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Are We Promiscuous Drinkers?

Boston Magazine’s recent article on the Boston Beer Company and their Sam Adams brand’s standing—or lack thereof—in the craft beer world is making the rounds.

Particular of note is the article’s notion that the latest generation of beer lovers are brand-agnostic. We, so the article states to Jim Koch’s ire, care more about the new and shiny without regarding to any loyalty to any particular brand.

Jim Koch, the founder of Boston Beer (Sam Adams)

This new breed of millennial craves beer that is organic, local, small-batch, authentic, cool, and new.

Source: Wasted: How the Craft-Beer Movement Abandoned Jim Koch

There has been plenty of great response pieces to this article that are worth reading. In particular, Grower Fills response is great. As I was pondering on my response, I read his piece which says much of what I wanted to say better than I would have said it.

I am as much into the new and shiny as anyone on the beer scene. I dream about Sierra Nevada’s limited release Harvest Wild Hop IPA using a never-nationally-used variety of hops—the neomexicanus. Reading through Twitter is a long list of speciality beers that I would buy or events that I would be in a second if I had the available income and bandwidth. Texas is an exciting time with a relatively new option for breweries to both distribute and sell on site, meaning beer is all kinds of hotness for entrepreneurs.

My beer loyalty with old guard, though, is still the foundation. On 365brew.com, the brewery with the most beers reviewed (either published or in production) is Spoetzl—better known for their location, Shiner. The brewery opened in 1909 and, all in all, a lot less shiny than Sam Adams.

As far as “modern” craft breweries are concerned, Live Oak in Austin has my heart. From the first time I had it years ago, I realized there was more to beer than the same handful (of which, Shiner is included for me since it is as easy to get in Texas as any of the macrobrews).

I love to explore new beers, both in style and brewery. Stumbling upon The Bruery and being introduced to their sours opened my eyes to exploring beers outside of my default preference. Real Ale’s Oyster Stout is one that I wouldn’t have considered before and am very glad that I did.

There is a balance between the conquest of the unknown and the comfort of home. The loyalty of old—a single beer is the only beer for me—has passed, sure, but under that model, nothing outside of Bud, Coors, and Miller would have survived.

While the craft beer industry is exploding, this isn’t a bad thing. Competition is good. The niche breweries will need to find a suitably large audience to turn a profit while the broad microbreweries will need to ensure they find the intersection of their craft and market demands. It isn’t that unlike WordPress developers.

WordPress developers, on one hand, are a dime a dozen. Everyone, it seems, is jumping into designing or developing WordPress sites. Sometimes, the new guy gets all of the attention with a new plugin or sweet design. The old guard could just pump out the exact same thing over and over again and then complain about the different landscape—both in terms of the business environment and of the creative elements of the work. Instead, if you aren’t good enough, on both sides of the coin, to keep up, you either accept a small place or you move on.

West Coast IPAs have the demand right now. You can either pivot, make one, try to compete in this zone or you figure out a way to satisfy the market while ignoring this style. Shiner doesn’t brew a West Coast IPA—it is simply so far removed from their focus that, my assumption, they aren’t trying to be what they aren’t. They have, though, released a number of different Pale Ales (Wild Hare, Haymaker) seeing if something sticks there and experimented with some other types between their anniversary series or hopefully permanent new brews (their Belgium White White Wing).

Sierra Nevada could stay content in their relatively high position in the industry, but they branch out. The IPA scene is crowded so do fun things like their Harvest IPA series. This series released IPAs based on different stages of hops (wet hops, dry hops, etc) and, this year, the new neomexicanus hop variety. Along with Ballast Point, they’re shipping the 2015 version of their collaborative Beer Camp beer. New Belgium in Colorado is known for their collaborative beers as well.

Does the competition mean that is may be harder for a brewery to be totally happy selling the same handful of beers it always has? Sure, but it doesn’t mean brand loyalty is lost or that a brewery need to reinvent itself every six months to stay relevant.

Stone is on the other end of the equilibrium. They seem to released a new variety of beer every ten minutes. Stone has a “Enjoy After” IPA series of to-be-aged IPAs, which is atypical since IPAs generally are best enjoyed soon after production. The Enjoy After 12.26.15 IPA is in the wild, though unsure if it has made it to Texas. In Stone’s case, personally, I think they create so much internal competition amongst their own beers to cause more of an issue than too many breweries generally. When there are two dozen active beers, how to do you pick one or two to have in the bomber case?

On a personal note, my disinterest in Sam Adams grew from two wholly different reasons. First, they’re not local. I’ve grown to have a preference for local beers—ones that I could make a day trip to their brewery. Live Oak, Shiner, Hops and Grain, Black Star Co-Op, St. Arnold, Jester King, and so on. While I absolutely will try out beer from everywhere, there is such a massive selection of local beers that I can have a personal/physical connection to the brewery while being part of a smaller club of people exposed to the beer that I don’t need to be a “fanboy” of national brands from either coast.

Secondly, business practices aside from the beer. This can go both ways. Sometimes a company pulls off funny ads or sponsorships and are heralded. Sometimes, it crosses a line and becomes negative. The Sex for Sam stunt turns me off (heh) from Sam Adams. Personally, it was in poor taste. That was long ago and I’m willing to let hard feelings slide, but it did sour me from going whole-hog in the Sam Adams camp when I was forming my initial brand loyalties.

In another case, Boston Beer threatened legal action against Sam Adams, an Oregon politician, for, you guessed it, using his name. Holding the name I hold, well, you get the picture.

That said, Boston Beer’s support for craft beer and the industry is impressive. Their Brewing The American Dream program provides loans to small businesses while, during at least two years during hops shortages, Sam Adams sold their excess at cost to help keep other craft breweries brewing.

I still respect the work that they do and am far, far, far from anything like boycotting Sam Adams or trying to exclude them from the craft beer conversation.

Beer drinkers still care about the brand and most have some sense of loyalty. Our connection to individual beers or breweries isn’t fanaticism, though.

By Brandon Kraft

My life is an open-source book.

2 replies on “Are We Promiscuous Drinkers?

Thanks for the shout out, Brandon. I appreciate how you’ve taken this discussion to the next step – explaining the “why” behind making choices – none of which (for many of us) having to do with some hipster elitism of just rejecting a beer style or brewery because it “was so last year” for example.

You point out some good examples of marketing and legal action Boston Beer Co. has taken which provide a reason for you to choose not to purchase their beer. Valid points.

On the other hand, I’ve reluctantly had to point out at times where the darlings of the “craft world” have acted just like big beer in numerous instances. One such darling issued a cease and desist order to one of our area’s breweries for using their trademarked charity beer night name. (Who knew, right?) As I was researching the story, their PR person even lied to me about how they had handled the process in an attempt to shift blame.

My only point being, we’ve romanticized “craft beer” and “local” so much we’ve become blind to parts of the whole picture.

In any event, I continue to enjoy the journey.

Sad to hear about cease and desist. No sector is immune from some sour apples jumping first to a legal route instead of reaching out and finding a mutually-agreeable solution.

Thanks for reading and stopping by!

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