Chip Martella: Enjoy That Craft Beer You’re Drinking, It May Not Be Here Tomorrow
Founder of Asylum, a brand marketing consultancy, sees the next phase in the nation’s dynamic beer category happening...now
“Whoa, this is going to be hard man. Way harder than I imagined.”
That was how one craft brewer, a first-time attendee at the Great American Beer Festival, held last month in Denver, Colorado, sized up the task facing him when he gets back home. Indeed it must be daunting to emerge from the safe walls of your brewery and see up close and personal how intense the competition is these days. Especially when the forum isn’t a local bar down the street full of friendly smiles but the largest beer festival in the country.
Held every year at the Colorado Convention Center, this show is like entering the Roman Coliseum: 750 Breweries serving over 3,500 beers to 60,000 attendees over four sessions—in a hall the size of 10 football fields. Tickets sold out in an hour and scalpers were everywhere pre-show with prices starting at double the $80 face value.
But GABF is supposed to be about the liquid, not the numbers, about the intense passion for beer among both brewers and consumers that has risen to historic levels thanks to the craft movement.
GABF opens each night with a corps of snappy bagpipers at the entrance, their gorgeous wail signaling to the thirsty, pre-primed hordes in their pretzel necklaces and random (that’s being kind) costumes that it’s time to enter the hall. And once the gates open, the party is immediately at full thrust. No slow build here.
For attendees, many of whom are homebrewers, it’s just that: a massive celebration most have been waiting a year or more to attend.
For the brewers and breweries however, it’s another thing entirely. In addition to the awards, which can bestow credibility and awareness for newbies or reinforce promise and consistency for the “established” players, it’s a chance to meet and greet their peers—and to sample some of beer’s most passionate and influential consumers.
But the painful irony is—unless you are one of the breweries who already has a strong following or a wave of viral momentum (e.g., Wicked Weed)—standing out and gaining new admirers in this environment is not easy. Even if your beer is fantastic.
And in fact the festival is just a microcosm of what’s happening on the street (here come more numbers). According to the Brewers Association, there are over 3,700 craft breweries in the United States right now, with another 1,700 in planning stage. There were only 1,800 in total operating in 2010.
So unlike a few years ago when filling a gap in a given geography with good beer could almost assure you an eager audience and ample tap space, the playing field has gotten way more crowded.
Acting noble and local, relying on authenticity and the personality of the founder, the original building blocks of craft, will just not be enough anymore.
Add to that another emerging wrinkle: the strong are getting stronger. Hard to say when we look back whether the clarion call will have been Golden Road selling outright to ABI InBev (considered by many craft purists to be the ultimate Darth Vader of beer) just days before GABF, or more likely the iconoclastic Sam Calagione of Dogfish Head’s surprise move (selling 15 percent to an equity group) just days after.
In the end it doesn’t matter who tipped it, what matters is that the next stage of this disruption is playing out before our eyes.
My impression speaking with craft brewers, bar owners, bartenders and consumers at the festival and across the country over the past year is that people are beginning to grasp this new reality; that aging founders have a right to benefit financially from their success, or that there are some who are genuinely looking to grow without sacrificing what they’ve built.
And so far it seems the latter is a real possibility. Goose Island, an early one to take the plunge still makes great beer and has been able to expand their respected barrel-aging program. Despite initial grumblings and threats to boycott, you can still find them at all but the most fiercely independent craft bottle shops and bars.
(It’s still too early however to mention ABI InBev to anyone in Los Angeles after the Golden Road announcement. Like a stubborn cat, the devoted will make you feel some pain before running back to your embrace.)
In effect, the tables are turning. The craft beer category, having repositioned the big guys by default into being generic and uncaring makers of low-quality beer, are now forging alliances with them in an effort to stay ahead in this increasingly cutthroat arena. The numbers (read: dollars) are taking center stage.
Along the way they seem to be answering one of the major questions being discussed at the top levels of every major consumer products company on the planet: Can you be big AND be authentic?
What I didn’t have the heart to say to the awestruck brewer at the festival is this: fasten your seatbelt, because the feared “shake up” in craft beer has arrived—and it’s only going to get harder.
But that doesn’t mean it’s impossible to survive. The party isn’t over. The love of beer has never been higher and consumers’ desire for exploration and discovery, for transparency and storytelling, isn’t going away. The fight at the top may open up more opportunities, in fact.
If you’re a small craft brewer reading this, maybe take your team to see the film The Martian for inspiration. Like the hyper-determined protagonist Mark Watney, it may help to know that you have a lot of insanely passionate people out there rooting for you to succeed.
Chip Martella is a writer and the founder of Asylum Company, a strategic consultancy that provides brand and marketing solutions to Fortune 500 companies.