Beer and Pavement

Much Ado About Nothing

Posted in Intersections by SM on February 14, 2012

Some people worry about the silliest of things. It seems another craft brewery (or cidery?) has been purchased by one of the big, corporate bad guys. The worry is that our corporate overlords will buy up all the good breweries and make us drink only rice-adjunct, industrial swill in cans.

On the surface, this sounds like something about which I should also be worried, but I’m not. Typically, I’m as anti-corporate as they come. I prefer craft breweries (as designated by BA) and indie labels. However, a capitalist economy is cannibalistic. This is what happens.

In many ways, precedent for an independent industry such as craft beer can be found in indie rock. There were indie labels well before the current craft beer movement took off. These labels were nearly wiped out through corporate takeovers before seeing an underground resurgence in the 80’s and a boom in the 90’s. During that boom, particularly in the mid-90’s, indie labels were signing deals with major labels almost as fast as indie bands. Many are still tied to major labels, taking advantage of corporate resources and distribution channels.

We indie rock fans (read: middle class, white, college kids, mostly male) feared for the indie labels. There was a thinking every time a Matador or Sub Pop signed a distribution deal with a major label that the days of innovation and creativity would be lost. Guided By Voices would be replaced by the Backstreet Boys. Sebadoh would record with orchestras and Phil Spector turning the nobs. Cat Power would do dance numbers in her videos a la Madonna. The end of indie was upon us.

However, that’s not what happened. Sure, some indie labels folded or changed their rosters to suit their corporate overlords, but most thrived in this system. Matador improved their distribution, garnering attention for some of their more-deserving acts. Sub Pop kept their doors open and lights on thanks to profitable deals with the devil. Still, other labels like Merge maintained their independence, putting off their eventual success in favor of slow-but-steady growth.

The success of indie labels traversing corporate waters is the ideal predictor for craft breweries now having to deal with the big brewers, or BMC. Some have openly worried that Goose Island will lose its edge now that it is owned by INBEV. On one hand, AB-INBEV has purchased naming rights based on several area codes, hoping to capitalize on the “localization” of Goose Island’s 312 Urban Wheat. Conversely, their beer geek favorite line of bourbon barrel-aged brews, better known as Bourbon County Stout, still seem to have a spot in the lineup. I suspect one will soon be able to find Goose Island everywhere, providing at least one craft-like beer choice wherever one goes. Additionally, consider all the new beer drinkers Goose Island will bring to craft beer. It seems the gloom and doom expressed over this buy-out is short-sighted and a bit hyperbolic.

Another fear is that some craft brewers are getting too big, emulating the practices of the industrial beer producers. It was worried that Stone would grow too large with its expansions of the last five years. New Belgium is slowly overtaking the lands east of the Mississippi. Sam Adams has long been a punching bag for craft beer fans intent on searching out only the rarest and most extreme of the craft beer scene. However, larger does not necessarily mean the quality will drop off. If anything, the successes of these breweries mean that more drinkers will find that beer is more than fizzy yellow stuff.

The same thing has happened with indie labels. As Matador, Sub Pop, Merge, and others have grown, so has their reach and influence over music in general. Arcade Fire’s Grammy triumph last year is a perfect example of this. A large reason Arcade Fire was so successful was that Merge’s policy of letting bands make all the decisions allowed them to control how they were marketed. Merge’s success over the years meant that this marketing message would reach a wider audience than once thought possible. Growth is not necessarily a bad thing.

Although I love to see small, independent businesses succeed as they are, I also recognize that some have to make concessions in order to survive. Utilizing the resources and networks corporations can offer can be a good thing as long as it doesn’t affect the product or a company’s standards. The same can be said for growing larger and expanding. As long as the beer and music remains of high quality, I’m not sure that I care how they do it. (This is assuming that there’s no slave labor or some other immoral business practice involved.)

When overreaction over supposed trends in craft beer happen, all we have to do is look to indie rock for how these things will turn out. Often, when craft breweries practice small, steady growth in an effort to put out a quality product the way they want to, good things happen. The worry over craft beer selling out is an unfounded one. The good will survive this time much the same way indie rock has survived its own flirtations with major labels.

Update: As I was considering this topic, other developments that caused additional stress in the beer blogosphere. It seems that craft breweries are closing. Now, some have the proper perspective to not fall for the panic, but others are worrying that the market is over-saturated. I seem to remember a similar lament in indie rock 15 years ago…

Honestly, there’s not really a trend or all that many people actually talking about it. I just wanted to post that song. The over-saturation of the market has been suggested, but it seems unfounded.

8 Responses

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  1. beerbecue said, on February 14, 2012 at 9:12 am

    Thank God. A level-headed assessment in a sea of hysteria. And I think it is nice that an anti-corporate individual, such as yourself, and a capitalist leaning pig, such as myself, can agree so wholeheartedly in this matter.

    • Zac said, on February 14, 2012 at 1:31 pm

      I am “an anti-corporate individual”, but I’m also a realist. Sometimes there is nothing wrong with having a little cash in the account even if it came from the devil. The key is whether or not you’re making a good product. That said, I don’t think that what’s produced by big corporations (major labels, BMC) are always bad. However, their model is more likely to produce junk than that of the indie/craft variety. The best thing a corporation can do is invest in these artisinal ventures and stay out of the decision making.

  2. beerbecue said, on February 14, 2012 at 9:14 am

    Oops. Sorry about the pig pun, I forgot about my new gravatar.

    • Zac said, on February 14, 2012 at 1:32 pm

      No worries. It’s sort of funny now.

  3. Jim said, on February 14, 2012 at 12:12 pm

    We’ll see how it all shakes out, but it’s a little scary and a little sad to see something as diverse and vibrant and free as the craft beer ecosystem be infiltrated by money men.

    Curt Cobian once howled, “just because you’re paranoid, don’t mean they’re not after you.” I agree with that. Of course he said it on an album that was paid for by David Geffen, and that turned out pretty good…

    • Zac said, on February 14, 2012 at 1:38 pm

      We shall see. My point is that indie rock has done incredibly well doing what they do despite corporate investors. That’s a precedent from which the craft beer community can look and it’s right in my wheelhouse.

      Kurt Cobain did say that and he is right, but just because they’re after you doesn’t mean they’ll ever catch you. Sonic Youth was on Geffen. It worked out for them over almost two decades and they’re back on an indie with enough cash in the bank to do whatever they want. The Flaming Lips and Built to Spill have created a nice niche at WB and it has yet to change them. Sure, some beers and/or bands change when there’s corporate influence, but the good ones don’t. If Goose Island, for example, goes south, that’s no big deal. Their founders have made their money and can piss into any pint glass they like. Some other brewery will fill the void.

  4. Alex said, on February 15, 2012 at 4:21 pm

    Count me among those worrying about over-saturation. I am really alarmed by the sheer numbers of craft breweries slated to open in the US in the coming year because, let’s face it: not all of them are going to be making great beer and many of them are jumping on one of the few growth industries left in this country, seeking to cash in rather than make a terrific product. The market for craft beer is just not big enough yet. A “correction” is inevitable, but probably not before a major spike in the price of ingredients, which will definitely affect home brewers.

    I hope I’m wrong, but I foresee a lot of closures and buyouts in the coming months as the bubble bursts. I just hope that my favorite small breweries have not just paid lip service to measured growth and can actually weather the storm.

    I also think it’s still too early to tell how things are shaking out with Goose Island. As it stands, I haven’t bought any Goose Island since the buyout and, honestly, I don’t feel like I’m missing anything. There is still plenty of choice out there.

    • zacearly said, on February 15, 2012 at 4:31 pm

      See, the problem is that everyone’s looking at industries that tend to burst bubbles (housing, tech, etc.) instead of something that’s small and sustainable like indie rock. I guess we’ll see.

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