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.
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.
Ah, the new classic debate of the craft era: Cans vs. Bottles and which one is better for your beer.
In this podcast we:
Glad to be back in the recording chair – I hope you’re still here with me. Cheers!
Someone brought it up to me again the other day: You should get back to blogging more.
And, you know? I agree… for a couple of reasons. For one, it’s cathartic. It’s a nice release to be able to commit thoughts to words and publish them, even in a vanity forum like this blog, but also because there are a lot of topics that I’d like to see discussed in the world at large that I feel like I can at least introduce, and hopefully see out and about.
However, what with this whole “owning a brewery” thing, my time is often pretty limited and when I write it takes up a LOT of time – not only because, regardless of how fast a typer I am, it takes a long time to get things out, but because I’m just enough of a nerd to not want to write a blog post unless I have a complete thought. You should see how long it’s taken me to put this post together … or, maybe you can see it.
What’s more, often I only really think about writing when I’m upset about something and I don’t want to have the reputation (any more than I already do) for being the angry, ranty brewer guy. I am often not angry, and so I’d like that to actually come through on my blog. However, I REALLY like turning convention on its head and really looking at why it is we do what we do. Nobody ever made progress by doing the same old shit over and over again, and I really like applying creative problem solving to things that don’t necessarily appear to be broken. That often comes off as angry – or at least hyper-critical. But I don’t want to come off that way.
So, I’m going to try something new: Podcasting. There are a few reasons for this.
1) I can talk faster than I can type, and while part of me wants to make sure that there’s a complete written post around a podcast, that seems to me (for now) to be faster than setting down words to an entire post.
2) I can do it in a lot of different places. There’s no reason I can’t record a podcast while I’m working on something in the brewery, or in between tasks, whereas writing needs to take place in basically one or two environments where I have a computer and a long time to sit in one place.
3) It’s a lot easier to tell my tone when you hear my voice. If I don’t sound angry, I’m probably not angry. Not always the case, but normally true.
So, we’ll try this out. The podcast will serve two functions:
To educate. I’ve taught a Certified Cicerone Study course a couple of times over the past year and it’s very popular, and while I think people are generally interested in the Cicerone program, I think most people just want to learn more about beer – and so I’ll be doing little bits of education. Everything from how beer is made to how tap lines are cleaned to what the ingredients are and how they’re used. I’ll try to do this in a very non-technical way so that it’s easy for anybody to understand. With any luck there will be something for everybody to learn.
To inform. Since I’ve started Mystery, I’ve learned a LOT about the industry that I never would have thought about as a drinker and a fan of the industry, and I think it’s worth discussing some of those things… things like: Why the three-tier system is actually pretty great. Or that bars often don’t take care of their own draft systems. Or how AB-InBev is going to crush us all and how you’re going to help them.
And it will staaaaaart now.
My book, North Carolina Beer and Breweries is officially released today.
And before the book was even officially out, I’d already had at least one AMAZING, humbling review.
Now comes the hard part – the the book tour. In this, I need help.
I’m a nerd. I’ve been to a lot of book signings and releases, and in each and every one of them the author generally gets up, reads a bit from the book, answers some questions, and then shmoozes and signs books for a while. I’ve also been to a couple of beer book signings and releases before where the author kind of stands around and drinks while signing books when people manage to approach the with a pen and a book in hand. I find the latter kinda lame. I want to hear from the author, that’s why I’m there. Otherwise I’m just drinking with somebody I don’t know and I could just buy a signed copy of the book and have the exact same effect.
So, this is where you come in – what do I do at these? The nature of this book is such that reading from it is difficult – it’s not fiction, it’s essentially episodic non-fiction. There are small snippets about the entire state and what’s interesting to a crowd in Wilmington will be different than what’s interesting to a crowd in Asheville. So, in order to make sure that everybody who goes to one of these gets a great experience, what’s the best thing to do?
Read from the history section?
Just do a talk about beer in North Carolina?
Beer tasting with whatever is local? (Remember – that requires buying kegs.)
Just hang out and shoot the shit?
Stand on the bar and deliver a gospel sermon about craft beer?
Help me, internets – what would YOU find interesting?
There are a couple of reasons that I’ve been so quiet here this spring. One of which, given my most recent posts, should be obvious: this brewery that I started up. As it turns out, those take a whole lot of your time. It’s a little insane. It’s fun, but it doesn’t leave much time for public musing.
Well, now that both of those are essentially wrapped up, I’m still going to be busy. But! This is the type of busy where I can actually see people, and hopefully have the time to write a little on the side. So, just in case you want to say hi and share a pint here’s where you can find me in the next two months:
Thursday, April 12, 6PM – 8PM: Book Launch Party @ Mystery Brewing Company
437 Dimmocks Mill Road, Suite #41
Hillsborough, NC 27278
Saturday, April 14, 12PM – 11PM: All About Beer’s World Beer Festival Raleigh
Tuesday, April 17, 8PM: Fullsteam Brewery
726 Rigsbee Avenue
Durham, NC 27701
Wednesday, April 18, 4:30PM – 7:00 PM: Bottle Revolution
4025 Lake Boone Trail
Raleigh, NC 27607
Thursday, April 19, 5:30 PM – 8:00 PM: Olde Hickory Tap Room
222 Union Square
Hickory, NC 28601
Saturday, April 21, 12PM – 6PM: Hickory Hops
Wednesday, April 25, 7PM – 9PM: Carrboro Beverage Company
102A East Main Street
Carrboro, NC 27510
Friday, April 27, 4PM – 6PM: Cape Fear Wine & Beer
139 North Front Street
Wilmington, NC 28401
Wednesday, May 9, 6PM: Foothills Brewing
638 West Fourth Street
Thursday, May 24, 6PM: Olde Mecklenberg Brewing Company
215 Southside Drive
Charlotte, NC 28217
Wednesday, May 31, 7:30 PM: Malaprop’s Bookstore & Café
55 Haywood Street
Asheville, NC 28801
Thursday, June 1, 4PM – 7PM: Hops and Vines
797 Haywood Road, Suite 100
Asheville, NC 28806
You can also find this schedule on this page which will be updated regularly as the schedule is updated.