For your reading pleasure, remnants from the cutting-room floor from an essay I just wrote for All About Beer magazine, titled "What Revolution?" In it, I argue that craft brewing is just one part of the marvel that is the American beer industry. It will likely never become mainstream, but it's as much a part of who we are as the Establishment brewers. For more background to this three-parter, see this entry.
More to the point, contracting is now standard practice in American business. Consider Amazon.com, which at first glance appears to have nothing to do with brewing --- craft, contract, or otherwise. Amazon is an internet-based company; customers engage with it online rather than in the “bricks-and-mortar” world. Its survival and success depend on reliability: users expect error-free digital transactions; site crashes drive them away.
So Amazon must own and operate enough equipment capacity to handle its largest potential demand load. As with many retailers, that peak demand arrives during, and is limited to, the three days or four days after Thanksgiving, when shoppers descend on the site to buy holiday gifts.
The rest of the year, however, most of Amazon’s processing capacity sits idle, awaiting the next holiday rush. From Amazon’s point of view, unused capacity is unprofitable. What to do? Rent it out to small businesses.
Say Funky Vermont Brewing Company wants to sell t-shirts, caps, and mugs at its website. The brewery is small; the owners can’t afford to invest in the necessary hardware or software. So they rent both from Amazon.
The beer geek who visits the brewery’s website in search of t-shirts and caps doesn’t know, or care, how or where her order is being processed; she only cares that her credit card number is safe and that her mugs and caps arrive on time and in one piece.
Everyone benefits: Amazon uses its otherwise idle capacity; the brewer offers an online shopping experience without investing in costly infrastructure; and the consumer scores the t-shirts and caps that function as walking advertisements for the brewery.
So, too, with contract brewing. Jim Koch made smart choices about where and how to spend his money. But those decisions were less those of a revolutionary than of a brilliant entrepreneur working within an existing framework and focusing on the end --- high quality beer --- rather than the means.
Yes, Koch, and those who followed his lead (and contract brewers are now legion) tinkered with the details: his lager contained only four ingredients, and his advertising focused on beer rather than babes in bikinis. But he operated within the confines of the Established Order. Instead of ramming the gates, Koch strolled through them and mingled with the enemy.
[Still, many hoped for more, including] Fred Eckhardt, the craft beer advocate who began writing for All About Beer in the early 1980s . . . . In a 1995 essay titled “The Revolution Is Coming” (twenty years in, the revolution was apparently still en route), he complained that the “beast” of Corporate Beer still wandered the land.
“Let me count the lengths they have gone to ruin our beer”: “fruit-flavored, soda-pop-like malt liquor,” “lite beer,” low alcohol beer, “dry beer, light dry beer, ice beer, light ice beer, and color-free beer.” “But cheers, folks,” he added, “change is a-comin’. The grand Taste Revolution will be here soon . . . .” (*1)
He did not realize that the Taste Revolution had arrived. Novelty was, and is, the New Normal. The media in general and the internet in particular twisted time and space into a gyrating whirligig that transformed beer “styles” and consumer “audiences” into fragmented niches, and created an infinity of paths between seller and buyer.
Big Brewing enjoys even more outlets for its Big Advertising Bucks, but small brewers, once stymied by mainstream media’s brick walls, now use the internet to advertise their beers, send e-newsletters, and offer visitors virtual brewery tours. Fans of “real” beer congregate at Jonathan Surratt’s marvelous beer-based rss feed, and at websites like beeradvocate.com or basicbrewing.com, and, of course, the one hosted by All About Beer. [Revolution? Does it matter? The beer --- whichever one you want --- is everywhere you want to be.]
Source: Fred Eckhardt “The Revolution Is Coming,” All About Beer 16, no. 2 (May 1995): 36, 45.