Saturday, April 12, 2014

Vive La Difference?

There was a recently a story in a local newspaper that Stone Brewing are looking at building their second brewing facility (sounds so much more 'craft' than 'factory' don't you think?) in the Charlottesville area, specifically near Crozet. Of course this caused much excitement, and likely no little disappointment should they choose to go elsewhere. It also got me thinking.

Let's imagine that the powers that be bend over backwards to bring Stone to this part of Central Virginia, tempting them with all manner of sweeteners, tax-breaks, and sundried incentives, and behold in a couple of years Stone II is open for business. Central Virginia is already becoming something a must visit area for beer tourism, just look at all the award winning breweries we have here, and Devils Backbone picked up more bling at this year's World Beer Cup. Naturally people will want to visit Stone, and I am sure they would in their droves.

There is a question though that nags away in the back of my head, would it not be utterly disingenuous to consider Stone a 'local' brewery, or their beer as 'local'? Sure it would be 'locally brewed', and having access to fresh Pale Ale would most assuredly be a 'good thing', but would it have the same sense of place as Full Nelson from Blue Mountain, Starr Hill's Grateful, or Three Notch'd 40 Mile? I realise that the very concept of 'local' beer is a massive misnomer given ingredients pour into breweries from around the world, and even the water has its localness stripped out quite often. However, there is something romantic about drinking beer made by breweries born and raised in your local area.

The same goes for all the big breweries in the process of setting up secondary plants on the East Coast, Sierra Nevada and New Belgium in North Carolina, and Green Flash in Virginia Beach. Sure it'll be great to have fresher beer, but I don't think I will ever be able to think of it as local, it'll just be another national brand made in multiple factories, likely by the very latest in technological brewing plants. In fact it will be no more local, in my mind, than Blue Moon being made just up the road in Elkton, or Budweiser down in Williamsburg.

If someone could just explain to me, in words of one syllable or less, how exactly the likes of Sierra Nevada, Stone, and New Belgium doing pretty much exactly what Anheuser-Busch did about 70 years ago is different? Enjoying the growth of the post-war economy, producing more than 3 million barrels a year, Anheuser-Busch opened secondary plants to bring fresh beer to their consumers. Oh, and by 'explanation' that doesn't include kraft-aid giveaway phrases like 'crafty', misleading consumers' 'tricking' or anything else that attempts to set up the straw man that Sierra Nevada, Stone, and New Belgium are anything other than big brewing concerns. Just because 'craft' is trendy doesn't make their doing exactly the same as AB all those years ago any different, or better, or worse.

It's just business.


  1. The most important question IMO is, how will they behave with the competition. Those tax breaks, etc. already give them what I believe is an unfair competitive advantage over the truly local breweries, who will still have to pay the same taxes. If on top of that we add the economies of scale and, likely, the deeper pockets companies like Stone or Sierra Nevada have, isn't there a risk that they will price out the competition (and other less ethical practices) just like AB, etc. did in the past?

  2. This is certainly a discussion that needs to be had in the craft beer community. When does a brewer get so big that they are no longer craft? Perhaps this is one way that smaller local breweries will always retain an edge. There is something special about being able to visit a tasting room of your favorite brewery and in the process speak with the brewers. You don't get this at stone but you do at some of the smaller local nano breweries.

    Perhaps consumers will just be glad that when craft breweries get big they are able to distribute quality beer nationwide. Stone sure has succeeded with the mass distribution of Stone Enjoy By through their distribution chain. I suspect as long as the quality remains the same, brewers will continue to sell regardless of how big they get.

    Everyone else who cares to support local breweries can visit the smaller breweries down the street regularly to enjoy a pint or take home a growler.

  3. No, the brand won't be local, but 95% of the people working there will be. That makes it local.

  4. Dan,

    I see what you are saying, but by that definition Blue Moon made by MillerCoors in Elkton IS local beer.

  5. Yeah well remember most of the time they start up a new brew house, they have a completely new set of people brewing there. So when Stone opened a new brewery/restaurant at Liberty Station in San Diego, though the beers are the same, the brewers are completely different. This is why The West Coaster classifies a new Stone location as a new brewery because there are different people running it.

  6. Last I heard, Lagunitas was planning on opening a new production facility in Chicago, so you can add them to your list of breweries from the west setting up secondary facilities (albeit, in this case, in the midwest rather than on the coast).

    And no, what these places are doing is fundamentally no different than what A-B et al. do. For better or for worse.


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