Watching what is happening to Boston Beer Company is interesting. Only partially in craft beer sense. Even as a craft beer legacy brewer who created a beer that taught many of us that there was more out there than Bud or Miller, they don’t seem to be a part of the craft beer world anymore. The leadership there certainly doesn’t understand that world.
It is interesting to me because not only is a story of how a company, not just a beer company, loses its way.
In this latest article, part of the solution to its floundering earnings and stock prices is increasing its advertising budget. A couple of months ago, the big news was they were changing the font on the packaging to make it more modern. Here’s an idea, try making better beer. Oh, they tried that. Well, not really. They just started making a bunch of hoppy and fruited beers no one wanted. Somewhere along the line, they forgot what their core was. If they ever knew.
Most of us, because of high school, have read some if not all of the major Shakespearean tragedies: Romeo & Juliet, Hamlet, Othello, Macbeth, Julius Caesar. The thing that leads to the lead character’s destruction is with those characters from the moment they step on stage. Their fatal flaw is something they were born with or developed long before the action of the play takes place.
Watching what is happening to Boston Beer Company, I can’t help but feel this current situation is the result of decisions that have been made since the company’s beginning. All breweries that are successful over the long term are well run businesses. They make good and sometimes hard business decision all the time. However, when it comes to the beer decisions, they set aside business concerns and concentrate on the core of what it is they do: beer.
It seems to me that the decisions made at Boston Beer have almost always sided with the business side and not the beer side. The decision to launch its first cider in 1999 is a clear indication of that type of thinking. So is the Twisted Tea and Angry Orchard launches. That is how you become a beverage company to make investors happy instead of being a brewery.
These decisions show a fundamental lack of understanding of the craft beer world they helped create. That is often the case with companies that help create a market and survive long after the market has matured. They don’t understand how much they changed things nor that they are no longer the revolutionary lobbing Molotov Cocktails at the hierarchy. They are the hierarchy. Boston Beer wants to be considered a craft brewery while acting like a big beer company.
The key to understanding a tragedy as it unfolds is identifying the fatal flaw. Much as Othello couldn’t see how his jealousy and pride were destroying him, Boston Beer can’t see how much its ambition to be more than a beer company has possibly destroyed it.