Sam Calagione’s response to the thread on Beer Advocate last week got me thinking. I read it here, but there are loads of sites that have posted it. In short, Sam was responding to a discussion on Beer Advocate which was focusing on negativity and pointing the finger at Dogfish Head as one of a number of “over-rated” craft brewers. The author of the posts opinions and associated comments provoked a response from Sam who is upset at these ‘beer geeks’ for “knocking down breweries that dare to grow“. It’s an interesting area for discussion as we are all too familiar with the same notion in society in general. Celebrity is short-lived and soon the vindictiveness and hard times begin. We build them up and then knock them down. It’s the human way. I’m not saying we are all the same, but there are swathes of our society who can’t help themselves.
Getting back to breweries though, I think this rings true. A new micro brewery opens, they are only brewing 1,2,5,10 barrels per brew and everyone is excited. Their beer is talked about and sought after and we can’t get enough of it. Some of our favourite breweries will then grow, they will do this because of demand and will have the difficult decisions to make as to how far they should go. Think of a football club whose meteoric rise through the football league sees unprecedented demand for season tickets (I’m not saying Wolverhampton Wanderers and the images [right] are an example of this – but their banners illustrate a point I’m trying to make).
The chairman and board of directors will sanction a development program or the build of a new stadium to meet this demand. Money will be borrowed to finance the progression and in doing so, price increases will be felt by the fans. There is always a small chance that this club will find its place in the league and maintain its debts and satisfy its shareholders by keeping bums on seats – everyone is happy. More often than not, the club will experience a bad run of results, sometimes a whole seasons worth, which can affect revenues such as sponsorships, prize money, ticket sales, the club could even be be relegated, affecting money from TV rights etc. Finances are restructured, players are sold and opinions and perceived values held by the fans will be tested as season ticket prices remain high: “I’m not paying to watch this dross“… “they’re not the same team as last season” (the fickle fan). Equally, a football club may become unrecognisable on and off the pitch, alienating the fans that were there times were tougher “this club isn’t for me anymore“. A vicious circle and the familiar tale of becoming a victim of your own success. Transfer this scenario to any number of breweries that have burst on to the ‘craft’ brewing scene and I think there is something to be wary of.
Without naming names, the exciting young breweries of 2010 – 2011 will be looking to grow. Not only to meet demand, but to do the best they can, to earn a decent living and in some cases just to survive. All of the breweries I have in mind will probably do their very best to stick to their vision, keep the quality of their beer high and continue to innovate and keep things fresh and interesting for themselves and for the punters. But something these breweries cannot account for, and which is largely out of their control, is that as they grow and new young and exciting breweries enter the market, the opinion of ‘Beer Geek A’ will start to shift, new opinions will be formed which may just result in ‘Beer Geek A’ spending less of their beer money on last years brewery and more on the new starlet. Sadly, it will also be the case that ‘Beer Geek B’ may take exception to marketing strategies (or the hype), or the quality of the beer which may not up to the standards they are used to. Faults will be found even where they do not exist and very public opinions voiced: “They’re not the brewery they were last year“…”I’m not paying for this dross“.
So when does this happen? it seems to be subtle. From Sam Calagione’s account of things, and he knows his business better than we do, Dogfish Head enjoyed the support and adulation in the early years, they progressed to satisfy themselves and us, but then they became “over-rated” in the eyes of some. Do these critics genuinely believe this? or is it more a case that they once felt some connection with a small craft brewery, almost like they knew them personally. Then, when the brewery grew, did these particular customers feel ‘put out’, upset at a lost connection they once felt they had, and instead of acknowledging Dogfish Head’s successes, they react with petulance and stick the boot in.
So getting back to my silly blog title, ‘Is all fair in love and wort?’. Is it generally accepted that the rules of fair play change when it comes to business, or being a paying customer? Friendly feedback becomes a ‘critique’. Support for a small brewery can tail off, fault-finding or straight out, sometimes unfounded, criticisms start as the brewery grows or becomes ‘successful’. I’m not sure my football analogy is a perfect match [no pun intended], but in any case it looks to me that it is easier to be the underdog, while recognising that at some point you may need a bigger kennel, which might just piss the neighbours off.