If you follow me on Twitter you will know that Bryan Roth and I have been participating in a Twitter/blogging conversation with others about whether a brewery must be good to be successful. When Bryan first broached the question on Twitter, I immediately said yes. Of course, quality matters, I said in my most naïve beer geek voice.
I still believe that. In fact, the quote Bryan pulled from a previous blog post in his latest piece is something I still believe. I think good beer is still necessary for long-term success.
However, we have two issues on the table. The first, “the good enough” problem. The second, uneducated consumers. These two problems feed each other. Then we must ask, how do we resolve those two issues.
The Good Enough Problem
If you know anything about craft beer’s history, you know its origin story. Long story short, craft beer was born out of a need to make better beer than the big beer companies who were making beer good enough to drink. Those big beer companies still look at beer as a widget. Their goal is to make as many widgets as quickly as possible to sell as much as possible. The key to selling as much as possible is to make it appeal to the widest possible audience. That means the beer is least common denominator flavorless ice cold yellow water. It is good enough to drink.
Unfortunately, today’s craft beer brewers are falling into the same trap. Not for the same reasons, however. First, too many brewers are new to professional brewing and haven’t quite figured out how to scale up their award-winning homebrew. Second, they are often leveraged up to their eyeballs to get the brewery started and need to pump out beer to start making money. Third, they are trying to satisfy a voracious yet uneducated consumer base by getting beer out as quickly as possible. So, beer that is just good enough is what we get.
Sometimes when a new brewery comes in and has us taste their beer the last one we taste is the one they say kills in their taproom. They can’t make enough of it. I usually think, It is the only one that is drinkable. Of course, it kills in your taproom, no one can drink anything else you make. Professional advice to new breweries, if the bestselling beer in your taproom is whatever is on the guest tap, you have a problem.
The Uneducated Consumer or Craft Beer As Performative Signifier
I read this good article about Krispy Kreme and Dunkin Donuts. The author does a great job of breaking down why each is successful and why Dunkin Donuts is more successful as a business model. What really interested me in the article is in the first three paragraphs and is encapsulated in this line, “…food tends to function as a repository for the stories we tell others about ourselves.”
I spend a lot of times in brewery taprooms and craft beer bars. Everyone in these places is using craft beer to tell others about themselves, including me. From the beer geek to the whale hunter to the sorority girls taking selfies with their flights we are all using craft beer to signify to others who we are.
I like going to bars and taprooms with my Kindle and reading while I drink a beer or two. It is a signifier that I like to read and I like beer. However, I do it because I actually like to read and I like beer. I don’t do it just to be seen reading and liking beer. Many of the newer craft beer drinkers only want to be seen drinking craft beer and have no clue what good beer is. They just want the story.
The problem for craft brewers is, most of these people will move on to the next thing they should be seen consuming in 12 to 18 months and a brewer who was happy to make beer that was good enough for all these people to drink will be stuck with actual craft beer drinkers sneering at their offerings.
What Do We Do To Kill Good Enough?
Mainly, we in craft beer need to hold ourselves accountable. I would suggest new breweries find people in the craft beer world who they haven’t known their whole lives, are related to or are invested with to taste their beer and give honest and good feedback. They need to hear from someone they trust with no personal stake in the outcome, what is right and what is wrong with their beer.
I started thinking about this after another new brewery came into the bar for a tasting with the owner and I a few weeks ago. When the brewer and sales person and their distribution rep(?) left, we looked at each other and agreed none of that beer was good. What I’m going to start doing is taking notes when this happens and try to give the brewer’s feedback on what I think of the beer.
This seems presumptuous to me. I don’t know if I’m comfortable with doing it, but from now on when a brewery brings me samples of something new, I’m going to sit down and taste it like I would for one of my reviews, and then write the brewery an email with my notes. Maybe they’ll read it. Maybe they won’t. Maybe they’ll think I’m an asshole.
If we in the industry think good beer and quality matters, we must take the responsibility to make sure it stays that way.
We must demand that you have something more than just a good story. Craft beer is in its ascendant cultural moment right now. What we should remember is it is just that, a moment. It will end, and if all you have is your cool craft beer story and not good craft beer, you will end with it.
I guess, what it comes down to for me is, if good beer doesn’t matter, what are we doing here? If you are willing to make beer that is just good enough for people to drink, what is the difference between you and the big beer companies you supposedly hate? Yeah, you have a great story, but the Coors, Busch, and Miller families all have pretty cool origin stories. That doesn’t make their beer any better.