Critical Drinking

Critical Drinking — The Balancing of Core and Craft

The last few days have brought a number of perspectives on the industry to bear, and for me, it’s exciting to see so many people talking about growth and competition in the beer business.

One piece that stood out amongst GBH’s own coverage was an op-ed written by Creature Comforts CEO, and former Diageo and Miller executive, Chris Herron. In his piece, he laid out a case for why AB InBev acquisitions are dangerous for craft beer, focusing on the downward pressure they put on craft beer prices, which makes it harder for craft brewers to work in the shrinking margins. And he connected the reason they might want to do this back to the core brands, Budweiser and Bud Light, and how lower craft prices buoy the value of those brands.

The insight Chris gives into how prices of competing products, especially those in a tier above the core, can effect major value for a company like AB InBev is compelling. Whether that’s ABI’s intent, or the intent of the High End group that acquires and builds craft brands, is entirely conjecture—but there’s certainly enough track record in ABI’s historic dealings with craft to make it worth considering.

Chris’ piece does a great service to GBH’s readership and the industry at large—it makes us all smarter about a very intricate and heady part of the beer industry puzzle. That’s why we published it. It was also devoid of the fiery rhetoric of revolution or “good vs. evil” metaphors that, in my personal opinion, have plagued craft beer marketing for far too long.

You might have noticed we’re not much for the holy wars around here. I grew up in a fundamentalist Christian community in Pennsylvania. I know exactly how oversimplified rhetoric is used to manipulate people into thinking there’s only two sides to every debate, and how the false choice of “you’re either with us or against us” creates warring factions that often miss the bigger picture. And that’s entirely the intent—keep people in a perpetual state of war so they never ask how anything actually works. There’s just enemies and the enemies of my enemies. There are no real friends.

So yeah, I tend to avoid subscribing to the sometimes over-zealous story of craft, and the “big bad” story of macros. I work in the middle, taking on projects that are curious and progressive, and have a chance of doing something unique for beer. Sometimes, that means making videos for breweries like Goose Island or Brasserie Dupont. Other times, it means launching startups like Brewery Bhavana (now perhaps the largest independent sour producer in North Carolina). I don't hide from any of this work—although some of our critics like to think I do—because it pays the bills and is exceptionally fulfilling. But because I walk that line, working with the very biggest and the very smallest, GBH gets hilariously mislabeled in a number of ways. Depending on who you ask, we’re either a “hipster craft beer blog,” an “AB apologist,” or just a plain old “sell-out.” I’m fine if any of those sides want to disown us or claim us—that’s not my prerogative. It also tells me that if everyone’s a little uncomfortable, then we’re probably focusing on the right thing—namely, the intellectual pursuit of where beer is going and who’s taking us there.

All that being said, I want to broaden the scope of Chris’ piece a bit and explain how I think the competitive elements he focused on are indeed challenging to craft. Those elements are especially concerning to a small brewery like his that’s deeply rooted in a local market where someone like Wicked Weed is about to become a juiced-up competitor, and where the venture-capital-backed SweetWater is right next door. For its part, Creature Comforts has done exceptionally well handling that competition. For someone like Chris and his team, the sky’s probably not falling—it’s just getting a little starrier.

AB has certainly had an effect on the increasingly low prices of craft beer, but not nearly as much as you might think. Yes, there have been half-price kegs reports from all over the country when they move aggressively into a market with something like Goose IPA, which they started brewing at their AB plants for national—and now global—distribution. Moves like that are a shock to the system. They can conceivably do that with any of their craft acquisitions, and to some degree, will likely continue to do so where they have to. The news I hear in that, though, isn’t bad for craft at large, at least not in the longterm. It tells me that ABI has very limited options for competing in local markets—other than price—until they earn back some of that goodwill they keep mentioning. If you’re a craft brewery and your competition has to cut their prices in half to get a handle, that’s a good sign. It means you’ve got a different kind of leverage that they don’t—one they likely never will have, either.

At the same time, The High End brands seem really interested where the top of the price bracket can go. Goose pushed so high on that range this past year with Bourbon County Stout that it caused a backlash. Craft drinkers and brewers alike cited “AB greed” as the motivator. But the lines formed and the product moved and everyone decried fans who bought it as charlatans and then subsequently rejoiced when some of it was infected. Meanwhile, plenty of professional ink was spilled about how raising prices was bad for craft, and beer was the drink of the people, and prices could—and should—go lower. What a strange argument coming from the same people who are now worried about prices being too low! That’s the logic of a religion, or maybe a Freedom Caucus, but not an industry. And I'd be forever disappointed if a significant portion of craft beer became a sort of malt-right.

Felipe Szpigel, in our piece about the Wicked Weed acquisition, described not a price-suppression strategy as much as a tiered strategy. AB is a portfolio company looking to provide as many of the desired alcohol products as they can reasonably attach to a customer segment interested in buying them. To that end, Felipe described the ladder that drinkers are now climbing in terms of complexity, not price: "Sours are the next phase of development,” he tells GBH. Craft consumers start at “Lager then [go to] IPA, then a bigger a IPA. Then they’re looking for that something with complexity. I think sours [could fill that role.]” No doubt pricing is part of that ladder, but it's about a two-way balance, not a one way pressure. 

Historically, consumers have always wanted prices lowered and producers have always wanted them higher. It’s a never-ending tension that gets sorted out by the market. Craft brewers are trying to make a compelling argument that if you really want the other aspects of craft beer (innovation, choice, independence, etc.), then you’re going to have to join their side and pay more. They’re entirely correct, and they’ve recruited a significant number of drinkers to adopt that view. But those same drinkers are confronted with the retail shelf like anyone else, and no doubt get excited when they see a bargain. It’s human nature.

Increasingly, those bargains are coming from craft brewers themselves. And this is where I think broadening the scope of Chris’ argument does the most good. Two examples:

A 15-pack of Founders All Day IPA in Chicago costs $13.99.

A 15-pack of New Belgium Day Blazer costs $11.99 at Total Wine in Wisconsin.

As a drinker, I have zero complaints about this. I even sort of love that someone is taking a run at the middle of the market with such gusto. It’s a whole new world full of competition and sales strategies. As an industry strategist, that stuff gets me jazzed. It’s a new puzzle to solve.

My smaller startup clients are going to have to find a way to compete, and compete hard. Do they find a way to lower their prices and join the consideration set for that All Day customer? Or do they find a way to premiumize their brand and attract that same customer for different reasons that are more important than price? That’s where Chris’ head is at as he no doubt imagines a host of discounted Wicked Weed Pernicious kegs coming to market up against his successful Tropicália brand.  

Meanwhile, my larger craft clients start getting excited that mainstream drinkers might start walking out of a Costco with a 15-pack of craft beer for the first time. It creates new customers, new occasions, and a new attachment to craft that wasn’t there before. It also creates velocity faster—the kind of stuff you hear Jim Koch of Boston Beer talking about. How can this opportunity to compete in a different pricing tier help expand their business?

The conventional beer market is like that—constantly catalyzed with a new entry that’s forcing everyone else to stay on their toes. It’s one of the reasons I love it so much. It makes for great sport and keeps my mind young.

The other part of Chris’ theory was that the High End’s purpose was to protect ABI’s core brands. I think it’s entirely reasonable and logical to see that effect playing out. But I’ve worked with the HE team over the last few years on numerous occasions, and my experience gives me a different perspective.

From what I’ve seen, the HE has its own goals for increasing the size of the market for craft, and winning share of that market. It’s a business group, fairly recently reconfigured, to create a much more nimble and dynamic approach to a part of the market that was completely leaving them behind. And the biggest influence on that group’s strategy and tactics is the talent they’re acquiring from craft breweries. The HE operates much more like a tech company acquiring new technology and the creative talent from would-be-future competitors and putting it to work to accelerate growth in a new sector. That sector is craft.

If the HE succeeds in craft (and their organic growth numbers suggest it will, for awhile at least), it seems likely that it will positively effect the ABI core portfolio as well, as Chris describes. Not just by avoiding the impairment charges levied against declining Budweiser and Bud Light brands (which are worth billions), but by actually earning a presence in distributors’, retailers’, and consumers’ minds again. They can gain the relevance they’ve been looking for. And if ABI’s core brands benefit from their success in craft, to my mind, that’s earned. Craft drinkers and craft brewers might not like it (And believe me, I understand the competitive sentiment here.), but you can’t say they didn’t earn it.

Broadening the scope even more, a company like ABI isn’t just thinking about beer. They’re thinking about wine and spirits and everything else someone might drink—what they unfortunately call “share of throat.” (Ugh.) They literally think about how much liquid a person consumes in a day and want to figure out how they can compete for that. That sounds grotesque, I know. But that’s exactly how the national sales director for Sierra Nevada described his thinking at CBC in Portland a few years ago as well. It’s how a lot of high-level sales people think about the constant encroachment on their business by the world of alcoholic beverage, and the finite number of customers they have to drink it. And it’s exactly the kind of strategic thinking people like Chris, a former Miller and Diageo executive, come to the craft world armed with whether they employ it in that way or not. If you haven’t noticed, there are a lot of former corporate executives leaving for craft beer these days. For people like that, competition isn’t a deterrent—it’s an attraction. It’s like chum in the water, and that’s exciting for these folks.

If ABI succeeds in craft, their core will benefit secondarily. As it should, I would argue. But based on my own experience, and what I see in the market, I don’t think that’s the primary goal of the High End. I would argue that they’re borderline oppositional to the core business of ABI.

Humor me for a minute.

Most large corporations I’ve worked for over the past decade—places like Nike, Samsung, and Hewlett-Packard—all saw their core businesses begin to decline. They put some of their smartest people on that problem, hoping to find solutions that would shore it up and give them more time to extract value out of it. But in the end, they all knew that someone else would start to eat their lunch by doing something new and better. You can’t protect it forever. So what do you do? You incubate your own competition.

Innovation groups, venture funds, and special project teams are how large corporations attempt to prototype their future competition in-house. They can then accelerate that future with their vast resources and get there before anyone else, or sell it off if they aren’t fit to run it. Yes, it may cannibalize their own sales for awhile, but it’s a necessary transition to the new reality. And in the long-run, it’s far more valuable than simply playing catch-up all the time.

Blue Moon is a great example. It took awhile to find traction on the scale Miller was used to playing, and they nearly killed it off multiple times, but eventually it became the largest “craft” beer brand in the country. ABI’s answer? Playing catch-up with Shocktop, which never really caught up at all. This newly reformulated HE group, however, is skating to where they think the puck is going to be next. And in the case of Wicked Weed, they’re clearly predicting sours. It’s the furthest out I’ve ever seen them anticipate.

All of which is to say: I see the mechanisms at work that Chris describes, but I interpret them differently in terms of intent. I also see larger craft applying some of the same pressures on price and access to market for smaller craft. And in the end, I think we’re going to end up with tiers of craft beer pricing—which I’ve written about before—ranging from those that compete directly with mass domestics, or maybe Mexican imports, to the tippy-top of range that competes with whiskey and wine for very special occasions. And of course, the middle is where the dynamism will be, as every brewer tries to leverage aspects of locality, format, exclusivity, independence, collaboration, and a host of other qualities that aren’t just in the purview of craft beer anymore, but beer in general. And that’s why, for producers, drinkers, and everyone in between, this is continuously the most exciting time to be alive.

Words and graphic
by Michael Kiser