Not so much in beer. Craft beer is only five percent of the total U.S. beer business, albeit growing. Not much beer is sold online. The vast majority of beer, which is domestic mainstream beer, is sold the same way it has been for decades: through wholesale distributors to retailers. Because the prices are low relative to its weight, it has to be sold through distributors who aggregate many brands together so it’s economically feasible to sell to your local convenience or liquor store. Beer is perishable too, and it sells at a much higher velocity than wine or spirits. So deliveries must be made much more frequently, further setting in stone how it’s sold. And of course you have state regulations that help to maintain the status quo. I can make the case with you individually, in a bar, as to how this regulation actually helps craft brewers ultimately, but won’t get into it in these pages until I have more space and the effect of this Infinium wears off. Damn good beer, by the way.
So, what is changing? Well, higher-priced craft brews are growing in sales relative to mainstream beers like Bud Light, and more are being sold in larger 750 ml wine bottles. As craft beer grows, the average price of beer grows. Since craft beer weighs the same as regular old Bud Light, the ratio of the weight of beer to its average price is going down. This changes the game a bit, in that it makes shipping smaller loads more feasible. That may increase pressure to sell more over the Internet to individual drinkers. But besides that, even in the current system, it may also keep indie craft brewers independent for a longer period of time, because there is less financial pressure to consolidate and share brewing capacity. Are you following me? If not, put down your beer, you’ve had enough.
On the other hand, even craft beer is cheaper than fine wines and high-priced spirits (and they all weigh the same). So this unavoidable truth―I think, but am not sure―could lead to some consolidation amongst U.S. craft brewers (we have mountain ranges, remember) and more collaborative sharing of brewing capacity between and amongst craft brewers. I smell consolidation. I smell strategic alliances. I smell joint ventures.
No? You don’t believe me? Are Bend, OR-based Deschutes’ fermenters that much different than Boston-based Harpoon’s that they couldn’t reproduce each others’ beers, with their master brewers in attendance? I am confident they can do it. It’s the wrong question, actually. The right question is: Would the West Coast beer drinker balk at drinking Harpoon that was made at Deschutes? And that’s the trump card that comes descending down on us like a goat farting diamonds: The Consumer. American beer drinkers, as illustrated by imported beers, tend to care more than their foreign brothers about authenticity of brewing origin. And if they care enough, they’ll pay more. At that point, the weight of beer becomes less significant.
So, ultimately, it comes down to how much the drinker cares. Do you care? I’ll have one more glass of Infinium while you ponder.