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Brewers' battles threaten to temper the craft beer buzz

In my last column, I offered a few predictions regarding the state of the craft beer industry in 2014. I've heard other predictions from fellow enthusiasts, and one that initially struck me as pessimistic was that craft brewers would start directly attacking each other in 2014, spoiling the feel-good, cooperative spirit that the community has thrived on for years.

Many have worried about the effects of market saturation when it comes to profits for small breweries and the viability of getting into the business at what some would consider to be a late stage. But maybe the real threat of such saturation is sabotage from within the industry itself — infighting, lack of cooperation and underhanded tactics to gain a bigger edge in a market of shrinking margins.

Like the aforementioned prediction, this is a pessimistic scenario, but if a recent Internet spat — sorry, but that's how it goes nowadays — involving two major craft brewers is any indication, then it's an issue that we should at least be aware of.

Last month, Tony Magee, owner of California's Lagunitas Brewing Company, went on a Twitter tirade attacking Boston Beer Company (makers of Samuel Adams) after allegedly learning from a mutual distributor that Boston Beer planned on specifically replacing Lagunitas' draft beers with its newly-released Samuel Adams Rebel IPA.

Rebel IPA isn't the first IPA released by Boston Beer, but it's designed as a "West Coast IPA," a style of IPA popularized by California breweries such as Lagunitas that's characterized by a big, aggressive hop flavor with an extremely floral nose.

"We have never 'targeted' other brewers," Magee explained in a thread on Beeradvocate.com regarding his Twitter outburst. "Targeting for replacement is precisely what (large brewers) do when they go to market. This approach sees beer as a commodity, which it (soft of) used to be, before craft."

It didn't take long for Jim Koch, co-founder and chairman of Boston Beer, to respond in the thread. "We don't target other craft brewers," he argued.

"Ultimately, it's the retailer who makes the final decision on what beers to serve on draft. What's unique about out industry is that it truly is a brother- and sisterhood. We all need to preserve that spirit as long as we can."

I think most folks in the business would agree with that sentiment. Whether or not Boston Beer specifically designed a beer to attack Lagunitas in the battle for available tap handles probably will never be fully resolved, but the issue it raises is an important one, as it really could hurt the community that Koch and Magee are both championing.

While craft beer has been steadily chipping away at the market share percentage held by major players like AB InBev and MillerCoors, it almost seems inevitable that some of the bigger players in the craft scene will eventually start trying to gain extra market share at the expense of their peers, rather than only from their bigger, mutual competitors.

This is not only bad for the spirit of cooperation and family that has made the craft beer community so strong, it's likely to be bad for business in general. If the craft brands start fighting each other to make sure their West Coast IPA beats out the other guy's West Coast IPA instead of working to make more room in the domestic beer market for that style, then growth slows and nobody wins — except for the big brewing conglomerates to whom these craft breweries are trying to offer an alternative.

— jg@saintbeat.com

Brewers' battles threaten to temper the craft beer buzz 01/15/14 [Last modified: Wednesday, January 15, 2014 9:54pm]
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