23 Jul 2015 @ 11:37 AM 
 

Not Your Father’s Craft Beer

 

It’s amazing just how complex my feelings are about the dumbest things. Not Your Father’s Root Beer is inexplicable to me.  Partially because I just really dislike root beer and I just can’t imagine drinking a whole bottle of this, and partially because of the witchcraft through which it hath been wrought.NYFRB-Bottle

Drinkers apparently love itThe press loves it.

Except for the handful who are decent journalists and smell something fishy.

Here, I’ll save you the trouble of clicking on those links (but please do if you have the time).

1. Incredibly high ratings on RateBeer, alone, but especially within style.

2. Fortune, Time, Bloomberg, and Consumerist posts about how alcoholic root beer is “The Beer of the Year” and the best thing EVAR.

3.  Boston Globe and Philly Inquirer pieces revealing that Small Town Brewery isn’t a Small Town Brewery, but a subsidiary of Phusion brands, the fine folks who brought you Four Loko and that it’s probably going to be acquired by Pabst.

Before I go into my problems on this, let me just get this off of my chest:  Not Your Father’s Root Beer is no more beer than actual root beer is.  It’s a Flavored Malt Beverage, an Alcopop.  It’s made in a factory that makes Mike’s Hard Lemonade and Smirnoff Ice among other things.  And I’m not telling you not to like it.  I’m telling you to stop calling it a craft beer.  It’s no more a craft beer than Twisted Tea or Bacardi Breezer, or Hooch, or, you know, root beer.

Y’all know that root beer isn’t actually beer, right?  The guy who first commercialized root beer was active in the temperance movement and wanted to make Hires “Root Tea”.  He called it “beer” to appeal to the working classes and to stop them from drinking alcohol.  It’s just marketing.  It’s always been a sham.

I don’t even doubt that Small Town Brewery is what it purports to be or that it doesn’t make an array small of craft beers.  For all I know, the original location in Wauconda still does on its 3 bbl system.  But that product that you see in stacks on the floor at WalMart?  That is being released en masse in 30+ states?  Not on your freakin’ life.  I hope that Tim Kovac is getting enough in royalties and residuals on this to at least finally quit his day job, because it’s a masterful turn that I am, frankly, quite jealous of.

But why not admit it?  Why not take pride in it?

The chicanery that Phusion and phriends have used to convince drinkers that NYFRB is a craft beer is, frankly, incredible and awe inspiring, and for a little while I was puzzled by it.  Why be ashamed of what you are?  Mike’s Hard Lemonade doesn’t try to be something it isn’t.  Why is NYFRB doing this?  But I think I get it:  Earn the trust of the craft beer nerds and a lot of people who aren’t sure about what to think fall into place.  Look at the comments on this page.  It’s described as “liquid gold”, “a small taste of heaven”, “nectar of the gods”.  It boggles the mind.  It’s fucking root beer.  But when you’ve got the snobs in a tizzy everybody else leans over and takes a look.

What this is really teaching us is 1) The majority of craft beer nerds could give two shits about who makes their beer, or even, apparently, if it’s beer.  2) Most people think that “craft beer” means “not light lager” (thank you Stone).  3) People love soda.

And now let me tell you a story about grocery stores and what products like NYFRB mean to small breweries.

Grocery stores are funny places for beer.

The next time you’re in a grocery store, count the number of facings there are for just Bud Light.  Notice that there are full cold boxes dedicated to Bud Light.  They’ve got a 12 pack showing long-side and short-side in packaging so that it can fit a whole shelf.  They’ve got 12 oz cans, 16 oz cans, 12 oz bottles, 12 oz long-neck bottles, single cans, single bottles, beer balls, party packs, drink your way out of a swimming pool kits, etc., etc.  Then there’s a stack in the shape of a recliner and a television to celebrate the fact that football season starts in 2 months.

Just Bud Light.  Now start looking at Budweiser, and Bud sub-brands.  Lime-a-ritas, etc.

Now, who do you suppose puts all of those facings up?  If your answer is “the grocery store” you’re wrong.

Grocery store beer coolers and shelves are decided roughly twice per year at a corporate level.  Fortunately, both AB-InBev and MillerCoors pay the salaries of people who actually work for the grocery store corporate offices and specialize in building grocery store sets.  There’s software for it.  The contents of the shelves are decided down to the inch.  Occasionally there’s a bit of manager’s discretion for local brands.  A few chains have some local initiatives, but don’t think that the big guys are losing much space for that.

On an individual grocery store level? Those guys don’t stock the shelves, either.  That’s done by distributors.  When you see somebody walking through the grocery store aisles restocking beer, or fixing the way something is sitting on a shelf, take note of what they’re wearing.  It’s probably a polo shirt from a local distributor.  They are trying as hard as they can to get as many brands from their distributor on the shelf as possible because that’s how they get paid.

Why am I talking about grocery stores?  Because the only real way to make money in beer is by selling a LOT of it.  Margins are paper thin.  Volume sales are where it’s at.  And grocery store chains equal volume.  There are 37,716 grocery stores in the US (or were at the end of 2014).  If, by some miracle, you could sell only case of 12 oz bottles in each one of those once per month through a whole year, ignoring any other sales outlet, you’d be making 33,000 bbls of beer.  That is roughly the size of the large regional craft brewery in your area.  There are 90 breweries that size or larger in the U.S., out of 3500.  Fewer than 2 per state.

Next, go find out how many actual craft brands your grocery store carries.  I bet it’s fewer than 90 in most stores.  Make sure you don’t count any of these brands or any of these brands or any of these brands or any of these brands.  It’s a fun exercise.

Grocery stores, like beer reviewers on the internet, don’t really care who makes beer.  They care about sales.  They want to know that sku A sold faster than sku B.  The next time shelves are edited, sku A gets more space, sku B gets less.  That’s it.  It is, yes, why Bud Light has so much space and won’t lose it.  It’s also why small breweries have a hard time with shelf space: because they’re not instantly recognizable; people who aren’t sure about what they’re buying avoid them.

Finally, you’ll notice that there’s a limited amount of space for beer in grocery stores.  It doesn’t really change.  There are, however, a LOT more breweries, to the tune of 100% growth in the past five-ish years.  Space is a premium.  The largest challenges to a craft brewer today are shelf space and tap space.  They are difficult and expensive to get and even more difficult to keep, because every day there is someone at your heels saying, “Hey, want to try this? It’s NEW. You should sell it.”

When something like NYFRB comes along, an alcopop disguised as a craft beer, a mass-market beverage disguised as a small time brewery, what I see is danger.  Why?  Because not only is it being bought by the people who don’t know and don’t care, it’s being bought by the people who DO care.  Because the elaborate ruse that Phusion and Small Town Brewery have engaged in through their incredible (and expensive) PR firm is masterful and has fooled an enormous amount of people from drinkers to journalists.  Craft beer stores that would normally never carry alcopops are buying it by the pallet – and why wouldn’t they?  It’s like instant money.

But, make no mistake.  Every time NYFRB or something like it comes into a store as a craft beer, something else goes out.  And since people have no problem buying the ever living shit out of it, they’re guaranteeing that there’s one less spot for a small, local brewery to inhabit in the future.

So, sure.  If it’s good, drink it.  Who gives a shit, right?  Get TRASHED.  You’re an AMERICAN.

But don’t be fooled.

Know the choice that you’re making and what it means.  And don’t call yourself a craft beer fan if you don’t care.  Let the small breweries know who their fans and allies really are.

 

Tags Categories: distribution, industry, marketing, media, news, op-ed Posted By: erik
Last Edit: 23 Jul 2015 @ 11 37 AM

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Responses to this post » (9 Total)

 
  1. Stephen O’Kane says:

    Loved the piece, and 100% agree with everything you are saying about root beer. The name beer really doesn’t belong. Ever.

    I do enjoy your rants (hope you don’t mind me calling them that), but one thing, you really have to say “couldn’t give two shits” rather than “could give”, as that implies that they do, in some way, give two shits.

    Cheers,
    Sok

  2. […] this is popular though?  Some others have seen through the craft beer disguise, such as Top Fermented and Philly.  I’m fine with folks drinking what they like, but I think there is some […]

  3. Charles says:

    You are mistaken when you say it is an FMB. It is a beer made with spices…a Gruit. All you need to do is read the bottle and understand TTB regulations on products like this. The TTB would never let an FMB label themselves as an Ale. The brewery that makes this beer does make a bunch of FMBs, but they also make traditional beers as well, including some craft beers. Heck, City Brewery has brewed Sam Adams in the past at the same location. Does that make them an FMB as well?

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