The Brewers Association’s Bart Watson is no Albert Einstein. That’s not a knock on him, as that also applies to nearly 100% of humanity. But when I visited Watson's Boulder, Colorado office and commented on the stacks of papers and general disarray, he told me to Google Einstein’s desk. Sure enough, the legendary genius was a pretty messy guy too.
Both Watson and Einstein had a career in academia at least. Before he took a job in craft beer as the BA’s Chief Economist, Watson earned his doctorate in political science (political economy, more specifically) at UC Berkeley. He planned on a career of teaching and researching.
I spoke with him to find out how someone with his background ended up working in beer, and how he uses the numbers to speak about the current state of craft beer.
Just 30 miles southeast of the BA’s headquarters, a former physicist and engineer for Lockheed Martin, Patrick Crawford, brews for Denver Beer Co. For Watson, his path bent towards beer when he was a visiting assistant professor teaching a public policy class at the University of Iowa. He happened upon the BA’s website looking for info on excise taxes for a lecture.
“The BA had a job opening,” he says. “It was the only non-academic job I applied to. I did it on a lark. I thought it sounded kind of fun.” Considering he spent his dissertation doing research on a “comparative look at technology implementation in retail trade across national retailers,” a job that combines economics and beer seems like a fun outcome for his skillset.
The intersection of beer and economics means one thing for Watson in February and March every year – the annual report. The centerpiece of this report is the top 50 breweries of the previous year based on beer sales volume.
“Breweries measure themselves, and you definitely hear disappointment when someone doesn’t get to the spot they wanted,” he says. “Particularly amongst the top 50.” And he doesn’t just count the big boys. For smaller breweries, their data is published in the BA’s in-house mag The New Brewer.
It’s 2017, so you might imagine that because digital records are commonplace, Watson can leisurely open a spreadsheet and magically find all the names, number of barrels brewed, and sales data for his industry within. Not quite.
His office is awash in bright neon green papers filled with data mailed to him from breweries across the country. And while this year he has a temp helping him with data entry, last year he input it all himself. All in all, 5200+ breweries submit info to him via snail mail and email before being aggregated into Excel.
“I’m usually either looking at a spreadsheet or email,” he says. “The emails determine which spreadsheet I’m opening. Some of it is parsing through [sales data] to help breweries. This time of year I have eight spreadsheets open, all trying to compile them into one [master] spreadsheet [for the annual report].”
Without a hint of superiority in his voice, he explains, “I’m very good at Excel!” We believe him. The only difference between him and an economist in the real world might be that at 4:30pm, the BA’s in-house bar opens downstairs, and he can grab a beer and take it back to his desk. In order to return to looking at a spreadsheet.
The perks of working at the BA don’t stop at free office beer. When he’s not at his desk coding in Excel, he’s on the road. “I probably take 20-25 trips a year,” he explains. “I’ve been to about every state in the country. I have a beer fridge at home that I try to get stickers from breweries I go to, and two sides of it are full.”
He gives speeches while he’s on the road at gatherings like the Rocky Mountain Microbrewing Symposium. After he participates, he might get a gift from the organizers like a large beer mug with the name of the conference plastered on it. But while free glassware is nice too, the job’s benefits go beyond swag. “The biggest perk of this job is working in the beer industry, and getting to go to these events and meeting people,” he says.
Since he travels to more breweries in a year than most will visit in their lifetime, I thought it’d be fun to hear his favorite stops in the past year. The conversation ended up circling back to the people behind the breweries once again.
“That new Sierra Nevada location in Asheville is a palace to brewing,” he says. “But I sometimes like the really small breweries. You get a sense of the community there. I was in Colorado Springs last week, and I stopped by Red Leg. It’s a tiny veteran-run brewery. The dudes there were super nice, and knew almost every customer who came in by name. We hung out and had a beer on their back porch as the sun set over Pike’s Peak.” Sounds terrible.
When he’s not putting together an annual report or traveling, he’s often working on government affairs, like supporting The Craft Beverage Modernization Tax Act, a tax bill the BA and other industry groups are putting their weight behind.
But whether it's for a tax bill or economic impact analysis, ultimately Watson's number crunching helps illuminate what’s going on in the industry. For example, there’s a reason breweries are focused on tasting rooms these days. “The margins in the tasting room are a lot higher, and it’s a lot more competitive in beer distribution these days,” he says.
His data helps shape best practices when it comes to brewery business models. See his recently published super interesting analysis of trends in packaging in bottles vs. cans.
“Numbers are always useful in telling stories,” he says.
Thanks to Remo Remoquillo for the header illustration.