Questions about the definition of craft beer and creative strategies for growth for brewers were on display at Brewbound’s second Brew Talks meetup of 2015, held Tuesday in front of a capacity crowd at San Diego’s Coronado Brewing.
The evening’s first conversation, moderated by Brewbound editor Chris Furnari, featured a group of local beer experts, including Tom Nickel, the vocal owner of O’Brien’s Pub and Nickel Beer Company; Shawn DeWitt, a longtime San Diego brewer and co-founder of Coronado Brewing; and Societe Brewing’s banker-turned-brewer, Doug Constantiner.
Together, the trio explored one of the industry’s most relevant current questions: How do you define craft beer?
While all three agreed that product quality is the most important criteria for defining what a “craft brewer” produces, they wrestled with each other over how to classify that attribute, as well as other tenets of the Brewers Association definition, particularly ownership.
“I don’t think it is a huge deal,” said Nickel. “To me, ownership is a question of what people want to do in the marketplace.”
Nickel, who feels an “us versus them” mentality has helped craft grow over the years, added that he nevertheless doesn’t believe the industry should carve out certain brands just because they are owned by larger, non-craft entities.
“An educated marketplace can make the decision for [themselves],” he said.
Constantiner, who still views ownership as an important piece of the industry definition, believes it should have less to do with the size of an owner and more to do with motivation of that owner.
“Any brewery that is owned by a huge company could be just as bad for the industry as a small brewery that is owned by somebody who has zero interest in making good beer and just wants to make money,” he said.
Regardless of trade definitions, the group believed consumers will ultimately make their own decisions on what constitutes “craft.”
And to discuss how San Diego craft brewers are appealing to an ever-growing swath of craft customers, Brewbound assistant editor Dave Eisenberg explored a variety of growth tactics with three forward-thinking companies. AleSmith owner Peter Zien joined Lost Abbey/Port Brewing founder Tomme Arthur and White Labs’ Neva Parker in a conversation that examined the ways in which craft brewers are distinguishing themselves in the marketplace.
“There is a whole new consumerism going on right now that we are not necessarily as connected to as other brands, with six-packs and grocery,” said Tomme Arthur. “A lot of that comes from discovery and that discovery notion was something we were really keen on.”
That’s why Arthur, already tasked with selling two distinct craft lines, opted to launch an entirely new concept when he wanted to showcase the specific nuances of beer’s bittering agent — hops.
“This is two things: taste and smell, taste and smell,” he said of the company’s new Hop Freshener Series. “When you pick this up, this is what you should taste and what you should smell. It seems very dumbed down and simple, but there are so many people coming into the category that you have to go there.”
For Parker at White Labs, aiding craft growth happens in two ways.
“The quality and the local aspect is very important to us,” she said. “Being able to provide yeast, that is really fresh, to people in different areas is a big deal.”
While local and fresh are no doubt two of craft’s most important selling advantages, market saturation can sometimes take its toll on the finished product. AleSmith’s Zien said he will regularly buy back out-of-code beers to ensure that drinkers aren’t getting a bad experience with his brand.
And although four breweries now share a street with Zien, he had no qualms about inviting Mikkel Borg Bjergsø — the nomadic Danish beer maker who roams the world producing labels under the Mikkeller brand — to takeover AleSmith’s old facility as part of a joint venture. Zien said the partnership will actually give him “more stake in the game,” and make the entire San Diego beer scene better, welcoming the addition of new blood in hopes that it will help AleSmith stay “relevant” into the future.
“I tell people opening a brewery in San Diego is like opening a restaurant in a city like New York City or San Francisco,” he said. “Bring your ‘a-game,’ be well-funded, have your game plan and cross your fingers and you might make it here. People are going to open new restaurants in those cities and people are going to open new breweries in what some think is a saturated (market).”
Video of both talks have been embedded for your convenience and are also available on the Brewbound YouTube Channel.