just trying to learn and get enjoyment out of something they think they might enjoy.