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I love to occasionally drink good wine with my wife, who is a wine snob and so we often have a nicely stocked cellar. But in truth, wine is kinda boring. One good Cabernet is very much like another, the differences being so subtle that they are nearly imperceptible, at least to my tar-covered tongue. Oh, I know there are differences, and I know my palate is burnt by years of cigar smoke, but once you get good bottles over a certain price, you lose the sulfides and oxidation and the wine tends to blend together.
But pricing doesn't blend. Pricing in wine can be dramatically divergent. Shallow people like us are susceptible to such a scheme. Beer, on the other hand, is much more varied. One IPA can be extremely different from another.
Yet all better beers are priced within two bucks of each other. Beer does have ratings, most notably provided by our friends at BeerAdvocate. But beer ratings are democratic, ranked by the masses, while wine is ranked mainly by a lawyer in Maryland.
Wine is so homogenized that it takes an expert palate like Parker's to decide which is "better". People tend to say they prefer a democracy over a monarchy, but of course in reality the opposite is true. People actually prefer to be told by a monarch -- Parker -- what to like or dislike. As in all monarchies, people want to be close to the favored ones at court.
In beer, anybody can be invited to the King's table based on the liquid, not the oaky preference of a cork-sniffer, thus the magic is taken out of the equation.
That's why beer is so cheap. Now that the dropping economy has stripped many emperors of their clothes, people are turning to beer connoisseurship as an alternative to pricey wine. The options out there are as varied as the stars in the sky. It would take a lifetime to taste them all, and most are very different from the next. That's what an enriching connoisseurship is all about. We Can Agee to Disagree, it's Okay Really it's Okay FILED JULY 18, Earlier this week I spent some time with a few California small brewers, small indy vintners, micro-distillers, and brewpub operators, to attempt to learn more about this growing segment of the beverage alcohol business.
At an outdoor dinner one night, with a cool NorCal breeze blowing, I was unsurprised to learn that all of them -- each and every one -- harbored antagonistic feelings toward the three-tier system. I say this is unsurprising because I've often observed that the smaller the operator, the more they distrust the three-tier system.
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Typically as you move up the size scale, alcohol makers start to -- what is the word? But I was surprised at the level of antagonism that these guys have for the system. I was the lone voice at dinner, driven by Laganutas IPA to new heights of fevered oratory. I described how tied house in Europe and Latin America has stifled competition, I describe how the reason we have so many choices on the shelf is because indy distributors -- who are not owned by the big brewers-vintner-distillers -- can choose of their own free will to carry those brands.
And how DSD allows for fresh delivery and handling to even the smallest of accounts, keeping the huge chain retailers from killing your brands. And I described how the system protects small producers from fly-by-night cheap and possibly illegal entrants: Yes, it's hard to get into the system, by design, but once you're in, you have a profitable seat at the table, among other brilliant arguments nicely rendered.
Alas, my audience was unimpressed and unmoved, and clung to their mantra of three-tier bad, direct shipping good. But I did maybe create a small crack in their wall of thinking, perhaps I drove a wedge in that crack, and later somebody else can hammer at it as they see three-tier in a more positive light as they grow. A few nights later, at a San Francisco speakeasy called Bourbon and Branch, I made identically heated arguments to an identically unimpressed group. Whiskey evidently drives me to Churchillian speech-making lengths.
We all remain friends, of course. It's like being friends with somebody of the opposite political party or of a different religion: That's the glue that keeps our diverse and vibrant industry together. We mustn't ever forget that. And indeed, I am laboring under the belief that the next few years will see more changes still, keeping me busier chasing the stories of change like a Spring turkey after a hen.
With change comes uncertainty, and with uncertainty comes fear, and with fear comes griping, or so I often observe in my own family.
There's been a lot of griping and back room strife going on between the big brewers and distributors these days. The 7-Eleven direct shipping test, the MillerCoors contract, and the recent new independence that distributors have demonstrated -- most notably through the NBWA and state associations -- has created a little bit of tension.
Brewers feel like, hey, our brand marketing is what brings wealth to distributors, and we just want a little bit of control over how our brands are sold and by whom; while distributors are saying, hey, it's our capital on the line, and we own the business and know the market.
And then you have the small brewers saying, hey, don't forget about us, we're the only ones growing around here. This tension was intensified during our Beer Summit, where Carlos Laboy at Credit Suisse challenged distributors on whether they were "in denial" about what AB InBev would do over the next few years.
We'll be having this conversation five years from now and there will be a slide showing how the distributor slice of the profit pie has shrunk. It is clear that the ABI bean counters in Leuven have employed their slide rules on what shipping direct in the U.
The question is whether they decide to embark on the difficult and politically challenging task of execution. Brewers also don't like it when distributors talk about the primacy of state law over federal.
Against this background, we have wineries clamoring for more freedoms to ship direct to consumers and retailers also wanting to ship direct to consumers over the 'net.
So, yes, there are tensions. But the fact remains that distributors need brewers, and brewers need distributors. And like all families in times of change, there will be some family strife. Distributors will defend their interests, as they should, and brewers will defend theirs, as they should. But in the end, it is my hope and belief that the family remains intact and will emerge even stronger in these coming years of change.
There are many opinions out there about the documentary itself, Andy and Jay and Stan and Maureenfor example, who are among the most respected beer bloggers out therebut what I'd like to tackle here are just two premises of the movie which I would be better schooled to comment on than anything else: I referred to Anat in Beer Business Daily several years ago as the "hard driving, smart talking leader of Mike's. Well done on that accord. It must have been very hard work, and I honor her for her success in getting it finished and into theaters.
I would have quit on the third day of shooting. Anat wanted to start a conversation, and she did that, if only within the beer blogging community. My only hope is that the movie -- when it comes out on DVD -- will bring more non-beer-sniffers to try craft beers as they converse on how mistaken this movie is in its driving premise. Allow me to propose an alternative view to consider at the bar. This conversation would have been better screened in If the movie did anything, it opened old wounds.
The most problematic part of Beer Wars is reconciling the fact that we sit here in in this country with 1, thriving, dynamic, growing craft brewers with thousands of brands available in hundreds of thousands of retail locations, with the movie's contention that craft brewers are struggling under the regulatory force of an evil three-tier system, a system perpetuated by the lobbying of the Big Three Anat had a particularly harsh eye for Anheuser-Busch coupled with their unfair and possibly illegal domination of retailer cold boxes.
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These wars were largely fought, and won, by craft brewers in the s. If truth be told, Beer Wars got it exactly backwards: Few remember this, mainly because few of today's hot craft brewers were around at the Brewers Association meetings of the early s, when Henry King, taking a break from his dozens of children, was president of the Brewers Association.
Henry was from the old school, and he used to complain that getting the craft brewers to agree on anything was like herding cats. Henry did much for craft brewers, mostly unheralded.
But it was his friendship with Bill Coors and August Busch III that got A-B, Miller and Coors to get behind the federal small brewer tax break -- and later not to repeal it -- which was crucial in giving craft beers a start. They didn't do it because it was a good business decision, they did it because it was the right thing to do.
And without the small brewer tax break, there would not be a thriving craft beer industry today. Yes, beer companies have lobbyists, but if the Big Evil Brewers really wanted to kill craft brewers, they would have taken away the small brewer tax break long ago. Henry used to remind craft brewers of this time and again during the BA conventions in the early s. Sadly, Henry isn't with us anymore, and that leaves nobody to defend the big brewers on this point besides myself, which is an uncomfortable and unpopular place to be unless you're at a NASCAR event, which, of course, I would never be for fear of crowds and loud noises but that's for another post.
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