22 Nov

What a Celebrity “Brew Master” could do for craft beer

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Discovery’s “Brew Masters” premiere illustrated the oft-quoted David and Goliath stat of the American beer industry: Craft is at 5 percent of the overall U.S. beer-drinking market. But what that stat leaves out is all the momentum the segment has experienced the last few of quarters. That exposition is important, especially because of what this food reality series could mean for the segment at this point in time.

Those familiar with craft’s late boon will recognize the looming suspicion that its breakneck acceleration will hit a speed bump. For while brands like Brew Masters subject Dogfish Head, whose dollar sales as of early October had grown by 56 percent over the previous year, according to the Brewers Association, have experienced double-digit sales growth, Big Beer has posted no such gains during this Great Recession. That’s a great story for David, but has also raised questions about how much longer such growth can be sustained before an adjustment, especially with so many retailers and distributors griping about craft’s disproportionate amount of shelf space in comparison to their actual slice of the sales pie.

And then along comes Craft’s answer to a Jersey Shore hunk: Sam Calagione, a former underwear model-turned impeccably tanned head of one of the top 20 or so craft breweries in America. He gets his own reality TV show on Discovery at a time when macrobrewers are ramping up efforts to beat craft producers at their own game. (Notice the plethora of Blue Moon commercials during the show?)

Calagione is positioned as a quirky small business owner, reciting early on in the show a popular Emerson line from “Self-Reliance” about going, well, rogue. Later, he does a few rap videos with his Belgian-born brewmaster, which makes him, er, endearing. Not the most hair-on-your-neck-raising scenes for those used to juicier reality TV, even by “MythBusters” standards. Perhaps this is why a few initial reviews of the show have been lukewarm.

Nonetheless, the show is still a game changer. It will help tap into new craft-quaffing markets in at least three ways:

  • This could herald a new era of celebrity brewmaster, now emanicipated from behind the walls of the beergeekdom (wherein my friends and I reside, admittedly) for all the public to see. English: Calagione will effectively become the first celebrity brewer outside his core audience of craft beer geeks, an establishment which, at least in the analogous case of celebrity chefs’ ascension, has infinite power to boost product sales. Gourmet Retailer reported back in 2000 about all the spices, cooking tools and more that gained so much for having been recommended on shows that sported celeb chefs like Emeril Lagasse and Rick Bayless since their mid-90s catapult to Food Network fame.  Pamela Keith, culinary director for Draeger’s in San Mateo, was quoted in that piece: “I hear people say for instance, ‘Rick Bayless says this chile is best for this dish. Do you have it?’ Well if we don’t, we will.” Beer retailers will likely follow this logic.

 

  • Did you notice anything familiar a little less than halfway through, when Calagione goes “shopping for ingredients” for his Bitches Brew in downtown D.C.? He gathers spice sticks, raw honey, and more; smells the wares, comes back to his brewing compound and discusses how they’d all percolate and affect the brew. It is, perhaps purposely, the same formulaic segment seen on shows like Bravo’s “Top Chef,” where chefs go hunting for ingredients for special challenges. This is straight up porn for foodies, a natural market for this show and its consumable subject. And I believe the show will help deliver those yet unsaved.

 

  • Finally, Sam’s TV exposure every Sunday at 9/10 Eastern will likely reach a completely new audience for his products, even if it does air on a time slot previously held down by random specials and “Dirty Jobs” reruns. But then, viewers-cum-consumers will be introduced into the promiscuous craft beer culture, wherein brand loyalty is scarce and trying as many new types of beers as possible encouraged, regardless of Pope Benedict’s latest rulings on the matter.

In trite, short succinction, “Brew Masters” has the potential to kick craft beer growth into another gear, or at least quell fears of vanquishing gained ground.

Now, what this show will not do for the industry:

  • Reach its full impactive potential, if the show doesn’t let people in more. Not quite in the mold  of canned reality food shows Rachel Ray’s “$40 a Day,” this is a piece as much about a gritty genre of small businesses and the family that owns it as the beer itself. So why the heck didn’t we see the lovely Mariah C.? Why don’t we hear more about why and how Calagione started the brewery from the get-go? More background and humanization of the business could go a long way.  Also hope there is more suspense in the future than a few minutes of searching bottles for rods and some spilled glue. As Sam has alluded in some interviews, there is interpersonal drama that goes on in breweries, as with any other businesses. Expose it and you get a much bigger potential audience. This isn’t Maker’s Mark; let’s not distill the hell out of it. We’ll see if it picks up.

 

  • Drastically increase the amount of actual brewmasters in America, beyond what’s already  in the works. That observation is hard to quantify, but take the analogous rise of celebrity chefs and their effect on the restaurant industry. The Culinary Institute of America’s enrollment numbers have grown steadily since the mid-‘90s, during the Food Network explosion – but so have they since the 1980s. In fact, the period between 1990 and 2000 marked the Food Network’s rise to a household name, and the decade of CIA’s smallest enrollment gains since 1980. As CIA communications guru Jay Blotcher summarized Michael Pollan, “most people who watch the shows do not use their stoves … they just like to watch cooking.” And definitely, more than people 750,000 people like to drink beer —  the number, according to American Homebrewers Association, who brew it at home.  That’s not likely to change drastically and sustainably from this show. But if I’m wrong, that wouldn’t be a bad thing.

*Photo courtesy Joshua Weinberg, Discovery Channel

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