16 February 2010

The Man

I recently watched a great documentary on the struggle of microbreweries, called 'Beer Wars.'  The microbreweries are going up against the giant beer companies and, for the first time in history, making a place for themselves.  The plight of the microbrewer followed the same line as the artisan bread movement.  The issues are all the same.  Small beer companies, like small bakeries, can't sell their products for the pennies that large corporations can.  Consumers are driven by price more often than quality.  For instance, I have a customer who wants five dozen brioche buns a week.  It's a big enough order but it won't pay the rent, so to speak.  Brioche is by far the most expensive bread I bake.  The dough is nothing but butter and eggs...the flour is simply there to hold it all together.  This customer doesn't think I should be charging $2 for a 3 oz organic brioche bun.  The price haggling has been going on all week and I think the bun is down to $1.25 which remains much higher than Sysco* charges for the same product.  I'm certain the Sysco product is not anything near the quality of my buns but price wins out.  Sysco is getting buns from bakeries who are making such a high volume that they can charge far less than I can.  In fact, if I were making 10 dozen buns a week, I could charge less than I could for 5 dozen.  The more volume I order of things like butter and eggs, the cheaper it becomes for me and I can pass the discount along.  Also, I can bake 10 dozen buns in the same time it takes me to bake 5 dozen thus the labor cost of making the bread comes down.  The customers don't understand this and they don't have to.  They just need to know that I'm not trying to rip them off; I'm only trying to cover my costs and provide them with the same stellar products I always do.

The microbrewers, like DogFish Head (who was highlighted in the documentary) are competing against Budweiser and Coors for market space.  The large companies have so much money to throw around, they are trying to buy up the competition to squelch it before it becomes an issue.  Budweiser owns over 80 different brewing companies like Stella Artois, Kirin, and Rolling Rock.  They are even making their own microbrew-esque beers mimicing the products the little guys are brewing.  They made a pumpkin ale that was priced at $3/6 pack to compete with DogFish Head's Punkin ale at $8/6 pack.  They even created a fake brewing company to label the bottle with so the consumers would think they are getting an craft product.  I have seen this approach a lot lately.  Last week, while food shopping, I noticed a package of ground beef from 'Natural Valley Farms' or something like that.  I thought it was grass fed beef at first but upon further inspection, it was nothing but a clever label to sell the grocery store meat.  Then I noticed similar labeling tactics all around the meat department.  If you're trying to stick to your convictions, be careful when you're food shopping.  It's getting down and dirty out there!

Bakers and brewers have always been close.  I went to a bread convention a couple years ago and I spent three days debating which came first: beer or bread?  In a sense, you need beer to make bread and you need bread to make beer.  There are stories about bakers and brewers trading byproducts to get their batches going.  Wort, a stinky yeast liquid, rises to the top of sour starter.  Brewers use wort in the beer making process but bakers don't really need it.  Barm is an equally stinky, yeast substance created during the brewing process.  Barm is what bakers used, before commercial yeast came about, to  leaven their bread.  There are recipes in vintage cookbooks calling for barm but they don't list a quantity because the barm wasn't consistent in terms of sourcing.  The home baker had to use a trial and error method to determine how much barm to use.  Commercial yeast wasn't readily available until after World War II which is the exact same time Wonder Bread came into the homes of America.  I'm sure you can make the connection.

Beer or bread?  I don't know.  Ancient Egyptians (is there anything that these guys didn't invent?) were the first documented culture to make both beer and bread.  Apparently, they mixed flour and water to make a flat bread.  At some point, the baker accidentally left the mixture out in the sun for a couple days and it fermented.  He still baked his flat bread but it was much lighter and more flavorful.  Then it became the norm to leave the mix out and use a bit of the old mix in the new mix, voila - sourdough!  The same basic thing happened when the Egyptians left their grape juice out too long.  They ended up with wine.  Either the Egyptians were brilliant or they were total lazy morons but either way, I'm glad they figured out these principals or I would be out of a job.

Bottom line, sometimes it pays to spend more. You will get a better product and you can feel good knowing that you're supporting someone like me who is just trying to carve out a little space for a little bit of bread.

*Sysco is a major distributor in the food world.  They are known for selling cheap food.  If you've ever been to a pub and ordered jalapeno poppers or chicken wings after midnight, you've surely eaten a Sysco product.  Often, Sysco is the only game in town, especially small towns like ours.

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