Hey, hey! Out of the wet spring and into the preview of summer almost immediately. If you haven’t read the initial portion, the previous & bigger brother of this post (BUSINESS), you may want to go check it out prior to diving in to this. Big brother is a very apt description for a couple reasons. Big brothers tend to be a bit controlling and perhaps a bit princess-y. As a big brother (and a capricorn) I know about these things. And the Orwellian Big Brother, well, his omnipotent eye can be focused through all types of lenses. In this case, our Big Brother is Beer. More specifically, the Beer Industry. And oh oh oh! So, please, go read (or re-read) the previous nebulous and non-specific post prior to this. Hopefully they will compliment each other in a way not obvious to me yet.
I’ve had a bit of a slow revelation regarding What’s Going On. For those of you who hear beer and think ‘YUM’ (as opposed to ‘NOW WHAT’) the beer industry is in a bit of a slump. From my perspective, there are many reasons for this. In no particular order:
1) Dry January & the rather mature Gen Z approach to alcohol in general. Yawn.
2) White Claw & the seltzer phenomena. (Segue: A few years ago, The 7-11 near our tasting room had the distinct honor of attaining one of the highest sales of PBR in the nation when comparing all 7-11’s, nationally. This always amazed me as our town is rather affluent and known for craft beer consumption. This 7-11 is in the heart of things, surrounded by breweries and tourists. Trying to comprehend how much beer is/was consumed in this town is impossible, especially next to this fact. This led to the discovery that, for EVER, beer like PBR has been the top selling commodity for the masses. Big Brother Beer is built on this. It probably explains why, when White Claw in all it’s perfection and immediate glory, took over the top spot breweries began producing seltzer. From the inside, it makes complete sense. Industrial breweries, even small ones, are 100% about generating money and participating in capitalism to the nth. Seltzer is not that much different from commodity beer, anyways. But the fear factor within the industry, from people who care about beer, was palpable.)
3) The N/A trend. Maybe this belongs in category number 1, but not to me. One local large brewer is selling more N/A beer than beer now. Can we still refer to it as a brewery???
4) The ‘Starbucksification’ of beer! You know, beers made with cake or candy bars. Beer as frappacino. Beer churned in a slushie machine. Now don’t mistake me for a grumpy old man. Really! I could care less about these things as entities. I don’t have anything against any of this stuff. Maybe you are squinting at me. In the past, I used to actively tell people I didn’t have anything against IPA’s, but people always assumed that I was at war with them because I didn’t produce them. I’m not and I just don’t. I celebrate the fact that beer, of all the alcoholic beverages, can be the chameleon like David Bowie, stretching out and touching, almost becoming the other. Beer can blur the line between the finest wines, it can impersonate something you might get at a Dutch Bros and it can imitate the crappiest of sodas. It can pretend to be cider and it can proudly be nothing but alcohol and carbonated water. It can be pilsner in Czech. I love the fact that beer can be so many forms. And I’m very glad that beer cannot be hard Mountain Dew. Ok, back on track. Domestically, these factors (decline in drinking in general, transition to other alcoholic beverages) have led to a downturn in beer consumption. Lump onto this how trendy beer is
5) SQUIRREL! and our wild-ale market tumbles twice as hard as good old regular beer as people who are attracted to shiny new objects flock to hazies, to seltzer, to smoothies. Even back to lager. I like how full-circle this trip has been. As a business owner, it’s a painful lesson what drives our consumer, but as an observer of humans doing humanity, it’s quite entertaining. Think back to the beginning of the craft beer revolution. It was kind of based on a hatred of lager. We probably could have skipped all of this if Michelob had focused on these people. Brewed with 100% malt & Saaz hops! I actually loved Michelob. Amber bottles, it was a really decent American pilsner.
6) Then consider how saturated the wild ale market became recently. Perhaps this was simply because beer is trendy and breweries for some reason thought that since there is interest in this segment there must be money?? The idealist in me wants to believe that, instead, this was driven by brewers wanting to reclaim their craft from the efficiency nerds, from the brewers supply catalogs, from Big Brother Beer. This saturation contributed to a reduction in our domestic distribution by a significant amount.
7) China’s response to COVID and the war in Ukraine. For us, this was huge. While we retained our Ale Club memberships, we generally count on our pal, Erik Lu, to bring in quite a bit of our beer to Shanghai at the beginning of the year. Due to the situation in Asia, that did not happen this year. Ouch. In Europe, the war dampened the economy enough to affect our usual distribution as well. Because of our niche and our location, we’ve had to rely on far-flung distro to sell the small amount of beer we make so ya know. Instead of growing our Ale Club, which may be a better business move, we’ve opted for distro so we can maintain this relationship with our best customers.
Ok, all of these things individually would be Items of Interest. Items to Contemplate. Items to Definitely Not Ignore. However, for us, they came all at once. Right at the beginning of this year it was like a light switch turning off. Maybe like the Colorado River once it reaches Mexico. Now, if you are a real business person, please don’t get too persnickety with me. I’m sure that if I had better financials in place, if I utilized my business plan better, if I had paid attention to certain things at a deeper level, things would look different. I totally agree. And yet, they wouldn’t look that much different. This is the hardest lesson so far in our 12 years…what do we do? How do I maintain the essential nature of this art project? At the core, the pain is most severe when I realize that the consumer that I am speaking to simply doesn’t care all that much. To their point, this is just beer. And perhaps that isn’t actually the truth. Perhaps the truth is based more in simple numbers. There was never going to be that many consumers for our beer in the first place. I knew this and proudly kept my brewery small, prices high, and focused on our craft. This works until the market is saturated with breweries that have money and skill at advertising or are simply closer to these consumers. Either way, Staci, Connor and myself are looking at each other and contemplating our future. Is it time to hang up the boots? Follow Alan Sprints and Hair of the Dog? Or do we start contracting N/A beer at a production plant? No matter what, it’s evident that change is whipping the pant legs around our ankles and doing nothing is really not an option. Last year was the first year we ended up in the red. I’m fine with earning a reasonable wage for this effort, but if I can’t even manage a reasonable wage the decision will be made for me.
When I started my brewery (old man, take a look at my life), I was pushing against what I viewed as Big Brother Beer. I had come to realize that ‘craft beer’ was just marketing and I wanted to celebrate the concept that beer is a natural thing and can be produced with intention and integrity. A basic component of this was my thoughts about marketing. I figured if I put all the value I assumed people wanted into the product, no advertising would be necessary. It would take care of itself because the quality, the story, the scarcity was all built in and visible for everyone to see. I called it ‘invisible marketing’ and helped me keep the brewery focused and small. Fast-forward to today and, well, I have some thoughts on that. I think that social media is making it extremely difficult for small producers (of any industry) to remain viable with regards to advertising for a couple reasons. Back before instagram etc, it was pretty obvious to tell what an ad was. They came on the radio, the tv, on a billboard. Social media funneled us into making ads for ourselves. Our personal profiles are really nothing but advertisements for our own lives. As more marketing encroached into this area, they took what worked and, today, it’s really hard sometimes to know if you are being marketed to. Hint: YOU ARE. Also, us small producers really don’t have the time or the energy to spend on staying up on video production. It’s significant. Word of mouth is the best and it’s really what we are trying to focus on instead of social media.
Ticking off the items on my list, the next observation is us as people. What is it that we really want? What is it that I really want? And what a nice chunk of privilege to examine! I find it so odd to entertain folks who work for The Man (or Big Brother) and tell me (to my face) how great it is that I’m doing what I’m doing. This feels good, for sure, but only to a point. Is that why I’m here? Is my struggle, with the financial stress, the pressure on my marriage and my kids looking at me quizzically all just so someone who makes good dollars working for the capitalist machine feel good about the world for a few minutes? My goal was never to represent something for others that could not or would not do it themselves, instead I had hoped that I could make a living doing something that I find meaningful and the rest would take care of itself. Wistfully, I have come to understand that perhaps the world is too busy for me to communicate our intentions, our deeds, our values. Or perhaps my idea of value is at odds with too many of the general population. And maybe the biggest question is Why Am I Telling You All Of This In The First Place?? Well, it’s funny. I think that’s why. I think it’s really funny. I mean, I get caught up in the stress and confusion. I want to sort things out and continue this journey in some shape. But in reflecting on all this stuff, I can’t help but amuse myself with the overall arc of what’s transpired in the last 15 years of beer. In the process of celebrating the history and the craft of beer, while I was digging all these figurative holes in the ground to find remnants of pre-prohibition American small breweries and envisioning natural beer, Big Brother Beer simply walked over to the cotton candy machine and plunked his money down. And, really, who doesn’t like the circus??
einmal immer. Once, always. ‘Everything that happens is somehow caught in eternity’ – Kim Stanley Robinson.
The end result is to let you know that I am traveling up to WA at the end of the month to retrieve a couple used fermenters. Connor and I will be brewing ‘clean’ beers in manners that we see fitting to our brand, to ourselves, to this place. It’s exciting! Pricing is difficult. It’s hard to tell where this will go, but our goal is to etch out our tiny niche to invite a wider audience into our tasting room. In fact, we are transitioning it into a beer bar, with food and maybe a couple guest taps. One way I’ve been looking at this is that for over 10 years we’ve been fortunate to focus mainly on our beer and how we make it. It’s been an amazing journey that is not really ending, but moving toward simpler beers to make will allow me to (finally) focus on the business. Yay. So excited. I am hopeful that there are enough people out there, out here, that are interested in art-focused and locally-sourced beer…the closing of the circle would be if we can find a way to retain our integrity and ideals while selling all our beer at our bar. Come visit! Join our Ale Club, they are the ones that consistently let us know they have our back and believe in what we are doing. And go out there and have some god damned fun. I’m going out on a bike ride and then will be rocking my brains out at a show later. I will probably be thinking about beer and busines as well, but hopefully it won’t be too obvious.