I was nearing the end of a long, snowy drive home from Kansas City the other day. I hit a spot where I couldn’t pick up NPR and clearly needed something to occupy my brain. I passed a billboard advertising a liquor store somewhere in southern Minnesota. The sign bore the proud declaration “Specialty Beer.” At that moment this sight filled me with mixed emotions. On the one hand I was happy to see a small town store advertising and selling better beer, although I have no idea what kind of selection they might actually have. On the other hand I found myself wondering how long the craft beer industry will be saddled with labels like “specialty” and “craft.”
Think about it. When you go into a liquor store they don’t have a separate section for wines that don’t come in a box. They don’t put a special label on the single malt scotch to suggest that it is anything other than scotch. I don’t believe I have ever seen a store, even those selling small artisanal labels, advertise “specialty vodka.” Wines and spirits may be organized by type, region, or even price, but seldom is the better stuff called “special.” Contrast this with beer where it is not uncommon to see the “beer” section brimming with twelve-packs of pale lagers and a physically separate “specialty beer” section with its rows of 22 oz and 750 ml bottles. I found myself wondering if this segregation was a good thing or a bad thing for the industry.
In the short term labels like “craft” or “specialty” draw attention to better beer and let consumers know that it isn’t the same old pale, tasteless brew that they may think of as beer. In the long term, however, I think it may serve to scare people off. Segregating craft beer from the rest of the beer universe makes it easier for those who haven’t yet stepped up to say, “Oh, that’s too dark for me” or “I don’t like that strong stuff.” It serves to alienate potential craft beer drinkers from a product that they may very well like. Or it might lead some to see it as something to be consumed only on special occasions. Separating it physically in the store from other beers certainly makes it easier for the casual beer drinker to overlook. I would bet that there is a whole set of beer customers at a store like Surdyk’s or Zipp’s in Minneapolis who are totally unaware that there is a special aisle for specialty beers.
If you think about it, the majority of craft beers available today are simply beer as it was up until about World War II when resource rationing and changing palates began the slide to the corn and rice lagers of today. In other words, it’s just beer. A pilsner or Munich dunkel in Germany is just beer. A bitter in England is just beer. Bottled versions of each would sit on store shelves alongside other beers without need of special categorization. I wonder how long it will take for Americans to see domestic craft beer and better imported beer as just “beer.” How long will it take for Lagunitas Pils to take its rightful place in the cooler somewhere in the vicinity of the other light-colored lagers instead of being relegated to the short-bus ghetto of the specialty aisle? When will we normalize the consumption of quality beer in the same way that we have normalized the consumption of fine wine and spirits?