The Role of Luck in Success [Plus a Podcast Update]
I just finished an interview with Morgan Miller this morning as a part of my Widmer biography project. Miller has worked in the beer world since its inception, when he was just old enough to drink, and he has as much knowledge rattling around his brain as anyone. (His memories seem to be impressively well-preserved, too; they match up very well with other information I've been gathering.) After we got done talking about the Widmers, we traded industry scuttlebutt. One thing that seemed to create a through-line to all the news was the role of luck in success and failure.
Let's start with Widmer Brothers. In 1985, their debut with Altbier flopped. Despite an incredible amount of preparation (including a week in Dusseldorf learning how to brew it and tracking down a local yeast strain), nobody was buying it. Bad luck. It wasn't that "microbrews" weren't creating a buzz, though--they were. BridgePort, Pyramid, Grant's--all of these were setting a certain (admittedly small) crowd on fire. The next beer out of the gate for the Widmers was a filtered wheat beer, which immediately started selling better than Altbier. When they released an unfiltered version, it went thermonuclear and the rest is history. Good luck. The Widmer story would have played out entirely differently if they had either started with a more popular debut beer or followed Altbier up with something other than a wheat beer.
Luck goes the other way, too. Earlier this year, Speakeasy Brewery closed its doors because an ill-timed expansion, funded by cheap debt, was followed by a market slow-down. With sales slack, they couldn't meet their debt obligations. It wasn't because they suddenly started making bad beer--they just picked a bad time to go into debt. What if the brewery had hedged their bets and waited a year to see how the market would change?
We all know that hard work, careful planning, quality, and consistency are important antecedents to brewery success. But if you start looking at the biggest breweries, it's hard not to see the hand of fate intervening. Would the business plan that turned Boston Beer into the country's sixth-largest brewery have worked a decade later? What if Deschutes had decided not to go all-in on porter as a flagship style and instead followed the fortunes of Bachelor Bitter and Mirror Pond? Would Full Sail currently exist if they hadn't launched the Session line?
Feel free to weigh in with your own examples--the possibilities are endless.
Some of you have noticed that we haven't done a pod in awhile. This is partly because of timing, and partly because Patrick decided to go on a three-week vacation to Europe. (You can read about the beers Patrick drinks as he hops from country to country at his Twitter feed.) We plan to be back in the saddle again during the week of July 24, when we'll do our regular preview of the Oregon Brewers Festival--and consider what the current lineup, always a tuning fork for the state of beer, tells us about current trends and fads. Lucky you--