During the Madison History Walk on Friday our guide, Andrew, made a comment that I found really interesting. The number one state in state brand loyalty is, not surprisingly, I suppose, Texas. People from Texas are proud of it and will go out of their way to purchase things from and by the people of Texas. Number 2 is Wisconsin.
While probably not surprising to the people of Wisconsin, I don't know if people outside of the state completely realize this. In fact, to be honest, I'm not sure people outside of Wisconsin spend a whole lot of time at all thinking about the state of Wisconsin. Indeed, prior to moving here I'm not sure I could have accurately pointed out on a map of Wisconsin where any city other than Milwaukee would be located.
But, hey, do you know where Toledo, Ohio is? or Dayton? or Fort Wayne, Indiana? I didn't think so.
This brand loyalty has its advantages and disadvantages. The advantages are obvious. We have had an explosion of growth in the craft beer industry here; new brewpubs and breweries are sprouting up all over the place. It is not much of a cliche to say that virtually every town has its own brewery. This is true because people from Wisconsin drink beer from Wisconsin and they drink a lot of beer. So breweries like Lake Louie, O'So, New Glarus, and others have a legitimate chance of success without ever having to leave the safe nest of Wisconsin.
From a consumer standpoint however, we should be a little more adventurous. First, and most obviously, Wisconsin breweries are painfully monochromatic. Amber? Check. IPA? Check. Dopplebock? Check. With the exception of Furthermore playing on the fringes, and really, adding stuff to pale ales isn't that far out on the fringe, there are few breweries in the state that play on niches or in specific styles or really have a strong identity of their own.
In the meantime, breweries that do interesting things and have solid identities are being passed over and forced to leave the state. Dogfish Head left, Stone left, Boulevard left, Allagash left. All solid breweries. Indeed, in some (most) cases much stronger, more consistent, better breweries than we have here in Wisconsin. And it is very possible that more will be leaving. Some of this is their problem, of course. Stone just got cold feet; Dogfish Head didn't want to put in the marketing efforts (and, no, I'm not buying Dogfish Head needed to reallocate product; they actually entered some markets with the beer that they pulled out of Wisconsin).
People in Wisconsin will drink local before they drink quality or experiment. Is this a problem? Only if you value differentiated products or real competition. Do we only drink Wisconsin wine? No because Wisconsin wine isn't very good (sorry Wollersheim, you are, admittedly the best of a bad lot). Do we only eat Wisconsin cheese? Well, maybe we do - but we have a competition in this space that doesn't seem to exist in the breweries.
I spoke with Marc Buttera at O'So, and he's asked a number of in-state breweries to collaborate on a beer with him. How awesome would that kind of collaboration be? Night Train meet Bedlam? Lupulin Maximus meet Rocky's Revenge? Consecrator meet Dankenstein? F-ing awesome. So far everyone has turned him down. Why? Because breweries here are afraid of competition. They like their safe nest and loyal customers and Ale Asylum's afraid that if they collaborate with O'So people will like the O'So better and drink that instead. [ed note: I just picked on Ale Asylum, I have no actual evidence that this is the case with them and frankly my mind explodes with the possibilities of a Dean Coffey/Marc Buttera collaboration!]
But that's not how it works. If the last few years of the beer industry have taught us anything it is that there is no "instead", it is all "in addition to". There is no competition and collaboration works.
So, as consumers we shouldn't be afraid to experiment and try something new. Like Dank? Try Nosferatu. Like Ballistic? Try Hop Rising. Like Dirty Old Man? Try Black Bear Stout. Like Fixed Gear? Try Ard Ri. You get the point. There's a lot of great beer out there and you'll find that you aren't substituting; you always come back to that Lakefront, Ale Asylum, Tyranena, etc. You always come back to the local because, well, because it's local. But in the meantime, you're missing a lot of great beer out there.
Breweries. Get out and collaborate. Take Marc up on his offer. Only good can come of it. You are not too busy. You have nothing to fear. How cool would a Lake Louie/Lakefront beer be? Lakefront Louie? Come on. It's too easy. Hinterland/Furthermore? Heretofore. It's fun. Everyone can do it.