The Power of Intention - The "craft" will always matter
I'm not usually the one to wade into a nuanced and highly subjective debate around beer unprepared, but I've been meaning to talk about this for a while, so I'll let it hang out here. Conversation and debate, as always, is encouraged.
Soooooo...one of my favorite beer writers, Bryan Roth, recently published this piece on Good Beer Hunting on what was trying to be a critical piece of analysis on the modern definition of "craft beer" and the rather dynamic and nebulous label we've attached to it. It's especially pertinent and timely in the current era of craft proliferation, buy-outs, and general beer industry chaos.
The thrust of the article was moderately explicit, if a bit vague and meandering. He's positing (correctly) that the strong correlation between "craft" and "quality" (their actual descriptive value) at point of purchase is stronger than ever. Large domestic breweries, the likes of ABI and Miller, have literally bought into this concept with their spree of purchases in recent years, and vast majority of consumers don't seem to be too worried about ownership stake, independence, or origin story when making their purchasing decisions.
He's also positing, correctly in my opinion, that the natural subjectivity behind our words and the context in which we use them can cause us to lose sight of their original meaning. Whether done through deliberate means or the natural evolution of our conversation, it's a simple and powerful truth that words can quickly start to mean something else entirely without anyone even noticing.
What's certain, to me, is the following: Given the growth of "craft beer", and the wide gap in knowledge and understanding between the most and least educated consumers making the exact same beer purchases, I can completely understand how the meaning of words like "craft" and "quality" and "independence" have gotten lost in the cacophony of conversation and buzz-wordy beer marketing invading our podcasts, youtube videos, and twitter feeds. More to the point, the question of "why is that stuff about independence/craft/quality even important in the first place" is a valid question to ask as a consumer, regardless of how many different hazy IPAs you've consumed in the past few weeks.
I'll circle back to this point, but in the meantime, let's talk about intention. In context to the production of beer, intention boils down to two questions:
- To the brewery - Why did you make the beer in the first place?
- To the consumer - What's actually causing you to buy said beer?
Bryan mentions it tangentially in his GBH piece when he very eloquently says "if our concern is supposed to be about the product itself, and not necessarily how it’s sold to us, are we supposed to care about the emotional benefits of buying a beer as much—or more than?—the functional purpose of delivering something that tastes good and is easy to enjoy? The companies that serve us may be divergent in purpose, but their products continue to find common ground."
To put it more simply - If all the "craft" beer I'm buying offers me the exact same taste experience, and some of them are cheaper and happen to be brewed by a gigantic megabrewery-in-disguise, why should I care about the origin of the product or the person who brewed it?
The assumption in Bryan's statement is "if our concern if supposed to be with the product itself, and not how it's sold to us." This brings to bear the concept of intention. Intention is the supreme differentiator between a brewery that's "craft" and a brewery that's "not craft", even though the final product is hard to differentiate and the intention itself is largely invisible. Choose the analogy that works for you - A crisp, delicious apple from a local orchard and a crisp, delicious apple from Argentina taste practically the same, after all.
I'll admit that while its lost a lot of its authenticity through mass marketing and message dilution, "craft" is still a powerful driver of brand positioning, maintaining a certain inimitable resonance through the recent and impressive industry growth and signifying a powerful level of intentionality, purpose, and yes, counter culture resistance to mass market fizzy yellow beer.
Intentionality, or the reason you do what you do, is a powerful motivator, whether you've actually thought about it or not.
It's more than just flashy design or shelf space at major box stores. Don't just show me the product. Don't just tell me the benefits. Don't explain the economic benefit of choosing it over an alternative.
Tell me why you made it in the first place. Show me all your cards and I'll be the one to decide if there's any value in what you've got offer to me. You made a great beer, but who cares. Why did you make this great beer? What was your motivation? What was your intention?
Question is: Does this even matter?
Big domestic breweries, unfortunately, lost the ability to communicate authentic intentionality around their core products when their marketing budgets eclipsed their raw ingredients costs (I actually have no evidence to back up that claim, but it lends a certain poetic justice to the piece here). Bud Light can talk about crisp purity of ingredients, but they're kidding themselves. Bud light is a lifestyle. Michelob Ultra positions itself toward young, energetic mountain climbers and polished professionals in perfectly pressed suits an because they literally can't market it on flavor or toward the millions of people who consistently purchase craft beer. As a current and proud beer industry professional, I'm the last person to publicly criticize any brewery for their business operations, but I'll certainly comment on it when it's so blatantly on display. Buying this credibility through M&A activity is a path toward capturing some of that consumer mindshare, but it doesn't change who they are as a company, and it certainly can't change the fact that their core competencies lie on the periphery of what most of us would define as "craft".
Now it pays to mention - Given the growth of the High End portfolio at ABI, the recent layoffs, and the generally mixed marketing messages that ABI has sent over the past few years, it generally seems like most consumers don't seem to be care enough to actively differentiate. They seem to be buying the Elysian, Wicked Weed, and Golden Road without questioning it's authentic craft credentials, or ostensibly, the brewers intentions behind any of the portfolio offerings.
Bryan's point on quality is also well stated. Quality, as measured by consistency of ingredients and process, is a forgone conclusion for big breweries like ABI and Miller. You want that light lager to taste the same every single damn time? Buy it from them. You'll never be let down, I promise. You want a beer with more flavor, creativity, and yes...quality ingredients? You couldn't buy it from them before, because they didn't have a product like that available, but now they can offer you a cold, delicious and well-crafted Devil's Backbone Vienna Lager. It's from a local brewery down in central Virginia...you may have heard of them.
This is not an indictment of their products or growth strategy, as I've crushed my fair share of domestic light lager and Devil's Backbone, and will undoubtedly do so in the future. It's pure level-setting, and what I would consider to be a relevant factor in this conversation.
I might be sitting in a minority here, but I will argue that the long-term benefits of putting authentic intentionality on display for a brewery are myriad and legion, and it ends when the same consumer comes back year over year, convinced that your brewery and your brewery's intentions behind the beer are pure and righteous and great, whatever that means. This isn't as idealistic as it sounds, and hones in on the real debate around what "craft" means and why so many breweries are fighting tooth and claw to paste that badge on their brewery and their beer. The original definition has undoubtedly evolved, but long-term marketing strategy takes seriously the task of understanding and communicating motivations and intentions, and my prediction is that breweries who stick to this strategy will be around for a long time coming. That continues to be the foundational difference between a brewery making a "craft" product and literally everything else.