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Friday, 11 February 2011

Brood: Why Craft Beer Means Something

Some beer is brewed purely to make money. The flavour of this beer and the processes used to make it are irrelevant; they are necessary cogs in a money making machine, and if the brewer can change them to increase the money he makes then he will, regardless of the impact it has. A production process driven by profit alone, we call this beer “Macro Beer”.

Some beer is brewed for experimentation, for investigation, through interest and enthusiasm, for the love of flavour. When this beer is made no consideration is given to cost or complexity of process; if there’s a way to make that beer better, the brewer will find it and will use it. A production process that’s enabled by skill and knowledge, driven by the quality of the final product. We call this beer “Homebrew”.

And then some beer finds itself sitting between these two groups. It’s made with the passion, skill and love that defines the homebrew, but it’s also sold to make the brewer a living. Profitability is critical, but it isn’t to the detriment of the finished beer. The brewer strives for balance, to achieve both a quality product, and enough money to live. What do we call this beer?


It's a tough environment over on that macro side. Massive marketing budgets, corporate sponsorships, endless pounds to spend on research and the economies of scale. The only way that our plucky middle-group-hero can compete is by carving out a niche, identifying himself as something a bit different, something worthy of attention. That niche is quality, and his weapon is the reassurance that it's ok to pay a premium for something of significant quality. His identity, his banner, is "Craft Beer".

Appealing to this niche is critical if a foothold is to be established in that left hand group. The macro cannot be matched for price; the moment quality is brought into question or a beer is viewed as too expensive it fails, and the customer reverts to the cheap slabs piled high in the corner.

So slap the words “Craft Beer” on any old product and the jobs a goodun then? No. Branding, packaging, promotion; all critical in denoting a product as being one of quality. Take supermarkets; you see a black packet in Marks & Spencer or Tesco and you immediately think quality. Whether the banner is “Taste the difference”, “Finest” or “ASDA Extra Special” isn’t important, you’ll judge a beer on the appearance of the pump clip or bottle label way before you get a chance to read the small print. And all these things are only worthy of investment if the product’s right; the skill and expertise of the brewer have to be there in the first place, the proof of the pudding is in the eating they say, there’s no point in polishing a turd.

A banner does allow us to tie things together though, we with our natural human instinct to group, categorise and classify. It’s an enabler for providing us with a way to write and speak and communicate with more accuracy than by just saying “beer”. It’s an identity and a statement of intent.

The specific name we use isn’t the important thing here. “Craft Beer" or "Micro Beer or "Artisan Ale”, each would work equally well, and any preference for one over the other is exactly that - just a preference. A preference which is irrelevant, irrelevant for the reasons discussed and irrelevant because, like it or not, “Craft Beer” has become the de facto standard. “Craft Beer” puts emphasis on the craftsmanship behind the beer, on the skill and expertise of the brewer, on quality; as a banner, “Craft beer” works.

This blog was posted as part of "Brood", see here.


Cooking Lager said...

Every company regardless of size exists to "make money", that is provide a return on capital employed. "Craft" brewers are in it to make quid just as much as Inbev.

A company may alter a production process to make it more cost efficient but the value of the brands owned depend on maintaining quality.

The quality standards, expertise & equipment of larger established brewers craps on a vast amount of shed brewed pong.

Chunk said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Mark said...

I agree with you entirely. My point is that a craftsman straddles the line between making money and producing something they care about. An all out macro cares about profitability over everything else - including the quality of their product.

Craft brewers aren't in it exclusively for the money, but the money has to be of importance too. I've seen the manual labour and hours involved in brewing on a small scale, you don't get into that for the money alone, it's for the love of the craft too.

Rob Sterowski said...

I thought that eventually someone would bring up the "not in it for the money" argument, which is really just shamefaced anti-capitalism.

Wetherspoon pubs sell real ale mostly because Tim Martin is a real ale drinker himself. It's not a decision guided by profit. Does that make Wetherspoon a chain of craft pubs?

Mark said...

I'm not making that argument. I'm saying that craft brewers ARE in it for the money - they have to be because they need to make a living. What I'm saying is that they strive to achieve a balance between making a salary and crafting a product that they love and are proud of. In the macro world it's purely about profit.

I must've met the right UK craft brewers because 5 minutes chatting with them and any question of the drive behind the reason they brew is answered.

Rob Sterowski said...

You've also done the same experiment with big-brand brewers, of course? And they all said "I'm here for the money. I'd really rather drive a bus or be a tax inspector." Yeah? Did they?

Mark Dredge said...

Love the homebrew vs macro diagram, it works well. There is a heart to craft brewing which is replaced by a desire to earn as much as possible in big brewing. Nice post.

Mark said...

Cheers Mark, glad the point made it accross.

The point about heart and passion is the one I'm trying to make, of course I'm generalising somewhat for the sake of the arguement, but I think the point is a valid one.

No Barm, I haven't done the same with macro brewers. But how can anybody that cuts corners, uses cheap adjuncts, shortens lagering times and brews tasteless crap beer just be in it for the craft of brewing? All those things point in one direction - profitability.

Why you gotta be so angry and negative all the time? Sheesh ... we're all just fans of good beer here, chillax a bit fella.

JimmiTh said...

Is it even necessary to ask the macro brewer? Having been in a few different jobs - from working in the production in a major poultry slaughterhouse to programming at an IT business - I already know that, yes, the reply from many major companies actually *will* be "yes, the most important thing here is to make a profit".

There are plenty of "valiant" excuses for that view - the easiest one of course being that "in the end that's the way we keep this company open and people employed". Sometimes they'll soften up the reply with "but of course, it's also important that we like what we're doing".

But find an honest businessman, and that's the kind of answer you'll get. The quality of the product *is* secondary.