I approach writing about beer differently from many of the bloggers and writers who cover beer. I start with the writing first and I view craft brewing through the lens of a person who has been around writers and artists for much of his adult life.
One of my favorite websites is brainpickings.org. It is a site of insatiable curiosity over a host of subjects curated by Maria Popova. Today, I read a part of a lecture from writer Ursula K. Le Guin. It concerned how creativity and storytelling help us shape ourselves and define our existence in this world.
The section that has the most resonance for craft brewing discusses how creativity is being commodified. It isn’t just that businesses use the language and some of the practices of meditation and creativity in a pragmatic sense to increase workers’ productivity. It is in how large companies have turned creativity and its resultant products into an industry.
A lot of popular movies, television, music, and books seem to come off assembly lines because they do. Most of the entertainment companies you interact with daily are part of large conglomerates whose primary concerns are profits and stock prices. Those companies prioritize guaranteed return on investment over creative inspiration.
Currently, in what seems to be turning into a forever war between craft beer and big beers is that big beer’s response to craft beer after years of ignoring it is to buy its creativity and the buzz that excites drinkers. Big Beer is trying to take what makes craft beer special and monetized it by grafting it onto something they own. This may work in the short-term (hell, maybe in the long term) but I don’t think so. The thing that separates craft beer from big beer isn’t something you can see or touch and commodify. It is that ineffable spark that only comes from original and creative work. A large conglomerate like ABInbev will absorb Wicked Weed and any other brewers they purchase and slowly morph them into one of the many different shades of gray that are their “high end” brands because creativity isn’t measurable.
“The first Velvet Underground album only sold 10,000 copies, but everyone who bought it formed a band”
― Brian Eno
Big Beer is under the misapprehension that they are losing to Wicked Weed. They are not. They are losing to everyone who has drunk a Boston Lager, Sierra Nevada Pale Ale, Arrogant Bastard, Cantillon Iris, Rodenbach Grand Cru, and decided they wanted to make that. The creativity those beers have (or had) sparked something in enough potential brewers that the sheer number of craft breweries is changing beer in the United States and biting into Big Beer’s market share.
There is a twofold danger. One, all these new craft breweries are starting to eat into each other’s market share as those who drink big beer solidifies into the final hard-core fans. Two, if Big Beer muddies the waters enough, casual craft beer drinkers won’t know the difference. The last is what I think Big Beer’s goal is.
Big Beer knows what winning is. Keeping and increasing market share. The question craft beer must ask is, what does winning look like. Is it just staying on the roof like Maggie the Cat or is it something else.