Drink Local or Drink Quality? The question that divides craft beer

I’m always interested in reading about trends in the US craft beer scene as it can give a good indication of where things might be headed in Australia.

One trend I’ve been paying attention to is how some of US’s biggest brewers grow are rallying against what has long been one of craft beer’s key messages – ‘drink local’.

Founders Brewing, an American craft brewery with a growing presence in Australia, are one of these breweries that are now pushing ‘quality’ ahead of ‘local’. Founders’ Dave Engbers in this article, outlines the message that their sales crew pushes that is decidedly anti-local.

The biggest challenge our sales crew has is “local.” Every town has like eight breweries now. We just keep preaching, and I hope retail follows suit, that “local” does not mean “quality.”

‘Drink local’ has long been a key message for craft beer and it was a shock for me to read a craft brewery flipping the script like this. The ‘drink local’ message linked in nicely with a broader cultural movement to support local producers over multi-national corporations, and made sense to drinkers who like the idea of buying beers from brewers that they can meet in the flesh and breweries that they can visit.

Why have these bigger craft breweries in the US changed their tune? Because they’ve reached a point where to grow further they need to expand beyond being local. To do this, they need to switch drinkers’ focus towards a message of ‘drink quality’, where they boast more experience and can invest more money in equipment for quality control than the younger, local breweries that they’re competing against.

However, the emotional pull of ‘drink local’ is real for drinkers and is supported by the data in this Nielsen survey of beer drinkers in the US in 2015.

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That’s why breweries like Samuel Adams lament that their beers are being ignored in spite of their quality, simply because they’re not small, new, or local.

In this Good Beer Hunting article, Christopher Barnes, who works at a distributor of iconic import brands like Rodenbach in the US, opines about about the irrational attachment of drinkers to local beer:

“People will often drink a poorly crafted local beer because they have some sense of story or attachment to the brand regardless of quality.”

For Colorado brewery Oskar Blues rather than trying to rally against local they’re trying to become local by setting up breweries with taprooms around the country.

They most recently opened a brewery taproom venue in Austin, Texas, and in this excellent article, Austin Chronicle writer Eric Puga, outlined some of the friction that their expansion causes with the local industry. He also suggests that ‘local’ is about more than just a physical presence.

The phrase “buy local” among Austin craftsmen and women has traditionally been a call to preserve small, independently owned, hometown breweries…

“Buy local” is a complicated phrase, and it extends to terroir, sustainability, endurance, and perhaps even friendship in the small beer industry; its meaning is much more than a quaint marketing suggestion.

Is it unfair that some drinkers ignore bigger craft breweries in favour of local beer regardless of quality? Perhaps, but the ‘drink local’ message has been an important part of what’s gotten craft beer to where it is, and the emotional side of purchasing decisions cannot be underestimated.

With more local breweries opening up everywhere, growth has been harder to come by for the biggest craft breweries in the US. So they are also looking for new markets to expand into as the US market comes close to saturation point.

Australia is one such market and the likes of Ballast Point and Founders have captured the attention of Australian beer drinkers over the past year, each causing a stir in their own way with the launches of Sculpin IPAs and the Kentucky Breakfast Stout.

This must be causing some concern among Australian brewers, especially with some of the value pricing. The Ballast Point Big Eye IPA was long at the top of my best value for money beers, and the Founders Imperial Stout was recently available at an unbeatable price for that style and quality.

The local advantage is real but this kind of competition from the US is also going to put the pressure on Australian brewers to continue to produce good value quality beers too.

At Dainton brewery in Carrum Downs. A quality and local brewery.
At Dainton brewery in Carrum Downs. A quality and local brewery.

Meanwhile, some of Australia’s craft brewers are getting bigger and more sophisticated themselves.

Pirate Life recently took over their own distribution and their potential for growth looks enormous with their ongoing success and popularity. While 4 Pines continue to expand their reach and have plans to open up 3 more venues soon.

This is all good news in my books. Craft beer is becoming more professional and that’s going to help get craft beer into more people’s hands. Rather than one-man-band local founder/brewer/salesman types, we’re seeing breweries emerging that are more savvy marketers and experienced operators in the beer business.

While at the same time, brewpubs and brewery bars with a strong local focus are also opening up and proving a hit by connecting with their communities.

It isn’t hard to see that in a few years time we may be facing a similar situation to the one in the US, as newer smaller breweries continue to open up and push their local credentials, while the bigger more established and professional craft breweries try to turn the focus towards quality.

This all means that the question of ‘drink local or drink quality?’ is only going to become a more polarising question for Australian craft beer drinkers in times ahead.

For me I ask, why not both?

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