12 November 2017
Why do we care? Craft Beer and Selling Out
Why does it matter so much to so many craft beer supporters when another brewery gets bought out by one of the macro conglomerates? What is it that sets us off and makes us gnash our teeth and tear at our hair, swearing to never again purchase the offending brew again? This week's purchase of Troue du diable by Molson/Coors set off the usual and predictable, in some cases, response of both sides, one claiming it will not change the beer and the other damning the brewers for selling out.
I fall always on the side of supporting local and as you all know been a proponent of the craft beer industry for many years. I have stated many times my respect and love for the good people who have helped transform my personal life and drinking habits with their passion for making great beer as opposed to just cramming tasteless macro lagers and underwhelming marketing down my throat at every chance they get. While it is indeed a business, to most of us it is much more than that and therein lies the problem we encounter whenever this happens.
We are attached to our favourite things. Brand loyalty is a consumer trait we acquire young from which brand of pop we drink, our favourite restaurants and movie franchises to the clothing we wear and the shops we frequent. With Craft beer, this is dialled up to the nth degree and then some, our allegiance coming from deep within and burned onto our souls in many cases. We not only love our favourite brewers' products, it is the people behind the beer we come to know, respect and admire that makes it about so much more than just beer. We become emotionally attached to them so much that they begin to feel like friends, even family and we cheer at their every success, touting the latest release as though it was our own. We are given ownership in the community and this is encouraged by everyone, from people like myself who tout its virtues to the owners and staff at the breweries themselves. They are for the most part earnest and straightforward about wanting to live that dream of brewing, sharing their creations with the world and driving forward the engine that is slowly gaining ground and market share on the big boys of beer.
We join growler or stein clubs, buy the merchandise, glasses, hoodies and t shirts that seem more visible all the time and it becomes part of our identity. As we get older, we feel like the world we knew is gone and yearn for a return to the simpler times we think existed in our youth. We have grabbed hold of craft beer as a way to keep that feeling going. We trade, gift and talk beer whenever we can. I've witnessed love bloom over pints, friendships and adventures ensuing from a simple comment on a social media photo. The craft beer community is very real and when we feel like that special bond is threatened we circle the wagons and look for a common enemy.
When a brewery decides to take the money that these multi national corporations offer them, I am going to imagine it isn't as easy as looking where to sign. They have to know the backlash will be swift and loud, I know I hear the recriminations and swearing off of buying their products from so many of my friends all the time. The business of Craft beer is not something we like to talk about because let's face it, we love to drink it, talk about its flavours and nuances, not market share, profit margin or break even points. But the brewers must always be conscious of these things. You may not go into craft beer to get rich, but at the end of the day the bills need to be paid, suppliers wont extend credit forever and the people you love who work in the tap room want to eat and have somewhere to live.
So how to we reconcile their business decision with the beer we love so much? For some people, it's black and white, sell to macro and our relationship is done. They have their standards and limits and stick to them no matter what. I know them and lean this way myself. I saw a few people getting vehement on the other side too, declaring it to be stupid to care about who owns the brewer and good for the people who made the dream happen by getting paid the big bucks while still getting to make great beer, now with solid finances and better distribution. For myself, I haven't really experienced the "loss" of a favourite craft brewer into the behemoth so it is still a case of outside looking in. When Mill Street sold to AbInBev I was at my infancy in this community and didn't grasp all the nuances of what it meant to me. Do I regularly purchase their products as I once did, well no, but that has a lot more factors playing than just who owns them. I don't think that Joel Manning forgot how to brew beer when the deed changed hands but there is a part of me that still feels a little sad whenever I reminisce about those old days when I first started drinking craft and Mill Street was a big part of that. I have so many options now when I go to my local liquor or beer store and that along with the sheer number of craft brewers located close by means I have options I couldn't have dreamed of years ago.
We buy into the ethos of us versus them and the brewers themselves push this independent and small batch thinking in their social media marketing and when you visit them. They build relationships with their customers and when they take the money from big beer we are left feeling duped and cheated by their seemingly overnight switch in direction. Are they any less local the next day after the papers are signed or do they not employ the same people as before? Does the beer actually change or is it our perception that moves as we imagine corporate interference and influence on our most treasured brews? We feel let down after years of supporting a small local business despite the fact that many of us continue to shop and work at even larger corporations. Wal-Mart, Loblaw’s and the like employ tens of thousands of Canadians and the big brewers are no different. Ask the people of London, Ontario if Labatt's is a local brewer and the thousands of people affected by their facility would tell you it is indeed. Every job is local when it keeps you warm and fed.
So how do we deal with what feels like a death in the family and stay true to our own personal passions? Many swear off the offending brewery in an instant, pledging to only support independent craft brewers and sticking to it. Some, usually the fans of that particular brewery, will wait it out, ultimately declaring the product hasn't changed and claiming the people working there are still paramount and arguing that the better distribution and equipment/materials hasn't changed anything at the brewing level. And a large portion of the population will just keep buying the beer because they just don't care who ultimately owns it, they just know what they like and that is all that matters to them. If the answer was easy, it wouldn't make me want a beer as I write this.
I am conflicted because the more you get to know people who work in craft beer, the more you see that passion they have for creating unique and flavourful beer. You see them pushing the boundaries and exploring things we couldn't even dream of a few years ago. They do indeed become like family and how do you deny someone a big pay day because you want them to remain a big fish in a small pond. We don't want to feel like we are supporting big business, it runs counter to everything the people who make the beer tell us. They have driven the narrative of this conversation about small batch craft beer and when they turn around and take the cheque we don't know what we should think. I think we have to acknowledge the part that plays in how people feel, they feel duped and angry and lashing out is but one way to show that. No one wants to support a giant foreign corporation, macro beer never drives people to go on road trips, was poetic or get artsy with their pictures. Grown men and women who never would have thought to share stuff on social media meticulously plan and execute videos and pictures in tribute to their new and favourite finds. So it is a very real problem for us who love craft beer when we hear someone has left the path we thought we were sharing and stepped into a windfall.
I can't figure it all out myself, let alone tell you what to do. It's more than just beer for me now but my journey may not be yours and I can respect that. I always say drink what you like and I'll do the same. But I don't think this is the last time we will be having this discussion, there will be more purchases, more argument and without a doubt more great beer from places we love.
I just hope I am ready when the next shoe drops, it might land closer to home than I like and the narrative of this may be different then.