Craft beer is one of the fastest-growing markets in the world. The expansion of brands like BrewDog, Stone, Dogfish Head, and others have drawn accolades and criticism in almost equal measure. Some say that craft brewers are selling out by taking corporate money and entering foreign markets. There’s a case to made there. Others (often those receiving those multi-million dollar investments) say that the bigger they are the more they can support innovation and local beer communities. Again, not completely without merits.
All we know right now is that craft beer is an unstoppable force in the beer industry and these issues are going to remain in contention as small, local, and home brewers transform into multi-national conglomerates faster than we can keep track of them. So where do you fall on the commoditization of craft beer? Is it okay for them to “sell out” or do you like to keep it local?
I’m going to have an argument with myself to try to answer a perhaps unanswerable conundrum. You can @ me in the comments with your opinion.
THE CASE AGAINST SELLING OUT
This boils down to the very heart and soul of what craft beer is. For this exercise let’s say you’re in Toronto on vacation. You head into a bar and peruse their beer menu. There are the usual big-business beers like Molson and Labatt’s alongside Beck’s and so forth. Then there are the craft beers like Goose Island, Brooklyn Lager, and Stone. And finally, there are the locals — Bellwoods, Junction, Halo, and so on.
You know you like to drink Goose, Brooklyn, and Stone. But, you know, you’re not in Chicago, New York, or southern California. You’re in Ontario. You know by ordering a local beer you’re supporting local beer. That directly translates to you supporting local jobs, agriculture, infrastructure, and character. Why go to Toronto and drink beer from somewhere else? Why send that money elsewhere?
The idea of big craft brewers like Stone or Brooklyn or BrewDog elbowing out locals is becoming more and more likely. They’re all arguably brewing good beers that deserve our attention. They’ve all created a hip, punk, and crafty aesthetic that translates well to other markets — Stone Brewing recently opened a massive brewery in Berlin to supply most of Europe and BrewDog has opened 50 brew bars around Europe and is coming for the US market.
The question has to be asked, “Why go all the way to Berlin to drink a beer from San Diego?” Likewise, is a BrewDog in a place like, say, Warsaw going to understand the depth of the local palates and styles of Poland as well as the Polish and make a wholly unique Polish beer experience even possible at their brewpub? In essence, craft beer is supposed to be the bulwark against huge corporate beer over-shadowing local, well-made beer. What happens when craft beer is both the overshadowing force and the overshadowed upstart.
There’s a certain ‘aesthetic’ that international craft beer taking over represents. As an avid beer drinker, writer, and advocate I’ve enjoyed beer all over the world in all forms — from brewery floors to bar conventions to hidden away backstreet hole-in-the-wall dives. And brewpubs tend to fall into two categories: 1) either it’s a wholly unique place or 2) it’s a place that hits all the hip marks and therefore blends into the rest of the movement seamlessly and forgettably. My experiences at BrewDog in Berlin merge with trips to the brewpub in London or Rome or Warsaw because, mostly, they’re strikingly similar establishments. Like chain restaurants.
Personally, if I’m sitting in a brewpub in Barcelona, I don’t want to feel like I just walked into a brewpub in Asheville or Portland, damn it. Yet, here we are listening to 80s rock and roll while sitting against a red brick wall while a dog prances around the tables, all sipping our IPAs.
Of course, the main markers of the movement aren’t exactly terrible: 1) an attractive woman, typically with tattoos, pulling beers. 2) “Local” foods that always somehow include pulled pork and burgers. 3) Double IPAs that no human can drink more than one of, 4) A bearded and ball-capped dude hanging out and “running” the place. It’s all good, it’s just… getting a little boring.
Since the new corporate-funded craft beers are imported they are invariably more expensive than local brews. Even at Stone Brewing in Berlin, where the beer is brewed on site, you’re still being charged $6-$10 per pint. To put that in perspective, you can buy a bottle of the local Brlo craft beer for $2 in a corner shop and $4 in a beer bar. So, um, why would anyone ever go to Stone, besides for the novelty? And why pay an exorbitant price for said novelty when all that money is going back to California and not to the locals making something that speaks to where you are?
As the world and consumers get woke to the importance of supporting their local economies, buying a sell out craft beer from San Diego in Berlin just feels wrong. Craft Beer is about the character and people of the place you find yourself. And that’s what makes it so fucking good.
THE CASE FOR SELLING OUT
Let’s set aside the arguments about capitalism and unchecked profit motivation for the sake of this exercise. I’m not dismissing that some people get into the craft beer game to make money, but that’s not what this is about.
If you have a product that people love, they will buy it and more people will want to be part of the party. That’s a success by every measure. With that success in product, branding, and marketing comes money, investment, and growth. With that growth comes the opportunity to make something new and wholly unique and give it to the world.
The “corporate” craft brewers like BrewDog, Dogfish Head, or Stone will rightfully argue that the massive investments in their products mean an investment in ideas and innovation. This is a big factor in what is making craft beer so cool and, well, broad. Where would we be without Dogfish Head’s crazy experimentations pushing the boundaries of beer, technology, and corporate responsibility? With heavy investment comes the leeway to try new things, brew better beers, and support the community.
The big craft brewers support local breweries by existing. Look at the menu for Stone Brewery’s draft beer bar in Berlin for instance. There are 20 Stone beers (14 of which are brewed in Berlin) and then there are another 30 beers on the menu from around Europe (11 of which are from Berlin and Hamburg). Stone has enough name recognition to draw in big crowds that can support employing local people in the beer industry around brewing, food, and bars. That’s a good thing in-and-of-itself. A rising tide lifts all ships. At the same time, they are not just showcasing their own brews, they’re showcasing what makes the region a beer mecca with local brews.
And that’s what makes this industry so unique and cool. Imagine if you went to Warner Bros Studios and they were also selling Paramount and Universal Studios movies to you. That brand crossover promotion just doesn’t happen in other industries like it does in the craft beer community.
BrewDog follows the same pattern. In their Berlin outlet, they have eleven of their own beers on tap along with 16 other beers from various breweries. They know they can get people in the door with their brand, and once you’re in the door these big craft brewers aren’t afraid of serving you someone else’s beer. All of this is a good thing for craft brewing in general.
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The Stone Brewing World Bistro & Gardens – Berlin has six #StoneBerlin-brewed IPA's for you to try this weekend, including some specials from our 10hl experimental brewery: Stone Pilot Series Pale Ale, Stone Coffee IPA and Stone Pilot Series Session IPA Dry-Hopped w/Callista & Hüll Melon. Explore our full draft list via the link in the bio. #Hops #IPATasting #StoneIPA #MoreCalBel #Ruination #morehops #ipa ( #📷 @wurstsack)
As consumers (woke or not) big brands draw our attention. And if those big brands are multi-product distributors, everyone benefits. The consumer has the opportunity to sample something local and new in a familiar environment while local brews get a bigger distribution point for their product. It’s a win, win.
So maybe you show up that BrewDog in Rome. And after knocking back a nice pint of Punk IPA you decide to try something local, let’s say a Birrificio Lariano Ciakulli. And from there you strike up a conversation and you end up in a tiny local craft beer bar like Ma Che Siete Venuti a Fa’ drinking from a mini cask that just came down from the Apennine mountains. That place you first felt comfortable going to invariably will lead you to something even cooler, where you can help support the locals. It’s a gateway that helps everyone drink more good beer. And that’s good too.
Selling out feels like a bad action. Craft beer isn’t supposed to be corporate. Yet, that’s obviously a little naïve. If the consumer loves your product, that means they’ll explore the world around the product with more depth — and that benefits everyone in craft beer. We can have big hitters making hundreds of millions of dollars and expanding globally alongside local brewers popping up to fill in the gaps and find something new. It’s a big tent, getting bigger every day, with room enough for everyone.
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Our 90 Minute IPA ranked No. 1 in a recent poll published by @maximmag!! "Bow down to craft beerdom's reigning champion … this super-hoppy IPA was the clear favorite among the beer drinkers polled, so we gotta give it props.” Thanks so much for the ❤! #craftbeer #offcentered