Bear with me for a second. I want to explore an alternate reality. In this imaginary world, the big-three macro breweries mass produce high-quality, full-flavored ales and lagers in a wide variety of styles.
This premise may not be entirely far-fetched. They certainly are capable of doing so. Brewers at these institutions are among the best trained in the world and the technology they possess is top-notch. Released from the constraints of the light-lager market, they could do wonderful things. In fact they already are. AB-Inbev spun off Michelob for just that purpose, and despite many a beer geeks’ wishes to the contrary, I suspect that many of the Michelob Brewmaster Beers would hold up well to the crafts in a blind tasting.
There is no technical reason that great beer could not be produced on a super-massive scale. Beer is a manufactured product. Like other manufactured products it would simply be a matter of scaling up. If they start with quality ingredients, develop quality recipes, and follow exacting brewing process, there is no reason they shouldn’t end up making a quality quaffable. They have lab facilities that small-scale craft brewers can only dream of, so maintaining consistency at a high standard shouldn’t be an issue. They could even achieve economies of scale that would bring down the cost of great beer for everyone. Imagine spending fifteen dollars for a twelve-pack instead of a single bottle of über-bitter Double IPA.
Oh, they would still make pale-yellow lagers in this alternate world. There will always be those (probably the majority) who would prefer to drink that, and there’s no reason they shouldn’t be able to. I’m no beer Nazi. But in addition they would be rolling out millions of barrels annually of genuine Bohemian Style Pilsner, Düsseldorf Altbier, and Imperial Stout. Imagine suitcases of canned lambic stacked high in the liquor store showroom. Would this be such a terrible world?
There would still be a market for the small craft brewers. The wine world is able to accommodate the Two Buck Chucks and the Gallo jugs alongside high-end artisanal wines. Niche markets would develop for beer. Those who want to pay top-dollar for a bottle of limited release double dry-hopped, oak-aged, imperial pilsner from the local or regional small craft brewer will still do so. They do it now – why wouldn’t they continue? These breweries will likely continue to turn out more interesting products than the macros, if not higher quality. Massive scale does tend to homogenize.
In fact, the small breweries might become more cultish than they already are. They might be able to command an even higher price for their wares. Beer geeks will always hate the macros. In the face of what they view as the commoditization of good beer, they will turn even more sternly against the giants and seek strength in the small. In blogs, books, and beer magazines will rhapsodize about these artisan ales, singing their praises in hyperbolic prose. Oh wait…they already do that. Well, they’ll do it even more.
To paraphrase Voltaire, this could be the consumer’s best of all possible worlds. We get to have our beer and drink it too. Good tasting beer is available everywhere at a reasonable price. And we can still get esoteric artisan stuff for when we want to prove our superiority to our friends.
Or maybe it would just put the little guys out of business. Their Goliath gone, they have no common enemy against which to unify themselves and their legions of fans. The noble battle for increased market share would seem moot, as a much larger share of the market would already be going to better beer. It might turn into an internal blood-letting as the smaller craft brewers become forced to turn on each other in an all-out brawl for what little remained.
It is the growth of Sam Adams that causes me to engage in this reverie. I have written about this elsewhere, as have many others, but it still continues to fascinate me. As Sam Adams approaches the two-million barrel mark and leaves the economically defined label “craft brewer” behind, what does this mean for the industry as a whole? Sam Adams is encroaching on macro status and yet still producing beer worthy of the label “craft.” Will beer geeks still accept them? The real macros are starting to get the message, even if it is only driven by the pressure of the bottom line. They are starting to make better beer. Michelob’s brewmaster even introduced a limited batch of Michelob Brett to intrigued beer fans at a rare beer event in Denver last year. What acceptance will the big guys get when they start to do it right?
What would it be like to have good tasting beer available on the scale of the mass-produced lagers? Would we craft beer drinkers view this as a boon or a curse?