Tuesday, April 5, 2011

An Open Letter to BC Craft Brewers

Please stop being timid and apologetic. Please stop brewing “crossover” beers. Please stop trying to engage a portion of the beer-drinking population that will never drink your beers. Please take more chances. Please make the beers that you want to brew. Please focus on quality and creativity.

BC craft brewers, you have been needlessly kowtowing to the masses for far too long. There have been brewpubs and craft breweries in the province for nearly 30 years now, and it’s just recently that full-flavoured styles such as India Pale Ale have become relatively common. In your efforts to please everyone and “convert” Lucky drinkers to craft beer with featureless, unobtrusive ales and equally unremarkable lagers, you have missed the opportunity to convince the roughly 10 percent of the population who are truly receptive to craft beer that you have something remarkable to offer.

When Sierra Nevada founders Ken Grossman and Paul Camusi brewed and released their now legendary Pale Ale in 1980, nobody in the U.S. was clamouring for a well-hopped pale ale. Bitterness in beer was considered a bad thing by most Americans. But by having faith in the quality of their product, they started converting people one drinker at a time. They didn’t start out making a "cream ale" or a "lightly hopped amber" so as not to discourage Bud drinkers. They put out a well-made flavourful beer and let the people who were receptive to it hop aboard. And if Miller Lite drinkers didn’t like it, well, Grossman and Camusi weren’t going to change their minds anyway.

The craft beer movement in the U.S. was founded on the idea of creativity—taking traditional European styles and reinterpreting them. U.S. brewers (and craft brewers around the world) continue to try new things and blur the lines between traditional styles. The possibilities are endless! New categories of beer are literally created annually for judging at the Great American Beer Festival.

BC craft brewers, you need to lead, not follow. Introduce people to new styles and bold flavours. Stand behind them and be proud of them. It’s even more vital that you do this now as U.S. craft beer continues to cross the border in greater and greater quantities. U.S. craft beer exports were up 28 percent in 2010 and Canada was one of the top three markets (along with Sweden and the UK) for that beer.

As a result, BC’s craft-beer drinkers are more sophisticated than ever, so don’t be afraid to challenge them. Ignore the segment of the population that wants its mass-produced pale lagers. They are not your market and most never will be. Focus on, and please, the eager consumers who want to expand their palates and constantly try new stuff. Those are your people. They are bloggers, writers, CAMRA members, festival organizers and outspoken advocates for something they love. Take care of them and you’ll ultimately be rewarded.


Sukkit Trebek said...

While I agree that BC brewers should focus on craft beer consumers (and I tend to buy from the ones that do), I think you can't ignore the masses, and the people on the cusp. Very few craft beer drinkers started off that way, most of us drink cheap, macro lager until a "training wheels beer" showed us that beer could have flavor. I don't fault a brewer for wanting to pay the bills, and if you have to brew a cream ale in order to do so, I have no problem with that. As long as you also make a great IPA (or 10), and experiment with new styles.

AT said...

Thanks for your comment. I see your point, but disagree with at least one part of it. A middle-of-the-road beer isn't going to convert anyone to craft beer. For me, it was the eye-opening experience of my first Guinness or Red Hook ESB that did it. Those beers are not timid. I still drank pale lagers after that, but I also realized that there were bolder flavours out there and I wanted to keep exploring.

greg said...

Amen brother.

Brendan said...

Tongue planted in cheek: their response. http://bit.ly/fNJJQd

AT said...

The BC breweries that my post doesn't apply to--and they don't need to be named--no doubt agree with everything I wrote.

Dan said...

Can't believe I didn't stumble on this blog before, despite seeing you in twitter. Very nice.

Regarding this post: Look, I like the sentiment because I'd benefit immensely from a local source of wild and innovative beers. But if I were a BC craft brewer reading this I'd probably tear my hair out.

Two issues.
1. Things are actually edging in that direction. Lighthouse and Vancouver Island have started doing one-offs and casks and letting their brewers get creative in ways they never have before. I believe this is in response to the steady envelope pushing of Driftwood and Phillips, not to mention the quality imports we are getting nowadays. But you're right, much of their output is aimed at general appeal…

2. …which is completely unavoidable I'm afraid. These guys love beer. They have all sacrificed more lucrative careers to brew for a living. But making enough money to stay alive as a brewer is fantastically difficult for a young brew operation. It costs a small fortune to get a brewery together. By the time a brewer has the experience and backing to start a brewery, he/she is likely to have a partner and probably a few kids. If those beers don't sell, if they're not safe enough for local pubs to take a punt on, then people don't get fed. Not to mention how much harder it is for a creative brewery in BC as opposed to, say, Oregon. Industry regulations here are burdensome. I personally know some seasoned brewers who have made some of the best beers to come out of BC and they're barely breaking even. It's a tough, tough business.

I bet they'd love to have the luxury of churning out endless experimental beers. But unless you strike gold (a la Sierra Nevada) you could easily sink your month's profits into one beer that nobody likes.

I wish it were different, mate.

AT said...


Thanks for your comments. First I'd like to state that I'm not simply advocating for brewers to make only "wild and innovative beers." Nobody wants to drink those all the time. This post was a reaction to the timidity I see in many BC craft brewers. Several on the island, in fact. That said, there are some exceptions, and I would use their success to refute your assertion that brewers "have" to make middle of the road beers to survive. Look at Driftwood and Phillips.

Again, I'm not suggesting that all brewers should produce only extreme beers. I'm just saying—for instance—try making a damn pale ale that has some semblance of hops in it! Meek beers that second-guess what drinkers want are nothing to build a reputation on. The BC brewing industry is rife with unremarkable beers like this.

Sierra Nevada's Pale Ale wasn't a happy accident, they made a good beer with bold flavours and people caught on.

BC craft beer drinkers are voting with their dollars and drinking as much US brewed craft beer as they can get their hands on, even if it costs significantly more than BC brews. Imports are skyrocketing. And we all know how quickly Driftwood, Phillips and Tree's seasonals sell out.

A lot of BC brewers now have to play catch up with BC craft beer drinkers. And I'm arguing that they'll actually do better business if they can provide a product that can stand toe to toe with imports. They've gotta raise their game.

I appreciate your perspective on things, and I understand that there are govt. constraints in BC that Oregon brewers don't have to deal with. But if some BC brewers can successfully make and sell flavourful, interesting craft beers, then it seems like feasibility is not the issue.

adult entertainment said...

Thanks so much to both of you.