NOTE: When I moved to a new site, this “Beer Wars” series was mangled/destroyed during the move. I’ve reconstructed it by copying/pasting another copy of the original posts. I also lost the comments in their original form. I’ve copied/pasted the comments, but had to do so under my own name. So although it looks as though I’m the only commenter, I’m not. In each case, I’ve identified the original commenter.
Gloomy story, eh? Not entirely. American winemakers have shown that it’s possible to convey a different message.
Prior to the 1960s, the American wine industry was almost non-existent. Sure, a few families in California made a handful of wines, which was consumed by a tiny consumer audience. But the operative words are “few,” “handful,” and “tiny.” During the 1960s, however, a handful of wine enthusiasts began building an American wine industry. (*1) They built an audience for their product by promoting it specifically as a beverage for everyday use in the most common of all events: eating.
Unlike brewers, who marketed beer as the handmaiden of professional sports and young men, and unlike distillers, who didn’t do much marketing at all (in part for legal reasons that made it very difficult to advertise any kind of spirits), winemakers touted wine as a beverage to enjoy every day, especially with food.
The wine industry also lobbied for laws that legalized on-premise sales at their wineries, which enabled vineyards to become “tourist” destinations, and maintained a coherent message about wine’s role in daily life: It tastes good with food. Drink it with your meal instead of coffee, tea, or milk. (*2)
Put another way, they un-demonized wine. The winemakers also worked together as an industry to craft a single, coherent message. As a result, wine has become a staple ingredient in the American home. When I was growing up, I don’t remember anyone having wine in the house. By the time I was in my 20s (in the 1970s), wine had become common even in “low end” restaurants.” By the 1980s, wine had become a staple in grocery stores and in the American home.
But again, wine is the exception to the rule. And of the three categories of alcohol — wine, beer, and spirits — brewers have the longest road to travel to change beer’s image from drink-of-frat-boys to sophisticated beverage best enjoyed with food.
Yes, I know that craft brewers are working hard to create a new image. Craft brewers avoid advertisements designed around babes in bare skin, and promote beer/food pairings. But they’ve got a long way to go.
In my opinion, and as I’ve said here before, their best bet is to appeal to consumers’ ecological concerns.
A compelling discussion about how to do that is in Daniel Goleman’s new book Ecological Intelligence. For example, consumers will respond to a “drink local” message, but they need to see/hear that message at the point-of-sale rather than in nebulous advertisements that appeal to concerns about image or status.
In the meantime, brewers will, I hope, begin thinking about the 3-tier system less as some insitutional evil than as a symptom of a deeper problem.
And with that, dear (and patient!) readers, I bring this rambling discourse to an end.
*1: A truly good cultural history of the American wine industry is waiting to be written, but one place to start is Paul Lukacs, American Vintage: The Rise of American Wine.
*2: Winemakers lobbied for those laws in California in partnership with the half dozen or so craft beer makers, who wanted to sell beer at their “brewpubs.”