Friday, November 12, 2010

Rooting on Beer Hobbits in Africa and China and El Salvador.

Two newsy items are drawing my interest today. They have a common thread, a familiar story, approached from two different perspectives. Both are near to my heart for different reasons.

The first item is from St. Louis, where I lived for a while. An article from the Bloomberg business wire looks at the beer scene there. It's about how loyalties have shifted away from foreign-owned AB InBev and toward locally owned operations like Schlafly--something I've written a bit about. Even at Busch Stadium--that temple to the city's most beloved sport still bears the name of a family brewing company it once embraced to the exclusion of all others--vendors are adding craft beer taps. Why? Because that's where the money is.

The second is from Tom Cizauskus at Your for Good Fermentables. Tom is in the D.C. area, where I also lived for a while. But that's not the perspective to which I refer. His post is about beer growth outside of the U.S. and Europe--the "rest of the world." That's where I live now. It's a point of view that interests me these days.

As we ought to know by now, overall beer sales are basically static or declining in North America and Europe--even while craft beer posts steady growth. However, Tom notes that overall beer sales are up 3 percent in South America and 5 percent in Africa. Meanwhile the marketeers expect Asia to account for 38 percent of beer drunk by 2015.

This all leads to Tom's question: "Combining the large brewing corporations' continued ignorance of taste trends and their refocused attention eastward: will the so-called 'craft' brewing industry have a less fettered opportunity to grow here?"

My answer is no. But I've got to pick on Tom's question a bit. I don't like the idea of "refocused attention eastward," which is a natural assumption to make and one I've heard before. The thing is, it reminds me of the "Great Eye" from Lord of the Rings. Remember in the films, how it seemed like Sauron's big evil headlamp could only focus on one place at a time? Just dodge the spotlight and mosey on up to Mount Doom! Somehow I don't think AB InBev and Heineken work the same way.

This is not a story, I would argue, of American and European bullies leaving the backyard so you can play in peace. These are global companies in a global marketplace. They've been in the "rest of the world" for a long while now. And by the way, they're still in the backyard too. Craft breweries still have to compete with the big boys, and with each other, for our short attention spans and hard-earned duckets. Even in St. Louis, Schlafly drinkers are still a small minority compared to Bud loyalists.

Also--and here is a point I want to make more often--craft beer is not just American. It's not even AmericanCanadianEuropeanAustralian. It's easy to think that certain regions are the historical home of beer, and so that's where craft beer lives. But the world hasn't worked that way in a long time. I'm not accusing Tom of thinking that way, but in fact it's a mistake that lots of us tend to make. Especially as Americans, for some reason, we cling to this old narrative of American David versus American Goliath (or American Frodo versus American Sauron?) and forget that the reality is much wider and more complex.

Beer drinking, like soccer and soap operas, is a global phenomenon. Those giant beer companies span the globe, but so do the reactions to their relatively bland products. Africans and Asians and Latin Americans travel the world too, they like to drink beer, and they appreciate flavor and quality just like everyone else. That's why exports of U.S. craft beer are growing and little breweries are popping up virtually everywhere.

Granted: the craft beer movement--as market segment or cultural phenomenon--is less advanced in the "rest of the world." All the more reason for concern when the big boys are licking their chops at developing markets. For my part: I'll be rooting for all the little Frodos, everywhere around the world. Mainly because they make it a lot more fun to travel.

*Anyway, I'm almost certain they are. It's a point I'll address in a future post.

**Pictured: the bar at the Bridge tap house in St. Louis. Nothing from AB InBev, but they do have PBR.

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