“What Revolution?” The Outtakes, Part 2

Part OnePart Two Part Three 

For your reading pleasure, remnants from the cutting-room floor from an essay I just wrote for All About Beer magazine, titled “What Revolution?” In it, I argue that craft brewing is just one part of the marvel that is the American beer industry. It will likely never become mainstream, but it’s as much a part of who we are as the Establishment brewers. For more background to this three-parter, see this entry.

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Jackson pinned his hopes for craft brewing’s survival on the Great American Beer Festival (GABF). It was there, he believed, where brewers and consumers met face-to-face, that craft brewing could turn the tide against Big Brewing.

“There is no greater celebration of American beer,” he said — and no better way to introduce the public to the enormous “variety” of beers that was becoming the hallmark of American brewing.

Variety,” he wrote, “is its own most potent advertisement.” (*1)

If that were true, craft beer, rather than MillerCoorsAnheuserInBev, would dominate today’s market, but Jackson’s other point is worth noting. He argued that the festival’s reputation had grown beyond the Denver area because the “national media” had taken note of the event’s the annual list of prize winners.

The GABF, wrote Jackson, was successful in large part because of its focus on competition and awards. No surprise there. We Americans thrive on competition. We’re the people who turned yoga into a competitive sport. We revel in prizes and medals and ribbons. An entire session of the GABF is devoted to handing out hundreds of awards. Take those away, and what’s left are hordes of (mostly drunk) men and women who love the convenience of one-stop shopping and drinking.

In short, the Great American Beer Festival, which celebrates innovation, creativity, entrepreneurship, competition, success, and failure (as measured by awards), is a microcosm of American culture.

Let’s stick with the GABF for a moment. The festival’s focus on awards inadvertently sparked craft brewing’s first major internal conflict: The battle over contract brewing. The episode is worth a closer look because it, too, offers insight into the ways in which craft brewing reflects the contradictions and complexity of American culture.

The conflict over contracting began in 1985 when Jim Koch showed up at the festival. Koch, who had recently launched Sam Adams beer, walked away with a prize that year and the next. His fellow beermakers were not happy. Why? Because Koch did not own or operate his own brewhouse. Instead, he rented brewing equipment (“contracted”) from a small regional brewery.

Koch’s decision to contract stemmed from his understanding of the financial equation before him: He himself had no training as a brewer. He started with limited funds, certainly not enough to buy or build a brewhouse. He knew that successful brewing depended in large part on expertise and quality equipment. So he rented, rather than purchased, the talent and the brew vats, and spent his few dollars on quality ingredients and marketing.

His fellow craft brewers wanted none of it. Contract brewers, fumed one “real” brewer, were just “marketing people” “more interested in making a buck than in actually brewing quality beer.” The whole thing was “dishonest.” (*2) “If I were running [the GABF],” complained the late Bert Grant of Yakima Brewing,

I wouldn’t allow any contract brewers in the thing. You wouldn’t know Sam Adams from Iron City [a Pittsburgh brewing company] except for a little caramel malt.” (*3)

The critics spoke too soon. A few years later, craft brewing was populated by dozens of contract brewers (including the one who had accused contractors of being dishonest).

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Sources: *1. Michael Jackson, “Jackson’s Journal: Beers of America Stand Up and Be Counted,” All About Beer 9, no. 1 (April 1988): 14.

*2: Suzanne Alexander, “Is  A Beer Local If It’s Produced Not So Locally?,” Wall Street Journal, July 21, 1989, B1.

*3: Cottone, Vince, “Beer & Loathing in Denver: The Great American Beer Festival 1986,” American Brewer (Summer 1967): 17.

3 thoughts on ““What Revolution?” The Outtakes, Part 2

  1. This is fun…especially as an extension of the printed version in All About Beer magazine.If it’s not a revolution, what is it? A slow and steady march? (that reads snarky, but I don’t mean it that way at all.)Kim Jordan’s outrageous ambition a few years back (10% market share for craft beer) all of a sudden seems within reach. Even perhaps modest. A lot quicker than people thought. Distributors are abandoning long-standing loyalties in favor of a more diverse marketplace…chasing the long tail while not biting the hand that feeds them (how’s THAT for a mixed metaphor?).So is this mere semantics? Clearly the craft beer industry is maturing and capturing market share. But it needs the Establishment to position itself against.Arguably, craft beer thrives when it simultaneously grows yet stays “the little guy.”Just some random thoughts.

  2. Well, it’s definitely true that many distributors have figured out the profit value in micro beers (or craft beers or whatever we’re calling them now). And that certainly boosts market share.And I would agree that the craft segment in some sense NEEDS the Establishment, without which it might not have as coherent an identity.But as I noted in the essay (in the printed version), craft struggles with its own “what do I want to be?”: People complain that the market share is not big enough, and yet than grouse about, say, Dogfishhead because it’s gotten so big and “just like the Big Guys.” (Which is of course nuts; Dogfishhead is great at marketing, which means it’s great a creating the perception of large size)Anyway…… I suspect that in 30 years, the conversation will consist of, ya know, much the same ruminating. Although hopefully by someone other than me.

  3. […] “What Revolution?” The Outtakes, Part 2 (Maureen Ogle) […]

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