I have a question for you, and I’d like you to answer honestly: How much harm has AB|InBev caused you? No, making you drunk dial your ex-girlfriend does not count.
There was a hell of a lot of Big Light Lager vilification in Beer Wars. Overall, though it was quite entertaining, I found the movie cynical, masturbatory, and very much preaching to the choir. Close to half of the film was spent illustrating the detrimental effects macrobreweries are having on craft beer and customer choice, and the rest was spent portraying the craft brewers as persecuted visionaries. It has certainly been successful in stoking the righteous indignation of independent business owners and their faithful patrons, but it makes me wonder just what we’re getting so upset about.
Most of the beer varieties sold in America are barely differentiable light lagers all brewed by the same conglomerate. We can spend all day arguing on the grounds of spirit and soul over how obviously horrible this is for the beer world, but when you stop and think about it, does it really matter?
In every creative marketplace, given enough time for growth, there will emerge a dichotomy of commodity and culture, be it food (McDonald’s v. Morimoto), movies (Scary Movie v. Sundance), comics (X-Men v. Watchmen), games (EA v. 2D Boy), art (Kinkade v. Not Kinkade), or beer. In every case, the two sections of the marketplace are so distinct and separate that it’s rare that they overlap. Sure, AB|InBev is probably in a position to purchase and digest every microbrewery in the world, suing the last holdouts into oblivion, but if this was really such a big threat, don’t you think it would have happened by now?
There were two points that were made in Beer Wars that really bugged me (among the many that only bugged me a little bit), because while they were obviously intended to show that macrobrewing is bad and you should be ashamed of yourself for having ever looked at an MGD, all they did was prove, albeit obliquely, that microbrewers really have nothing to worry about.
The first was the revelation that macrobreweries are starting to try to mimic the craft breweries. Sam Calagione pointed out that these faux-craft beers will go onto the shelves at much lower prices than is feasible for the more expensive to produce microbrews. Customers might see, say, a $3.99 pumpkin beer made with cheap spices and adjuncts, and choose that over Dogfish Head’s $10.99 pumpkin beer made with all of the best ingredients. They’ll get home, try the beer, think it’s disgusting, and never try another craft beer again. SCARY!
Do we honestly think the typical Joe Minivan or Jane American Idol who eats at McDonald’s and has eight Kinkades on their living room wall is even interested in craft beer in the first place? Hell, do you even want to associate with them? These people are members of the commodity marketplace! Maybe 1-2% will try a craft beer and join the culture side of the market, but other than that, you’re talking about an entirely different world. It’s like saying Morimoto has trouble getting business because McDonald’s food is cheaper, or that The Hold Steady can’t sell records because they’re not a member of a big RIAA label.
The other point that just drove me crazy was the story of Ronda from New Century Brewing Co., makers of Moonshot “Premium Beer With Caffeine”, and her epic struggle to market her beer and feed her poor babies. At no point did we see Ronda in anything but the Victimized Hero role as she sacrificed family time to meet with “No” after “No” in her battle against the evil corporations. There are so many layers to this story for me to hate. I’ll focus on two.
First, the easy one: “Beer With Caffeine” has got to be one of the worst marketing gimmicks I’ve ever seen. There are already other (better!) beers that have caffeine in them. This is nothing new! The only people you’d ever fool with this are the consumers in the commodity market, and they’re not interested anyway.
Secondly, the way Ronda was portrayed as a helpless victim in a big corporate world was mind-bendingly frustrating. If she didn’t spend all of her time trying to sell out, I might have some sympathy for her, but instead of starting at the grassroots level and slowly building her brand through a good product and word of mouth, she tried to play the corporations’ games, and came off as hopelessly naive because of it.
Look, yes, for all small businesses, there is the danger of losing everything you’ve built to a large corporation, but it isn’t that hard to prevent. I’m not an expert in business, but it just seems like a bit of common sense and patience is all you need. The most important things to do are these:
Cultivate — You will never have the tons of customers that the big companies have, so take the fans you do have and make them obsessively loyal. The way to do this is through simple good faith. Put out a consistently wonderful product, interact with them, let them know that you are real people, and they will grow to trust you, thus allowing you to count on them.
Grow Slowly — Ronda kept trying to run with the Goliaths, hoping to turn her brand into a breakout overnight hit. Unless you are expansively lucky, that is never going to happen for you. Be happy with 8% growth per year, and learn to work with it. It’ll take you longer to come up with the several million dollars you’ll need to expand your operation, but that’s several million dollars that’ll be earning interest in your company’s bank accounts until you’re ready to make the leap.
Own Your Business — If you want to grow fast, you’re going to have to sell pieces of your business to investors. Do not do this. Make sure that you and your most trusted business partners own a combined 51% at all times. If you ever get the inkling that one of your partners is going to sell his share and the voting power that comes with it to someone else, buy him out, even if you have to pay more than what his share is worth. It’ll hurt in the short term, but it beats losing your controlling interest in the company.
We’ll all be a lot happier, and enjoy our beers a lot more, when we stop trying to convince ourselves that the Man is keeping us down. Chill out, pretend Budweiser doesn’t exist, relax, and don’t worry.