Tuesday, August 02, 2011

On Craft Beer, The Internet, and Religion

How is craft beer doing so insanely well? You might be tempted to say, "It's just better, so of course it's going to do well." Transformers 2 earned $402 million stateside to Frost Nixon's $19 million. And those numbers in a freeze-frame would seem to reflect Dogfish Head's sales to BMC (Bud, Miller, Coors). Yet, nobody thinks BMC is doing "better" than craft beer at large. CNN Money says that Anheuser Bush's profits are down 17.9% since 2004. MillerCoors, the 2008 merger targeted at AB's dominance, hasn't been doing all that bad in terms of management, costs and margin, but their sales volumes have been flat at best. Meanwhile, different sources estimate craft beer sales rising anywhere from 5% to 15% each year this past decade. DURING A RECESSION.

You don't have to be a business-journal nerd to see that every sports pub or bar-and-grill has seemed had an explosion of tap-handles at some point in the last five years. Big city Beer Weeks are getting more and more numerous every year. And, the mid-size breweries who can afford to advertise nationally on TV (i.e. Boston Brewing's Sam Adams brand) are over-emphasizing the word "Craft" in their commercials. Same goes for BMC-owned upscale brands. Blue Moon: Artfully Crafted!

So times are tough, people are losing jobs, but they're drinking more expensive beer in increasing numbers every year? How is this happening? A few reasons. Wine drinkers are "trading down" ($10 can buy you a crappy bottle of wine or a world-class bottle of beer), while original craft beer drinkers will sooner sell their car than trade down to Natty Light. But what about the original BMC drinkers who are increasingly forking over more cash each year to trade up to better beer?

Enter Google.

BeerAdvocate.com is the leading beer-culture website, and has been proselytizing since 1996. The geek militia has been touting the glory of hops for years, but it had been a marginal campaign--as opposed to the AB Clydesdales which have enjoyed center screen. Cut to the turn of the millennium, and all of the sudden, Google is just as mainstream as the NFL.

Try Googling the word "beer". You won't see a single Clydesdale or female mud-wrestler.

Instead you'll see a combination of top micros (Dogfish Head, Sam Adams, Yeungling) fighting it out for highest billing, along with resources like Beer Advocate and Beer.com (sites which rarely mention BMC). Budweiser (the nation's largest brewery) is the 14th result down if I include a seven-item "Places for Beer Near You" list, which mentions a number of local craft breweries like Yards and Flying Fish.

The Internet can't tell you what to spend money on, but it sure can spread ideas around. Lots of people only drank BMC because it's what their dads drank or their college buddies drank. So it's no surprise that organized religion is also on the decline.

As you know, the web is a modern Library of Alexandria (the original one was a favorite torch-target of the religion).  I have often referred to the Internet--for better or worse--as the biblical anti-christ, in that it's very charismatic and provides for the needs of people, while leading them away from God. If you recall, the very first story of the bible punishes humans for eating the Fruit of Knowledge.

With the intoxication of perspective comes a more challenging array of choices. Should I be spending my decreasingly robust paycheck on increasingly decadent ales? Seems almost sinful, but how can I say no to a tall Founders Rye PA?

The inevitable decline of BMC starts to make you realize both the advantages and disadvantages of organized religion. Humans are not necessarily evolved enough to wrangle their desires into a really effective set of perpetually mature decisions. So, in some ways, it was good when I didn't really know about the more delicious, more expensive (and arguably, *gulp* more addicting) beers. Same as it was good when I went to Church every Sunday and followed all ten commandments out of fear for divine retribution. I would never consider sampling the admittedly delightful sensations of blasphemy, coveting, pre-marital sex, skipping church, spilling seed, keeping for myself that which I could give to charity, revenge, and lots of other things punishable by damnation.

The web is our Tower of Babel. A man-made construct bringing together Marshal McLuhan's prophesied "global village". I'm sure God isn't thrilled that we're getting from one another the guidance which we used to get only from Him. Furthermore, he's certainly not happy that we're informing each other of ideas like how he might not exist... and that we might be able to live without him.

The net is the great equalizer. It gives every recipe, philosophy, comedy video, product-review and Beer Week special the opportunity to be judged on it's own merits. A hierarchy killer means bad news for BMC because now consumer demand is informed by consumer rituals like "Like"-buttons and Ignatious Reilly-esque user-reviews.

But can I regulate myself to drink only three beers instead of six now that I'm paying an extra two dollars per pint? Can I demand ethics from a secular self, even if I don't think anyone up there is keeping an eye on things? These are the types of challenges implicit in modern adulthood that keep many of us on Xanax, due to our inability to handle what Kierkegaard called "the dizziness of freedom". The anti-christ is here, dismantling monoliths. And we have to ask ourselves if--as a culture and as a species--are we adults enough to handle it?

No comments: