Category: General Blogs
A couple of months ago I noted that the breadth of available choices is what makes the U.S. beverage market—especially beer and spirits—the envy of the rest of the world. I witness this as a consumer, as much as I do as an industry observer. I frequent a lot of bars that boast, 25, 50, even 100 tap handles. Their whiskey lists are intimidatingly robust; I don’t think I’ll get to try half of the items on the menu in this lifetime.
But is such on-premise abundance always a good thing?
At many of my local haunts, it’s not uncommon for Monday’s chalkboard list of what’s on tap to look nothing like the one on Thursday. There’s a complete turnover. If you happened to like something you tried Monday night, you’re out of luck if you want to drink it again later in the week. And I’m as guilty of enabling this as anyone. My M.O., more often than not, is to try something new rather than default to the familiar. When there’s wait service, the server returns to my table and usually asks, “Could I get you another X?” My response tends to be, “No, this time I’ll have Y.”
More than a few distributor reps with whom I’ve spoken have admitted that while it’s great that their on-premise accounts are eager to buy so many small, up-and-coming brands, it stresses their entire system to fulfill such variable demands so frequently. It’s not just a huge order of a handful of high-velocity SKUs anymore. It’s an epic series of micro-orders of much lower-volume products.
Distributors, to their credit, have adapted fairly well to this new normal.
The real potential casualty in all this, however, is brand loyalty. I know, I know, marketers always tell me “On-premise is where consumers experiment and off-premise is where they’ll buy the six-pack of the beer or a bottle of the bourbon they discovered during the course of their experimentation.”
But shouldn’t we be worried that, essentially, on-premise is completely ceding any notion of brand allegiance to the off-premise?
The craft beer world and now, to some extent, the craft spirits talk about the “wine-ification” of their products. The dark side of that dynamic is that when menus turn over so quickly to keep up with consumers’ brand A.D.D. (again, guilty as charged), bar and restaurant patrons are just going to order by style, not brand, as is often the case with wine. I.P.A. will be the new Cabernet. And don’t think that this behavior won’t spill over into the off-premise as well. It already happens off-premise with wine and I have witnessed it on occasion with beer and spirits. Consumer: “Do you have Russian River Pliny the Elder?” Retailer: “No, but we just got a couple of bomber bottles of this double IPA from a new brewery that just opened in Virginia.” Consumer: “Great, what brewery?” Retailer: “I don’t remember.” Consumer: “Whatever, I’ll take it.”
And with that brief commercial exchange, another tiny nail is driven in the coffin of brand loyalty.
It always amazes me how quickly people are so ready to throw the baby out with the bathwater when something doesn’t quite work in a manner entirely favorable to them. I’ve been hearing/reading a lot of chatter, particularly in the blogosphere, where folks are taking to task the three-tier system, going so far as to say it should be eliminated. Excuse me?
Look, I am a strong proponent of franchise law reform. In some states it’s next to impossible for a craft brewer or other small alcohol beverage producer to get out of a draconian contract when the supplier/distributor relationship isn’t working out. Now that there are more than 3,100 U.S. small brewers, whose influence continues to grow, I’d like to see them effect real change at the state and federal levels.
But too many people—particular badly informed, one-sided bloggers—equate franchise law reform with dismantling the three-tier system. The two are mutually exclusive.
Ask most successful craft brewers (or distillers and wine makers for that matter) and many likely would admit—albeit sometimes grudgingly—that they would not have grown to the level they’ve achieved without the three-tier system and the work of distributors. Does that mean they shouldn’t be allowed to self distribute? Of course the should. Small producers that operate in states that permit self-distribution have been able to bootstrap themselves to a point where they got on the radar of wholesalers that have been able to help them expand to the next level. Most self-distribution has been out of necessity and once someone else is willing to take it over, the majority of small beverage alcohol suppliers are happy to be out of the distribution business. (Having said that, the three-tier system is far from perfect—at best a necessary evil.)
And about that 3,100 figure. There would only be a fraction of those brewers thriving in the market if there was no three-tier system in place. One need only look overseas for what could have become of the modern U.S. market (and actually had before Prohibition). Walk into an average bar in many European cities and your choices are limited, for the most part, to the products from one brewery. That’s the tied-house system still at work in those countries. The 21st amendment forbids that in the U.S.. And I think we’ve started to take for granted the diversity that our system has allowed us.
Our system is the envy of the rest of the world, by the way. And the U.S. craft movement has sparked revolutions around the world where small brewers are starting to squeeze their way into the market. It’s a little tougher for them to get into existing tied-house bars, so specialty pubs have started to pop up showcasing those small European brands. But those are still the exception and not the rule and still have a long way to go to achieve broader market exposure.
I’ll leave you with this thought. Just imagine an America where an AB InBev or SABMiller got into the pub and retail business and started buying up local watering holes. Then imagine what the array of tap handles would look like. Where’s that diversity now?
Category: General Blogs
Full disclosure: I’m a devoted craft beer drinker. (Big shock).
I more than eagerly seize every opportunity to tout how beer consumers live in a time of unprecedented choice. That’s never more apparent than at the Great American Beer Festival (GABF) and this year’s edition was no different.
But it’s not just craft brewers that sample their products, as the likes of Pabst, Anheuser-Busch and MillerCoors tend to have tables and the awards competition features categories like the macro-friendly American Style Light Lager.
Of course, the big guys have been putting out craft-like brands, much to the chagrin of the small brewers.
I’ve tried to be Switzerland on the “craft” versus “crafty” debate, primarily because it’s really just semantics. I know what I like to drink and I know what I don’t like. I also believe that whatever brands I personally choose not to drink have a right to exist so other consumers have a chance to choose whether or not to drink them. (Having said that, I also believe in brands being upfront about their origins, enabling consumers to make informed choices.)
One of my more eye-opening experiences as GABF last month actually involved one of those large brewers playing in the craft sand box (or Sandlot in this case), Blue Moon—the MillerCoors brand that’s been singled out as a macro in craft’s clothing. Blue Moon invited me to its booth for a tasting and meet and greet with brewmaster John Legnard. I sampled some of the brewery’s latest, little-known limited offerings including First Peach Ale, a brown ale with a slightly tart peach note; White IPA, a hybrid of a Belgian-style wit and an India pale ale; and Cinnamon Horchata Ale, which very closely mimics the taste of the Latin American beverage it emulates. Some of my fellow craft-devout might unfriend me for what I’m about to say, but so be it: They were actually quite flavorful. Blue Moon may not be everyone’s choice, and that’s okay. But it has a right to be a choice. If I had let geeky biases get in the way, I would have missed out on a fairly memorable malt-and-hops moment. Score one for cognitive dissonance.
You know what else has a right to be a choice? Macro-produced, corn-and-rice-filled light lagers. Celeb chef David Chang recently got lambasted by many in the craft community for a GQ blog entry in which he declared, “I love cheap, watery, swill.” Hey, to each his own. Time and place for everything, right? One of my own fond beer memories involves sitting on a rickety plastic stool in Vietnam, eating cockles grilled on the sidewalk and drinking the local mass-produced adjunct-laden light lager…over ice! I wouldn’t make a habit of it, but, you know, when in Saigon…
Back in the states, the breadth of available choices is what makes the beer market here the envy of the rest of the world (at last!) The argument against the multinational brewing behemoths has been that for decades they’d limited the options available to consumers. I think it’s critical for those of us who champion the underdog (and yes, I include myself among those champions) to not do the same by begrudging someone a selection that might not quite mesh with our own sensibilities.