Thursday, September 10, 2015

Are you tasting the beer or the cachet?

When news broke on Tuesday of Heineken buying a 50% stake of Lagunitas Brewing Company, within minutes beer fanboys* began crying “sell outs!” and lamenting about how the quality of Lagunitas is (and I’m paraphrasing here) doomed to go downhill just like every other craft brewery that has sold out to a macro conglomerate. Here are just a few examples:


Notice a recurring theme among those tweets? The notion seems to be that smaller is better and bigger is worse, but why? Are we supposed to assume Tony Magee (the owner/founder of Lagunitas) is going to start using rice and corn in his IPAs? I’ve never understood the notion that when a small company is bought out by a bigger company, that’s when they’ll start cutting corners to save money. Wouldn’t a smaller company be more likely to cut corners to begin with? After all, they generate less revenue, so every penny saved is a penny earned; whereas a mega corporation can more easily afford to lose a little bit of money here and there.

And what about the claim that every other time a craft brewery has sold out to Big Beer, the “quality” has deteriorated? Now, that’s clearly an opinion, though some people say that like it’s a fact. If it is indeed a fact, how would you qualify that statement? By what metric would you measure the “quality” before and after the acquisition? Oh, you heard from a guy who knows someone that saw something? That’s hardly a reputable source, and yet beer fanboys will eat that up with a spoon. What most people mean when they say “quality” is actually “cachet.”

cachet

Cachet is traditionally defined as a distinguishing mark of prestige (either figuratively or literally–>). You could also call it the je ne sais quoi factor. It’s something that you may not be able to put into words; something metaphysical perhaps. It’s more than just personal opinion or even the ability to back up an opinion with evidence – it’s just that unmistakable feeling that you know something is great. Cachet is what makes Heinz ketchup seem to taste better than the store brand or what makes Advil seem to work better than generic ibuprofen (even though in both of those examples the latter might actually be the former in different packaging). It’s why people will spend top dollar on designer clothes, luxury cars, houses they can’t afford, etc. because those things all have a cachet factor that just seems to make them “better” than the cheaper alternatives. And in the world of beer, it’s why some people will pay exorbitant amounts of money and/or travel long distances just to buy a certain beer or visit a certain brewery because they’re chasing that cachet rush.

I’ll admit I used to be a cachet junkie. I once took the day off from work and drove down to Poughkeepsie to get a bottle of Founders CBS at Half Time because it was the only store in a 500-mile radius that had any. I once drove all the way to a beer store in New Jersey to get a bottle of Firestone Walker Parabola well before it was distributed locally. I spent probably $100 on beer and shipping expenses to trade with someone in Europe for Westvletern 12 (and I realize these expenses pale in comparison to some people’s expenditures and endeavors). At the time, all of these purchases were worth the money and effort (in retrospect… not so much). Though some were not quite the “nectar of the gods” I had been hoping for, I never felt I had gotten hosed.

Over time, cachet has diminished in value to me. I’ve come to appreciate virtually every beer style, so sometimes a really great-tasting pilsner will impress me as much as a double IPA did in my early craft beer years. And it’s not that I’m a hypocrite, but when I see friends (or strangers online) going on what can only be described as a 400-mile beer run**, I’m overcome by a sense of confusion and pity. Really? Brewery X makes such fantastic beers than you’re compelled to spend an entire day on the road; burn an entire tank of gas; and drop all that cash just to try some beer because all the other beer nerds say it’s World Class stuff?

Hey, I firmly believe you can’t argue taste, so if you find that that’s the best beer you’ve ever had in your life or that the trip was worth every penny, then I’m not going to tell you you’re wrong. However, I would argue that what makes it seem like the best-tasting stuff on Earth is the cachet value you’ve assigned to it. And the thing about cachet – especially in the beer world – is that it’s fleeting. You can prove this to yourself by thinking about what breweries you coveted just a few years ago versus the ones you covet now. Remember when Dogfish Head was the must-have brewery? Or was that Stone? Or Deschutes? Or Three Floyds? Or Founders? Or Cigar City? Or Ommegang? Or The Bruery? Etc.

I can recall certain beer nerds raving about one or more of those breweries as recently as five years ago. But if you ask them their opinion of these breweries now, their reaction will be somewhere between “meh” and “They’re still good, but I’m not in a rush to buy them anymore because Breweries X, Y and Z are soooo much better.” But what is it that causes breweries to lose some (if not all) of their cachet? They didn’t sell out to Big Beer (well, most of them haven’t). They didn’t radically change their recipes. In fact, they’ve been innovative and have released plenty of new products. So why aren’t you willing to stand in line for them now like you once did? Did you change or did the brewery change?

Of course the opposite of cachet is stigma, which is essentially the same concept (reputation > performance value). Now that Lagunitas is half owned by Heineken, there will be a stigma attached to their name as many whiny people on Twitter and various forums have already demonstrated. But stigma, just like cachet, is in the eye of the beholder. Craig Gravina and I have opined about this previously when other breweries sold out to Big Beer, but it’s worth repeating. Does Elysian or Goose Island taste any less good now that it’s owned by Anhueser-Busch? If it’s being brewed by the same people using the same recipe, same ingredients, same equipment, same techniques, and in the same brewery – then it’s completely reasonable to say the beer is the same and will taste the same. Yet if you browse through Untappd you’ll see plenty of people convinced a former favorite beer of theirs now is yucky because they can taste the stigma (if that’s not a psychosomatic effect I don’t know what is).

Letting go of both stigma and cachet will really free your mind (and your wallet) as a beer drinker. I know it has for me. It’s why I can buy “lowly” brands like Saranac or Sam Adams or even PBR and genuinely enjoy them. Oh, I still really enjoy a $10 bottle of Founders KBS or a $20 Belgian quad, or an expensive IPA smuggled in from Vermont, but each of them has a time and place. I just don’t feel compelled to drink those types of beers all the time. Beer drinkers who allow cachet and stigma (and to an extent, peer pressure) to dictate their purchases tend to be some of the crankiest, grouchiest, snobbish people I’ve ever met. What’s the point of drinking top shelf stuff if you’re genuinely annoyed at having to drink something else? Is this really any different than a nicotine fit for a smoker or even withdrawal for an addict?

So the next time you rush to a bar because they’ve just tapped a certain keg, or you spend a lot of money on a trade, or drive to the next state to get beer you can’t get at home; ask yourself what is it you’re really enjoying – the beer or the cachet?

*I’m using “fanboys” as a pejorative to describe craft beer snobs who whine about every little thing. Think the beer equivalent of “Comic Book Guy” from The Simpsons.

**If you drive 200 miles to a brewery, purchase beer, and then return home, how is that not a beer run?