19 Jan The Big Three are still around. Why?
The craft beer milieu is…well…intoxicating. Surrounding yourself around all the like-minded souls that you can, and subsequently forgetting that big brewing giants still exist out there is an easy task. This act of self-insulation is a maneuver Americans have masterfully perfected. Whether it’s our delusion that those fatty hamburgers won’t clog our arteries or our firm belief we can fly around I-465 while texting our girlfriend, we know how to wall ourselves off from realities. Even when I’m outside of my own craft beer bubble—at these places called bars—and I see folks throwing down those “light” and “lite” bottles, the very enormous reach of the big three still escapes me. At our own pub table we remain oblivious, working on a pitcher Sun King this, Three Floyds that, and Upland something-or-other. Furthermore, when we travel beyond the bars, hitting the brew pubs or the more upscale joints, the insulation thickens and coagulates. The “light” doesn’t shine at a Blind Owl or a Taxman. But if I turn my eyes a little to the left I usually spot a platoon of empty Bud bottles in formation on a nearby table.
If I lived in downtown Indy or along Bloomington’s Kirkwood Avenue or somewhere up there in that Hamilton County craft beer Shangri-La, I might be able to go through life completely detached from AB-Inbev and Miller-Coors’ tentacles. But in my little town, the “Big Three” still dominate.
Never was that more apparent than a recent Saturday evening at our local “B-dubs” (Buffalo Wild Wings) when about ten of us sat at a couple of tables “skooched” together. My fiancé and I ordered first, and we turned to the only state beers available on the bar’s long array of taps: Two Osiris talls. What followed stunned me: Customer number one ordered a Coors Light…also tall. Patron number two pointedly ordered a “Bud Light.” And the third request? Yep…Miller Lite, an order tossed out pointedly as if to emphasize the latter beer’s superiority to the others.
Back when I was one of those people (I was a Miller guy…following the tradition established by my late cigar-chomping, oft drunken grandfather), I swore—just as most big three loyalists still do—that there was something distinct about each of those beers. Two years and a world of IPAs later, I fully admit I was deluded, but it would have done me no good to say as much to my companions sitting at that that Saturday night table. In fact, all I could think was this: In the height of the greatest small-business economic renaissance since the Louisiana Purchase, more than 75% of the beers ordered at my table belonged to the corporate giants—the people who have done to beer what McDonalds did to the hamburger.
In other words perception hinges greatly on location.
“Overall Craft Beer market share is still only about 11% of total beer consumption nationally,” Pearson continues, “so that means some places are less—maybe Greencastle for example. Indiana as a whole is about average so that means only about 1 in 10 beers consumed is a craft beer.”
Data from The Brewers Association, the national nonprofit trade organization promoting craft breweries and craft consumption, backs up Pearson’s argument. According the Association’s chief economist, Bart Watson, a series of statistics reinforce the link among geography, age, and craft beer’s popularity. One example lies in the correlation between age and beer preference. According to Watson’s data, craft beer popularity holds evenly from the legal drinking age until the mid-40s. Among middle-aged and older Americans, the numbers progressively dwindle. This makes sense. At my aforementioned “B-dubs” table, all of us were 41 or older, and since the data on everything from brand loyalty to political orientation suggests that the older you are, the more likely you are to cling to habits you formed as a youth, I can see how most of the beers ordered that night were the brews we all drank in the 90’s.
Besides age, geography plays another role. Watson’s research claims that nearly three-quarters of the nation’s legal drinkers live six or seven minutes from a brewery. Herein lies the anecdotal disconnection which Daredevil’s Pearson alluded to: from a statistical point-of-view—when you take a moment to look at nationwide map of America’s breweries—the number looks plausible. But when you sit at the table in a small college town such as mine, you have to sometimes scratch your head and wonder “How did we get left out?”
As convincing as the data stands, Pearson alludes to several other factors impacting what’s available on taps in my town:
- “We see a lot of differences across the state of Indiana. Since you asked about the BW3 you went to my answer would be it is just the one you were at because you can find our beers at 10 BW3s in central Indiana right now. There also are still local preferences so for example while our Lift-Off IPA might not be the most popular beer at a BW3s in Greencastle we would expect our Vacation Kolsch or Muse Belgian Golden Ale to do very well if it was put on.”
- “In terms of Greencastle we have not historically seen a lot of sales in that area. The Inn at Depauw buys our beers every once in a while but otherwise it is very hit and miss. For comparison Crawfordsville is not that different a city and we generally always have beers at three to five places at any given time at places there.”
Of course, as I have documented to great length, the craft beer culture in my town is soon to change with the opening of our first brewery. Many of us—across several age, gender, and income demographics—absolutely cannot wait for those doors to open. And even though every craft beer drinker who lives here will certainly become loyal patrons of the new establishment, I would still like to have occasional access to a Lift-Off or a Rooftop or a Hop for Teacher as well. It’s a problem which comes with a very American solution, one Pearson explained effectively. “I always tell people that the best way to see more craft beer at the places you go is to ask for it,” he concludes. “Restaurants and stores order what they think will sell.