I’m always a little amazed by the bizarre cultural dichotomy that beer finds itself in.
It seems almost insane to me that the image on the left (one of the least salubrious Beer Magazine covers) could somehow influence the image on the right.
On one hand, beer is the domain of the 1970’s frat boy culture. Girls in bikinis, kegs, hot dogs, and alcohol abuse. What could be more American? Beer is also undeniably blue collar. At the end of a long shift at the factory, you can imagine a group of guys heading to their local to throw back a pint or two, but you can’t really imagine them sipping a Fuzzy Navel or a glass of Merlot.
On the other hand, beer is swiftly joining wine in the high-end marketplace. It is being recognized for its strengths in food pairing and you are increasingly likely to see someone drinking a goblet of great beer at a fancy restaurant. It’s not just wine and cocktails anymore.
I think about this a lot whenever somebody brings up craft beer in cans.
I recognize that cans are a good delivery vehicle for beers. They are little kegs. They don’t let light in and have the opportunity, when filling, for a totally oxygen-free experience. They are lighter, less expensive, and have a smaller impact on the environment. They are a brilliant packaging option.
But! Cans have the cultural cache of beach, ballpark, and BBQ. Macros dominate the can market and when you think about beer in a can, you pretty much can’t avoid thinking about Bud Light… or.. maybe warm Schlitz. It’s not a reflection of the quality of the beer in the can, it’s a fact that over the past 100 years what’s been in a can has been industrial light lager. It’s like how when you hear the word “forty” in relation to a drink your brain automatically goes here.
I guess I wonder when we’re likely to see this:
Craft beer geeks? We understand that great beer comes in a can, but we’re a small, small part of the market, and even then I don’t usually think of canned beer as beer dinner material. I think of it as “drunk” material.
I see the craft market going to two directions right now. I see it shooting for accessibility. I see it broadening its audience in the long search for market share and perhaps making some sacrifices in image as it goes. I also see it going down the fancy-pants-and-dinner-jacket road in an effort to be taken seriously in the culinary world. I see big, elegant bottles with fancy labels being served at cheese pairings, but that way lies inaccessibility and a battle across the long inlaid roads of wine.
So it all makes me wonder: Can craft go in both of these directions at once? Or will we inevitably see a market segment split where part of the market seeps back toward appealing to the lowest common denominator while still making big-flavored beer and part of the market takes its cicerone to go stand next to the sommelier?
They may not make significantly different products right now. After all, the market is young and while our brewing imagination runs wild, it does so within parameters that are only just starting to expand. Twenty or thirty years down the road when these cultural differences are more stark, will we have two craft markets instead of one? Or will cans find a place at the dinner table?