Why the Beer Matters

Yesterday, I discussed the beer Cartwright Brewing made when it launched an early microbrewery in Portland in 1980. It was definitely the most interesting part of the papers posted by The Oregon Hops and Brewing Archive. But there is an element that's almost as interesting. Chuck Coury, Cartwright's founder, came to the project from wine-making. He'd already seen the change that had taken place in wine, and he gave an incredibly prescient overview of where beer was heading. (Although a small handful of American microbreweries had opened within the year or two before Coury started thinking about opening his own, they were far too new and tiny to suggest that any of his predictions were imminent.)

In the review he made of his own project at the time, here's what he observed about the coming beer market:
  • "There is a market for quality domestic beer. Note the rise in import sales. Compare to the explosion in fine wines. Prohibition theory: America's beer palate is only now recovering."
  • "Not everyone will enjoy your beer. That is good."
  • Things to stress about your brewery: "Local, small-scale production. Traditional/European quality. Re: chill haze and sediment; stress positively as 'real beer.'"
Kurt Widmer at the recent
release of Hopside down.
This is exactly what happened. It's remarkable that he had this insight into the market, because it took the rest of the country more than a decade to catch up with him. For basically all of the 1980s, it was touch and go in terms of whether what he wrote above would actually come to pass. Karl Ockert once told me that when the Ponzis were looking for bank funding to open BridgePort a few years later, the banker said (paraphrasing), "Nobody opens breweries; they just shut them down." But here we are, a generation later, and it turns out there is a market for domestic beer. Not everyone like every brand, and that is good--it means we have a very rich and diverse market. He even correctly identified that elements of craft beer that would be anathema to a large industrial brewery like haze could become a marker for hand-made authenticity.

Which raises the question: why did Cartwright fail?

Part of it was that the market Coury envisioned wouldn't emerge for years. Sometimes visionaries suffer a first-mover disadvantage (you could say Cartwright was the MySpace of beer). But a far bigger reason was the beer. It just wasn't good. There are still lots of people around who remember it, and that's the overwhelming memory; even on Facebook people were recalling the beer with amusement as a crapshoot. Apparently there were a few good batches, but they seem to have been the minority.

When you look at the breweries that survived the 1980s, nearly all of them did so by making very good beer. But it's also true now. A glance at the largest breweries in the roughly "craft" camp (Boston Beer, Sierra Nevada, New Belgium, Craft Brewers Alliance, Lagunitas, Deschutes, Bell's) confirms that quality really helps a brewery. It's not the only thing that matters. Good branding, smart distribution, fortunate brand performance, good location--all these things can really help. Good beer alone is not sufficient to become a big brewery, either; there are thousands of small breweries worldwide, from Block 15 and Breakside to Dupont and Schlenkerla, that make world-class beer. Some breweries making great beer even fail for reasons unrelated to the beer.

But an iron rule is that without quality beer, it's very, very hard to build a successful brewery if you're competing in the "quality" category. (I'd say impossible, but wise hive mind is going to point out a case where it's happened.) Coury understood where the market was headed. Unfortunately, he charged into it with bad beer and that insight didn't do him any good.