Oh Fox News. How can I best enumerate the ways in which you manipulate the public? That doesn't even count Fox Business, the network that employs both Don Imus and JBL. But every once in a while, I suppose they can be good for something. Recently, Fox Small Business published a mildly well-written article about Peak Organic Beer. They are a company I am pretty fascinated with for a couple of reasons. Though I wouldn't rank their beers among my favorites, I would count myself a fan of their company. They embody a lot of what makes craft beer today great, from mold-breaking to entrepreneurship to a focus on quality above massive sales figures.
Let's be very clear: the current craft beer market is a reaction, by both brewer and drinker, to the low-quality, high-volume corporate beer juggernaut. More importantly, craft brewers and consumers have a chicken-and-the-egg relationship: the first wave of craft brewers were themselves disgruntled beer lovers. They knew that if they weren't satisfied by the market, other people must not be either. Granted, they have the smarts and business sense to launch a brewery, market it, and lead it to success, but they come from the same place as everyone who goes out searching for a glass or bottle of something new each time they peruse their local beer selection. So whether the market exists because of demand, or whether the demand exists because of the market is both unanswerable and irrelevant. They want a diverse marketplace, they encourage success across all breweries as opposed to viewing it as a competition, and demand the same quality from the beers they make as they would of a beer they drank with dinner.
This is quite the anomaly. Most large companies have nothing like this going on. They want to dominate the market and drive ingredient and product quality down as far as is acceptable to consumers. If customers wouldn't be outraged by eating zebra tumors and they drove product consistency up, you can bet they will find their way into your Kraft Mac & Cheese. Moreover, they want to have all the zebra tumors to themselves so that if your kids are eating zebra tumors, you will know they have been proudly grown, harvested, and served to you by Phillip Morris.
Now, there are no craft breweries the size of Phillip Morris. But the analogy stands. One thing that is so heartening about drinking craft beers (particularly for someone with the leftist leaning I have) is that, aside from the above corporate goodness, the ingredients are both high quality and traceable, labor complaints are virtually non-existent, and people seem to be embodying a sort of responsible capitalism where everyone gets paid without exploitation at any level on the supply chain. Are the people harvesting hops in mansions? No, but they aren't slaves either. Often ingredients are organic and/or local, making the purchase of some of this beer downright miraculous for local economies and ecosystems. Tell some spot in Iowa that they could grow profitable crops while employing responsible labor and sustaining the land, and I bet Iowa would be covered in hops the next month. Unfortunately, Iowa (or Washington state or anywhere really) doesn't need to be covered in hops because there isn't nearly as much demand for hops or barley as there is for corn, let's say. The big companies want corporate farms and the small companies just don't need that much.
On a purely hedonistic level, Peak's beers are not spectacular. In fact, most organic beers aren't. Samuel Smith does some pretty great stuff and Wolaver's is good sometimes, but other than that, is there a truly awesome organic beer? If there is, I've never seen, heard, or read about it. But Peak is good and the step of organic beers jumping up to "good" is a huge one. Why organic beers are rarely if ever spectacular is still a mystery to me. I mean, eat a salad, then eat an organic salad, and you know which is better. (If anyone has ideas, I welcome the new info.) But they are progressing, and Peak's success shows that if a good organic beer can thrive, a great organic beer could make the craft beer market explode.
A good representation of the quality of beer and slow food in today's market . . .
. . . versus thirty years ago.
What is so funny to me about all of this is that I am a total organic junkie. I eat organic whenever possible. Beer is the only product where, if I see it is organic, I will probably not buy it. If I'm going to drop $11 on a six pack, it better destroy. These beers rarely do that, and so if it comes to "all-natural and fantastic" or "organic and okay", I don't play; the beer needs to deliver. The major craft brewers are responsible and demanding enough with their ingredients that I don't NEED organic beer. I buy organic spinach because who knows where that other spinach comes from or what they doused it with. But when my bottle says "Washington state hops and two-row barley from such and such", I consider that pretty transparent. Further research only turns up decent labor practices from all of these companies.
Here is where Peak comes in. Their entire story, from beginning to current success, seems to mirror the craft brewing industry in America right now. They started ten years ago, before there was a sizable market for either organic food OR craft beer. Financially, each of those markets was in its infancy. Craft beer itself started as a purely niche market: a few rebellious minds making beer that they wanted to drink, and assuming other people would come along for the ride. So both Peak and the industry which holds it sprang up in a climate that seemed to offer little hope for success and almost no blueprint thereof.
One of Peak's other claims to fame is its packaging (a focus of the article), which depicts thoughts and pictures sent in by fans. The pictures aren't of hot women or keg stands, but of dudes walking through farmland or a SUN SETTING for god's sake. This isn't exactly attention-grabbing at first glance, but it IS phenomenal branding. Next to the Tecate girls or Bud Ultra Dry Hot Chick on Draught concoctions, a simple sunset can stick out and be downright refreshing. Peak presents itself as an alternative, and the packaging lets you know their priorities right off the bat. Craft beer as a whole seems to bring this to the table: rudimentary graphic design, minimal labeling (see Dogfish Head, for serious), outright profanity. Even when a craft beer label is going for some sort of manly sight-gag, it still offers the populist bent that penetrates the craft beer market. Read a brewery's mission statement, and this will only become more clear. And what could be more populist than encouraging people to record their thoughts and surroundings, then using them on the front of a sixer?
Financially, this is a no-brainer. While the beer market as a whole has fallen off around the world, the Brewer's Association reports that craft beer sales grew 5.9% by volume and 10% in dollars in 2008. Organic beer as a whole is up 21% and according to Peak, their sales are up (wait for it . . . ) 72 effing percent this year. (Editor's note: that is ridiculous.) Keep in mind, this is for a beer that is only decent relative to the marketplace. This shows incredible demand for a product that no one necessarily thought would or could succeed.
Craft beer's arrival in the mainstream has been aided by the fact that serious foodies (chefs, critics, me) have started to take it seriously. Craft beer has found a natural friend (sigh for the pun) in local and organic food. The slow food movement and craft beer not only go well together in ethos, but they go well together on table and on tongue. Peak doesn't just parallel this; Peak is this. An organic craft beer? That has "heart-warming underdog story" written all over it, as does this blog now.
In creating success as an industry, craft brewers have broken the corportate mold. You see "rival" brewers not only fraternizing but openly gushing about each other's beer. Their production methods are responsible. They assume the customer is intelligent. They focus on quality waaaayyyy over quantity (try to find certain seasonal craft beers sometime and you will see what I mean). All of these, anathema to most large corporations, not only work, they are almost entirely responsible for the industry's success. All of this is embodied in Peak, and the fact that we can sit back and watch so many companies (underdogs at the very core of their business) succeed is pretty encouraging. Who would have thought that we would be talking about such small companies with such importance or that, in America, the land of instant gratification and dubious labor standards, we would be talking about the cultural relevance of an organic beer made from the farms of Maine? Craft beer, and the many smaller, principled brands that make it up. inching into the mainstream has made it so. It just goes to show you: sometimes a little craft goes a long way.