The closer that Nate and I get to opening a brewery (it’s still a ways off), the more questions we find ourselves asking. It seems like a natural enough progression, but various forks in the road could drastically shape the outcome. Specific questions that we have asked along the way relate to styles and flagship brews, etc. However, one question that I have really been considering with some depth is “How big should the brewery be?” Like so many other questions in life, the answer is “It depends.”
Long ago, I came to the conclusion that happiness is not about money. For most of us, this is aphoristic…at least on theoretical grounds. In fact, I take the “mo money, mo problems” ideological framework to ground most of my activity. Without expatiating too much, I’ll just come out and say that I simply want to make a living brewing beer. Yet, there is quite a bit more to it than that.
Granted, it takes money to make money (i.e., opening a brewery is not cheap by any means). But once a profit starts posting and your brewery gains more popularity, you have to decide what level of growth and profit you are targeting. Is it all about the Benjamins or is there something more at work? After all, there is a point when expansion after expansion is less about beer and more about larger market shares. I’m not one to tell any brewer to stop expanding or getting bigger. What I am saying is that it’s not for me.
I think a tale of two breweries might serve as an example: Sam Adams and (one of my favorites) Three Floyds. Sam Adams is pushing the barrel limit of craft beer status, a fact many of you know very well. They’ve even gone so far in the presence that they are getting into the meat market. Plenty of wealth and jobs of have been generated from Sam Adam’s ever ambitious growth pattern, but other factors have come into play as well.
Let me preface what I am about to say by stating categorically that I have deep respect and appreciation for Sam Adams. I also want to be on record as saying that I genuinely like many of their products. However, they are, with the exception of a few brews, pretty pedestrian in their brewing practices. Sure, they have Utopias, are doing a collaborative brew with Weinhenstephaner, and have some unique stuff in their tap room. But they, for the most part, make the same products annually. Not that I’m denigrating the cycle of brewing that Sam Adams has, but it’s not for me.
This, it seems, is the problem with too much expansion. A beer starts as a creation that is fun and unique, then its popularity takes off. Then more beer has to be brewed to meet the demand of the expanding market. Then more people are introduced to the beer. Then it gains popularity in a new market. Then more beer has to be made. Of course the brewer is happy, but there is also, in my mind, a fundamental issue in regards to creativity.
At some point, the brew that was started as a creative spark becomes the very beer that stems future creativity. Like it or not, people are creatures of habit. Many people, once they try a beer they like, more or less stick to their tried and true beers. The problem is that expanding far enough into the market place dictates that brewers must make this or that beer and not something else. In a sense, and if the brewer wants to make a profit, they now have to brew certain beers. Breweries that grow are no longer brewing to create market demand, they are simply brewing to meeting it. When this occurs, there is much less freedom because of the financial obligations that come with expansion. In fact, they are often trapped by those expanding walls. This is okay if the brewer is okay with it. To be fair, occasional deviations from the cycle does happen, but in my experience, there is often not much creativity in the newly created product. The reason, or so it seems to me, is that they are still brewing it in the vein of their already known products (i.e., they are playing into their market demand). Again, there might be the occasion deviation to a beer that is unexpected, but it’s certainly the exception rather than the rule.
Once a brewery has gotten big enough, some creative control is invariably lost. Could it be otherwise? I doubt it. Even small regional brewers, while maintaining more autonomy, are subject to the flagship beer model. I wonder if expanding past a certain extent is beneficial for beer or just for financial reasons. You simply can’t please all of the people all of the time, certain arguments (“Well, they’re just trying to get their beer to people who can’t normally get it”) appear to some extent to be a smokescreen. The idea is illusory. Besides, who wants a bunch of giant craft breweries to take huge chunks of market share anyway? I know I don’t. Whether InBev or Sam Adams, market hegemony is never good.
The other side of the equation are breweries like Three Floyds or the Lost Abbey. I have visited Three Floyds on several occasions and have always been struck by its lack of size. It really is a relatively modestly sized brewery. Yet, they crank out a good amount of beer that finds a pretty narrow area of distribution. But look at the fame and clout they’ve achieved. It think it is precisely the counter-intuitive notion I’ve name above that has freed them to constantly brew new stuff and experiment while keeping their beer flying off the shelves. In fact, it’s hard for them keep it on shelves. Now, that’s a good problem to have as a brewer. You brew a few beers constantly, play the rest of the time, and people are dying to drink it up. These guys haven’t caved to continuous market expansion (and they surely could expand), they haven’t caved to making Dark Lord year around or putting it on shelves, and they’ve remained true to their beer montra, “It’s not normal.” By the way, the picture is from a crowded Dark Lord Day.
The above situation has allowed Three Floyds to open an on site brewpub, which is packed on a Saturday. Again, quality and experimenting has driven their mature internal expansion. My guess is they are doing pretty well and making a decent living brewing beer. What would be the rational behind expanding? I guess getting more of their beer out there and making more money doing it. But they seem to be content to have a very strong local following and a profoundly wide national recognition, especially considering their brewery size. If you can’t tell, I like these guys.
If Three Floyds is not a enough to convince you, a recent article on Beer & Whiskey Bros drives home another of my issues with over expansion. Don mentioned that Oskar Blues was pulling out of his (Don’s) market to meet the demand for their beer elsewhere. Of course, California is a bigger market, so the logic says that the sales and money will be there. Wait a minute. Last I checked, Idaho was a bit closer to Colorado (where Oscar Blues is located) than to California. The continued expansion seems to have dictated meeting a market demand in Idaho rather than Colorado.
One is tempted to say, “Well, that’s a good problem to have as a brewer. You can’t brew enough to meet the demand for the product.” Granted, simple economics says that this is logically true. Yet, one wonders if some alienation can be created by robbing Peter to pay Paul. Suppose one of your favorite breweries pulls out of your market to give to another. How would you respond? I would stop buying their product if they were to come back at some point. Again, one might tempted to say, “Well, it’s just a simple matter of economics.” Perhaps that is the real problem. It’s the dough, and not the grain, that is driving some of these breweries forward.
Far be it from me to mean this as an attack on any brewery. I have an appreciation for the products of Oskar Blues. What I don’t appreciate is expanding to the point that you have to take from one market to give to another.
Where is this all leading? I lived in Indy most of my life and there was this particular local commercial that I would always see on T.V. Don, from Don’s Guns, would talk about the deals he was offering and, without exception, would end his commercial with the same phrase: “I don’t like to make money, I just love to sell guns.” Whatever other views you have about guns or the merit behind the statement, it’s the adopted sentiment I have toward being a brewer. I don’t want to get rich, I just want to make beer. The kind of beer I can be proud of. The types of beer I want to make. The quality of beer that makes it noteworthy. I want my beers to be a find, not found everywhere.
So, if you’re wondering what my philosophy of brewing is…there it is. What do you think about the approach?