By Clay Robinson
When I first got into making beer for a living, my reasons were simple: I wanted a job where I didn’t have to cut my hair or shave, and I wanted to end each day drinking good beer that I made. I didn’t plan to become a brewery owner, and I didn’t think I would one day take on the likes of Anheuser-Bush InBev and MillerCoors.
Then a wild thing happened. Sun King, the brewery I opened with friends in 2009, grew beyond our biggest hopes, and the craft brewing industry got big enough that the giant beer conglomerates couldn’t ignore us. These days, they’re spending a lot of money trying to beat us.
It’s that David-and-Goliath battle that led the people at Indiana Humanities to ask me to write something on the topic of rivalry as part of its Spirit of Competition initiative. A two-year discussion that looks at competition through five themes – passion, innovation, failure, civility and rivalry – Spirit of Competition works to help us all see how competition factors into our daily lives (learn more at www.indianahumanities.org).
Competition wasn’t on our minds when we started Sun King, but the marketplace is by definition competitive, so competition is a reality for us. Looking at the five themes of competition being discussed by Indiana Humanities, I’d say they’ve all played a role in helping us build Sun King into an operation that this year will produce nearly 2,000 barrels of beer each month. Still, rivalry is the one that seems to loom largest right now.
What’s funny is that our rivals aren’t who you might think. They’re not other craft brewers. While the category is growing quickly, craft beer isn’t a competitive sport. It’s a collaborative marketplace, where we share ideas and challenge each other to be better. As a result, we don’t see the other craft brewers as our competition, but more like brothers in arms, united against a common enemy.
That enemy? The big beer companies. Even though Anheuser-Bush and MillerCoors control 90 percent of the beer market, they’re worried because little guys like us are eating into their market share. Craft brewers only have 6 percent of the market, but over the last two years, the craft brewing industry has put up double-digit growth.
So the big boys are fighting back. How? By trying to crowd into the craft market. They’re buying into small breweries, and they’re selling beers that look like craft beers but aren’t. For example, Shock Top might seem like a craft beer, but it’s produced by Anheuser-Bush. Blue Moon? Sure, it seems like a craft beer – from its label design to its cloudy texture and wheat flavor – but it’s a MillerCoors product. You probably didn’t know that, though, because it doesn’t say so on the label.
In our industry, we call those big-brewery craft-beer knock-offs “crafty” beer, and we’re fighting to highlight the difference between us and them. We want full transparency so consumers know when they’re getting a true craft beer and when they’re getting a “crafty” product. We want people to know that a true craft brewer produces fewer than 6 million barrels of beer a year (Anheuser-Bush ships about 100 million barrels a year) and is less than 25 percent owned by a big beer company.
Don’t get me wrong. I don’t mind competing against the big boys. I just want it to be a fair fight.
The truth is, rivalry is a good thing. Larry Bird always said his rivalry with Magic Johnson made him better. Bill Gates wouldn’t be what he is today without Steve Jobs, and vice versa. Jay Leno and David Letterman constantly try to outdo each other. The list goes on and on.
As those examples show, having a rival forces you to focus on what you do and do it as well as you can. It makes you work harder to set yourself apart, and to be more creative and bold. It pushes you to collaborate with kindred spirits, and it increases the choices for consumers and the quality they receive.
In our case, that means better beer, a better place to work and a better community partner … and, along the way, a whole lot more fun.
Robinson is a brewer and co-owner of Sun King Brewing. He is featured in Indiana Humanities’ book, Food for Thought: An Indiana Harvest.