When is a craft beer not a craft beer?
Oh, now you’ve stepped in it.
Whereas once you just had to look for longnecks with graphic labels and quirky names to distinguish your independent outfits from the big brewers, that easy distinction has become as cloudy as a pint of freshly drawn, locally brewed Hefeweizen in the past few years.
The increasingly common experience of buying a pint and knowing that your money is going toward paying the salaries of people who live in your community (not to mention contiributing to the local tax base) might not be such a thorough rebuke of the multinational beverage industry as it may seem. Rather, your responsible drinking could be helping to teach those old dogs new tricks.
As Denis Wilson detailed in Fortune last month, the big names in brewing (we don’t have to tell you who they are—you see an ad or billboard or T-shirt or bar sign for their products every, like, 1.2 seconds) have been sneakily infiltrating the craft beer market, whether through acquisitions of formerly independent breweries or by launching their own lookalike “craft” brands.
“The large brewers have been using a variety of tactics to basically try to capitalize on some of the mystique and success in the marketplace that craft brewers are having,” Paul Gatza, director of the Brewer's Association, a national trade group for independent brewers, tells Fortune. “That these labels don't proudly say Anheuser-Busch or MillerCoors on them is to some degree a chancy proposition. To some beer drinkers out there, they won't care. To others, they will care and probably won't feel so good if they feel like they were duped by the large brewers.”
Indeed, despite the utter ubiquity of their advertising, Big Beer is facing a market that’s anything but frothy. Sales for their products are pretty flat, declining by 1.3 percent last year, according to Fortune. But craft brews saw a 13-percent leap in sales.
The craft-beer craze seems to know no bounds; even Crate & Barrel’s holiday catalogue has a two-page spread devoted to special glasses designed to complement your favorite craft brew.
That kind of trendy buzz is likely to get attention of any CEO—and his or her checkbook. Annheuser-Busch now owns Goose Island Brewing, Coors hawks Blue Moon, etc. etc. And while these companies may plaster their names all over every stadium and sports bar across the country, you won’t find such aggressive corporate branding anywhere on their so-called “craft” products.
You might think, then, that genuine craft brewers would be banding together in solidarity beneath the twin banners of independence and authenticity. But alas, no. At least not according to a recent story over at Shanken News Daily. Instead, some craft brewers are starting to sound a lot like their market-obsessed Big Beer counterparts.
At issue is the popularity of beer rotation. The idea is that a small, hip pub, which wants to lure a hip, craft-beer-loving clientele, serves up a rotating selection of brews, with new kegs from different breweries tapped every week or even every day.
Fun, right? Diversity is the spice of life and all that.
Wrong. At least if you’re Bob Sullivan, vice president of sales and marketing at Boulevard Brewing in Kansas City, Missouri, the country's tenth-largest craft brewer.
“The on-premise is a critical place to engage our consumers and build brands,” Sullivan tells Shanken News Daily. Translation (for those whose corporate-speak is rusty): “We want our beer being sold every night so more and more people will go out and buy more and more of our beer.”
Sullivan actually goes on to “caution” that the practice of bars rotating their beers is “a disservice for new craft beer startups, as they’re getting even less of a chance to build their brands.”
But what if they just want to make a better beer?
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Jason Best has worked for Gourmet and the Natural Resources Defense Council. He writes about food, sustainability and the environment.