Fickle Mistresses


I used to have this fantasy.  It was born of seeing the beer guy at D’s, Hootie, always sporting this Ommegang sweatshirt.  I imagined beer drinkers forming gangs – like, actually street gangs – based on their affinity for breweries, or some other facet of beer culture.  Like, the Dogfish Head crew running into the Stone posse & waging an old-school streetfight, like the mods & the rockers.  I’m not talking about the actual brewers (though I know who I’d put my money on in a Sam vs. Greg match), but the fans, akin to the kind of hooliganism that follows soccer or heavy metal.  Maybe the hopheads, the Belgophiles, & the lager lovers would form separate gangs across the city, & beer fests would turn into riots with heavy security.  What if…

Not that I want to see thug violence besiege the community, but I’m always curious about beer drinkers as a subculture, & kind of thrill at imagining that parallel played out to a surreal extent.  Of course it would never happen, & not just because we’re generally pretty chill, self-regulating, self-policing people (in my experience).  You just don’t see that kind of diehard loyalty to a brand in craft beer.  Craft beer as a hobby is practically defined by playing the field – the more deeply into it you are, the more variety you’ve tried & WANT to try.  Craft beer is the vast continent beyond the mainstream, & once the door’s open, it takes a lot for it swing shut again.  Sure, you might hear that some prefer hoppy beers (or stouts, Belgians, sours, etc.), but that preference is almost never in exclusion to other styles, & doesn’t focus exclusively on one brewer.  You never hear “I’m a Great Lakes man.  Drank it all my life, just like my dad.  Don’t care to try anything else.”  Beer fans are like sharks – they gotta keep moving or they die. 

I imagine there’s a part, however small, of every brewery owner that finds that frustrating.  I remember Mark Thompson of Starr Hill speaking at SAVOR (via Craft Beer Radio) a few years ago.  Amid the beer-bro camaraderie vibe that always flows at these things, there was a little bit of angst in his tone.  At one point he remarked on what a “fickle” lot we craft drinkers are, how challenging it is to keep the public engaged, etc.  And he’s right.  That same angst was behind the hissy-fit Jim Koch threw in that now-famous Bostonmagazine piece.  As much as craft beer is all about the community as a whole, the little business devils sitting on everyone’s shoulders want to see brand loyalty, to keep them coming back.  There will always be a finite number of go-to beers in everyone’s pocket that we keep returning to, but I don’t ever see a craft brewery commanding “100% share of mind” from its consumers. 

That’s the double-edged sword behind “crafty” beers, the “boutique” brands rolled out by the big companies.  The corporations want to swipe a portion of the craft-curious market, & they’ve been successful.  But diversity breeds diversity, & once  those drinkers have tried Blue Moon or Shock Top, they’re open to many, many other brands that, before, were invisible to them.  Those companies have manufactured their own gate for people to walk right through.  But in the meantime, they’ve still shored up a sizable share in the action. 

That’s why the “Brewed the Hard Way” commercial was just what the big boys needed, right now.  It was to shut that gate & keep the flock right where they are: safe, sound, happy.  It wasn’t an “us too” message, but a “not us, thank you”.  Budweiser is what it is, & if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it – that’s the idea, anyway.  Keep it simple, know what you like.  Ford, NFL, Doritos, Bud.  There IS such a thing as a “Bud man” or a “Coors man”, & they are loyal breeds.  They are the univores who go straight for their brand, & if their brand’s out, leave, no matter that there’s an extremely similar product sitting right next to that empty space on the shelf.*

One of the more memorable scenes from Anat Baron’s movie Beer Wars places her in a bar with brand-loyal Bud/Miller/Coors fans.  On a table are three cups of beer, one each of the afore-mentioned.  She asks participants in an experiment to state which of the big three they drink, has them taste all three beers, & try to identify which one is “their” brand.  Unsurprisingly, everyone fails, demonstrating the fallacy of brand loyalty with such a homogenous product.  But it doesn’t really matter if they can pick it out – the tie has already been established.  There’s something about that beer that makes it theirs, & no doubt those blind taste testers have already downed hundreds of that brand, & will likely continue.

I, personally, don’t see myself becoming brand-loyal any time soon.  Sure, there are breweries I get excited about (I get psyched any time Lagunitas unveils something new).  But I always go back to the comfort of playing the field.  There’s too much out there, & I’m not ready to settle down yet.  And I bet a lot of you are out there with me.  Here’s to choice, & hoping the supply side keeps it coming. 

*Part of me hates using this “us/them” tone.  It’s presumptuous of me to speak like I know who you, the reader, are, but I’ve done it before & will probably keep doing it.
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