I'm sorry to go on about this, er, frothy subject, but the Brookston Beer Bulletin has posted perhaps the most thoughtful analysis of the Long Tail applied outside of entertainment I've read all year. The parallels between "craft beer" and niche products in other industries are fascinating. Here's an excerpt, discussing the rise of "hit" beer in the 20th Century, driven by forces that are now losing some of their power:
Historically, all breweries were essentially local or regional at most. There were no national breweries until after the invention of refrigeration. Beer did not travel well enough before that time and so breweries were limited in the territory in which they could sell their beers. Several factors changed in a short space of time, making national breweries feasible for the first time after World War 2. Keeping beer cold, of course, came before that time but a national media and especially television that made reaching the entire nation possible was also very important. It’s no coincidence that tomorrow is the 55th anniversary of Pabst becoming the first brewer to advertise in color when CBS broadcast a special one-hour inaugural show (June 25, 1951). It was there very ability to do so that allowed Pabst to become nationally recognized.
Then there was post-war prosperity and the national highway system, which made shipping to anywhere in the U.S. more economical. These caused products of all stripes from soup to nuts to create national identities. In order to appeal to this much wider consumer base, they were generally re-tooled to appeal to the lowest-common denominator. For beer, this actually began during the war, when the military requested beer for the troops that was watered down so as to avoid soldiers too inebriated to fight. Many returned with a taste for the bland.
So the bland American-style lagers developed over time to appeal to almost everyone or at least offend no one. Add to that immense advertising and marketing budgets with television and sports sponsorships and you can create national brands. Fortunes were won and lost as the breweries battled one another for dominance on a national scale. Brewing history is littered with the losers of this period. Hundreds of once prominent and popular regional breweries are gone. Our brewing heritage itself all but stamped out in the name of commerce. Prior to the late 1970s, the American beer scene was on the brink of extinction. Our most popular beers made us the laughingstock of the world. There were a few pockets of resistance here and there, but by and large the war was almost over. But then a backlash began that became the microbrewery revolution, which in twenty-five or so years has created a beer culture that is the envy of the world. More different styles of beer are now brewed in America than any other place in the world. Almost all innovation in brewing is happening at the craft beer level. American beers consistently win a higher proportion of awards in international competitions. By any measure, this is a phenomenal achievement. It’s too bad 96.5% of Americans are scarcely aware of it.
The only companies that can afford a seat at the national advertising table are the mainstream breweries. Therefore their voices are the only ones that can be heard. This unrelentless barrage of marketing has created a market so propped up that it would likely collapse if they suddenly stopped. This perpetual marketing machine can be compared to running on a treadmill. As long as you’re moving your legs you’ll stay in the same place but stop and you’ll be thrown off.
Go read the whole thing (which discusses both why craft beer may be ascendant and Anheuser Busch's plans) here.