Jack Curtin dropped an idea into the discourse today that I think is really worth exploring:
One of the secret strengths of craft’s little corner of the beer world has always been the breaking down of the walls between producers and customers. Add in the even stronger bond between brewers and homebrewers are you have one of the primary factors in allowing crafts to continue to thrive and grow even in a terrible economy, second only to consumer perception of quality and value for their hard-earned dollars.
There is a lot packed into that short paragraph. Three ideas really and the fourth of their ranking. He got thinking this way in response to an article in The New York Times this weekend about the ways craft brewers are reaching out to their customers. Let's have a look at Jack's ideas and flesh them out a bit.
- The walls between producers and customers: this is an important idea but I think one that is frankly overplayed by the craft brewing trade including commentators. Most consumers will never meet or certainly not have the kind of relationship that is shared between people who work in the beer trade at all levels. That is why I like to say love the beer not the brewer. We can like the brewer just fine but have to be wary of ideas like "supporting" a "craft beer community" as opposed to being watchful for respect of beer lovers in the marketplace. Similarly, we have to be careful in response to claims that brewers are celebrities or even rock stars. Worse, we have claims that beer knowledge is specialist knowledge that requires only "real" writers doing the describing. These things put distance between the consumer and producer and even confuse the marketplace though fostering snobbery.
- The bond between brewers and homebrewers: when I started my interest in good beer, it was through homebrewing. I was in London in the mid-80s and brought back a few books, a few collapsible plastic kegs and some other stuff. The best writing about beer at that time seemed to be all about home brewing. When I started blogging about beer back in 2003 I could find very few other bloggers who weren't focusing on making it themselves. Craft brew and home brew were connected though people trying to replicate the good beers they were finding in the shops. I don't know if that is so much the case anymore. I have a sense that the next wave of craft beer drinkers may never have met a home brewer.
- Consumer perception of quality and value: what product shouldn't be judge as a matter of quality and value? Claims that value is not a vital principle to a beer fan sound to me like claims to a captured market. Sure there are real beer hounds who will spend stupid amounts to travel to the one pure source of that one unattainable beer but no one is building an industry to serve that luxury hobbyist. It's really about getting the six park into a million grocery carts.
- The relative place of these three principles: You can see where I am going. For me the last idea is the most critical aspect about where the good beer market is right now. In the states, more and more good beer is getting into grocery stores. In the UK, more and more cask ale is being sold in pubs. Widespread access to and enjoyment of good beer at a good price is the golden goose. Without that event of a value-based consumer choice, good beer will be stuck speaking to the converted, to the same faces seem at beer fests, to the same names on the bylines.
Maybe there really isn't an enemy of good beer - other than perhaps complacency - as long as we trust it is a product that has the quality and value that sells itself. This is an organic process that builds slowly overtime. And it's a process that has been proven over the last 20 years of market growth. If placing more people in breweries to teach them about how it is made is what we need to do now, well, that certainly says we are past the time when home brewing was the way to good beer. But it's not about breaking down the walls between the producer and consumer so much as teaching the consumer about the product and production of good beer.