Friday, June 4, 2010

"I don't like your brothers beer!", my sister blurted.  "Really?", I replied, somewhat bemused.  She evidently didn't know my brother's beer was also my own.  "What don't you like about it?"  "It is bitter".  "Do you like the beer you are drinking right now"?  I pressed. "Not Really", she replied, "But, it is better than your brother's beer?"   "Yes." She continued.  She was drinking a Laughing Lab (as in Labrador Retriever), a Scottish Ale from Bristol Brewery in Colorado Springs.  "Did you try the yellow colored beer"?, I asked to see if she tried the Belgian Wit.  "I tried them all, they were all....bitter.  I didn't like any of them".     "Is the beer your drinking now more bitter than our brother's?", I continued. "No", she said.  "Hmmm.", I replied.

This conversation was interesting to me, because not many of our beers are known to be "bitter" in the traditional sense, and all of our beers currently available are malt forward, lowly hopped, fruity, and not even a hint of roasted flavor.  There was nothing bitter, and probably nothing as bitter as the beer she was drinking at the time. I don't feel bad that she didn't like it, she is an occasional light beer drinker, and probably tends toward inexpensive wine when making the purchasing choices.  I think she decided she wouldn't like it because they were dark and/or home made.  And to her, dark equals bitter.  At first, I was convinced that there was just a bias against our beer, but as I think about it now it isn't the whole story.  I think that she doesn't really taste beer, but rather perceives the taste or what the taste should be.  She wouldn't like anything that didn't fit that profile of beer in her head (but her bias, if there is one, would show if we passed off a traditional light lager to her as one of our own).

Not two minutes later, my mom complained that she didn't like the Laughing Lab.  After two days of going on and on and on about how much she liked our beer....she didn't like a commercially made beer that was except for the amount of peat smoked malt in ours, was very similar.  Our Scottish Ale is a little creamier, a little sweeter, a lot smokier, and less bitter that Bristol's.  I think she didn't like it because it wasn't ours.  I will believe that she is into craft beer when she buys some (that isn't made by us) for herself.  It ain't going to happen.

I read in the latest issue of All About Beer Magazine that half of all the beer produced in the world last year was made by the five largest brewers.  My estimate is that perhaps 90% (or more) of that was traditional American Light Lager in the Pilsner tradition.  Let's face it.  That is what most people drink and like.  Sure, craft beer has exhibited tremendous growth year after year, but doesn't really make a dent in the total consumption.  This is true not only in backwards America, but also is a continuing trend around the world.  The main (and most interesting question) is why?

I think that we as craft beer (aficionados, enthusiasts, mavens, nerds, geeks, snobs, whatever) people have rationalized that since we have discovered we like flavorful and varied beers, that the rest of the beer drinking world have yet to make that discovery.  I think that we have deluded ourselves into believing that everyone will eventually have the epiphany that we did.  Many of us didn't have it when we had our first craft beer, it took time.

I think that the truth is, while the big breweries have made some recipe changes purely to save money on the mass production of beer, their products are a result of thousands of studies and focus groups to provide a beer that appeals to the widest possible audience.  They are simply brewing what most people like, placing me, you, and everyone who cherishes a full flavored beer squarely in a very small minority.  It is small d democracy at work and it gives a measure of perspective to the craft beer industry and its growth potential.  At some point in time, the growth curve will level out, and that number will still be very small comparatively.

So, perhaps a small brewery in every neighborhood is a pipe dream, unless something radical changes how we ship and receive goods in this world.  It doesn't mean that many upstart breweries won't find a niche, survive, and thrive, but most will not.  Some regular beer drinkers will always continue to be persuaded to explore, but most will gravitate back towards the mean.  In this intermediate stage between the birth and maturity of the craft beer market, there may not be many if any Sam Adams', Sierra Nevadas, New Belgiums, or even Dogfish Heads being born this year, and in ten or fifteen years, one or more of those breweries could be a memory.  Or worse, a specialty part of InBev.  

I just don't believe that the world is changing any time soon.  Most people like their fizzy, yellow, pilsneresque beer.  And as a homebrewer, I think that's okay.

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