About a week ago, the beer world saw the escalation of a cold war that has been brewing (no pun intended) for quite some time. The Brewers Association released a statement entitled “Craft vs. Crafty” which spelled out their definition of true craft beer and singled out several breweries that have either claimed or pretended to be so, despite their not meeting the “official” criteria. This statement sparked a social media firestorm and everyone and their mother weighed in on the debate over the following days, including representatives from many of the previously mentioned “pretenders.” Some called the statement a welcome stance that took aim at corporate domination of the beer scene in America, while others simply dismissed it as really having no relevance at all. Now that the dust has settled I think it is appropriate to reflect on this battle as it relates to the Queen City.
The Charlotte craft beer scene has experienced rapid, steady growth over the last few years. Many local breweries have opened and experienced great success and several craft beercentric bottle shops and bars have also opened and done quite well. With that in mind, we are moving ever closer to a point of market saturation, and as we do so, competition is increasing for all involved.
While craft breweries have had to fight the major corporate beer giants (ABInBev, and MillerCoors) for market share in the past, they have done so without doing significant damage to those groups. Their presence has been tolerated, though not without resentment and attempt to stomp them out via repackaging their products. That reluctant acceptance is waning, however, and the big boys have realized that there is a legitimate demand for well crafted, flavorful beer. Their response to this understanding has been twofold. On the one hand they have created a vast array of pseudo craft beers under the guise of “craft” sounding names such as Blue Moon and Shock Top. On the other, they have started investing in, or purchasing entirely, legitimate craft breweries like Goose Island and Terrapin.
So, what does all this mean for Charlotte?
First, and foremost, it means an increased level of visibility for the struggle itself. What, up until now, had mostly played out in bars and behind the scenes with sales reps, is now becoming much more public. When Goose Island was released to the Charlotte market this November, there was a lot of discussion via social media about this very topic. Is Goose Island craft beer? Should you buy it? If you do, who is your money supporting exactly? Some pushed for boycotts of the beer because it was now owned by ABInBev while others maintained that beer should be judged on quality alone, not who made it or financed it and they didn’t care who owned it as long as the beer was good.
I maintained then, and I will reiterate that I believe in every adult’s ability to make decisions for themselves. All I ask is that those decisions are informed. Like food, beer is a product that is consumed, and therefore I believe it is important to know who made it, with what, where it came from, and when it was made. If you enjoy, and see no ethical dilemma with drinking beer produced by ABInBev or MillerCoors, then you have the right to drink that beer. People shop at Wal-Mart and Target everyday without thinking twice. If you believe that supporting local products is important, and therefore choose to drink local beer only, that is also your choice.
Secondly, and sadly, it means that the happy collaborative spirit of local breweries is going to diminish, if only slightly at first. Collaboration has been a big ideology of craft breweries across the nation, but as more and more open, competition for handles and shelf space is going to increase. At the end of the day, beer is a business, and business means that there are winners and losers. Not all breweries are going to continue to grow or enjoy sustainability. Bars only have so many tap handles, and while it would be great, in my mind, to see quality locals dominating the bars in town, eventually even those institutions will have to start making decisions about which locals to keep on.
The biggest winner in that battle will be local consumers. Competition breeds innovation and increases quality across the board. Charlotte is going to continue to see better and more widely available local, regional, and national beer in stores and in bars. With that in mind, local breweries are going to have to stay ahead of the curve. They have the benefit of home field advantage here. They, theoretically, have more local reps that can support bars, educate customers, and provide visibility, though the larger companies have vastly more marketing capital at their disposal. Locals also have freshness on their side as their products won’t need to be shipped great distances.
With that in mind, ABInBev and MillerCoors will not continue to bleed market share without a serious fight. They will buy more craft breweries, continue to produce more varied styles under different names so that consumers who prefer to support craft beer will unknowingly buy their products, and they will continue to create new packaging and spinoffs like “lime” and “platinum” to appeal to a wider variety of customers and take up shelf space. This is, after all, a business. They have that right. And remember, they still control the vast majority of market share in the US. Also, it needs to be said that many people enjoy their beer. I think too often craft beer lovers veer into snob territory when they dismiss people who like Bud or Bud Light, or anything else those companies make. That elitist attitude is what got wine drinkers their reputations. We need to stay away from that territory.
What this ultimately comes down to is a choice by consumers. What do you want to drink? Do you want a thriving local beer scene that provides jobs in town, makes quality, fresh craft beer, and gives Charlotte something to be proud of? I know I do.
Finally, and most importantly, craft beer could give Charlotte a much needed, and sorely lacking identity. As a history buff, it pains me to see the way that Charlotte actively destroys its own culture. We knock down old buildings, bulldoze landmarks, and continuously update everything for the sake of progress. The problem is, we have very little history left to see, and thus no real identity beyond our banking sector.
This year at the Great American Beer Festival Charlotte brought home more medals (2) than any other city in North Carolina, including Asheville. That is the first time in history that has happened. There is a major opportunity here for the Queen City to embrace local craft beer like so many great cities out west already have. If you go to Denver or Portland you will see what we could be. Those cities have many thriving breweries that now distribute on a national level. They have access to a TON of great beer, and yet their populations and businesses overwhelmingly support their quality local breweries. I would love to see Charlotte, the city that I grew up in, become the Denver or Portland of the east.
We are at an exciting crossroads here in Charlotte when it comes to craft beer. We are still very young by industry standards, but there is a ton of potential here. Social media support is strong, local breweries are making some really great products, and the availability of quality craft beer is increasing. We have a lot to look forward to.
“Craft vs. Crafty,” if nothing else, is the beginning of a conversation that we should all be having as a beer community in every city, Charlotte included. It is about preference, quality, business, and identity. The products that we buy have a direct effect on businesses and those that work for them. It is important to know what you are buying, and ultimately who you are supporting. That choice belongs to us all. All I ask is that we all use it wisely.