THE FUTURE OF CRAFT BEER

Where is craft beer going? Is there an end-game? What does the future look like?

We talk about the “craft beer movement” like it’s a revolution. Like we have corporate overlords just waiting to be overthrown by the masses in a glorious coup d’etat. Is that outright hyperbole? Or is there some truth in that fantasy?

If there is an underlying narrative to everything we say here at Aleheads, it’s this idea that we are a part of a growing tide. Just a small part of a wave that keeps rising and rising. But will that wave simply crash upon the beach and recede? Or will it wash away all of the dirt and debris and leave something more beautiful and pure than what stood before?*

*Editor’s Note: Probably not the best imagery in light of the Japanese tsunami, but I wrote this before the earthquake struck.

To paraphrase Marcus Aurelius’s speech about Rome in Gladiator: There was a dream that was craft beer. You could only whisper it. Anything more than a whisper and it would vanish, it was so fragile.

The beer world, until very recently, was dominated, utterly DOMINATED by so-called “macrorbrewed” adjunct lagers. That’s simply what beer WAS for decades. It wasn’t necessarily as awful as we might make it out to be, but it was designed to be bland, inoffensive, and consistent. Sure, there were some minor differences between a Miller, Bud, or Coors…but they shared about 99.999% of their beer DNA. In truth, there really wasn’t any choice…unless you consider the false perception inherent in selecting a different label on what is essentially the same beer to constitute a “choice”.

While the Aleheads might vilify “Big Beer”, we understand that the sparse beer landscape we grew up in wasn’t really the fault of those companies. Prohibition was the true “evil” in this equation. For many years, the American beer landscape was just as well-populated by small, local brewers as countries in the Old World. But Prohibition changed everything. Those small breweries, with their razor-thin profit margins, simply couldn’t survive after their products instantly became illegal. The only breweries that made it through those dark times were companies like Anheuser-Busch that were big enough, lucky enough, clever enough, or wealthy enough. Those that did outlast the Temperance movement were in a unique position to take advantage of the vacuum. They didn’t just survive…they THRIVED. After thirteen years suffering through Prohibition, most Americans had forgotten about the variety and quality of beers that had been available to them before. Hell, they were just happy to have a drink! So when the major breweries started churning out eerily similar pale lagers, no one really complained. The beer was cheap and plentiful. Compared to when it was illegal and scarce, the world seemed to be a much better place.

But Americans woke up after a few decades. You can only consume so much of the same thing before you start to crave something different. The macros fought back in the early 80s with the advent of “light” beer, but even with the incredible (and I mean that literally, it’s simply not credible) success of such beers, the inherent problem with the industry was revealed. When your big “innovation” is watering down your already insipid product, things are destined to fall apart. In truth, it doesn’t matter how many half-naked women are in Bud Light commercials or how many retired sports stars claim that Miller Lite is less filling. At some point, the people will realize that the products those ads are touting just aren’t very good.

America blinked in the 80s. Companies like Anchor Brewing, the Boston Beer Company, the New Albion Brewery, and Pete’s Wicked lit the fire. And, like any nascent industry, the craft beer fire sputtered a bit. New Albion was out of business in just a few years. Pete’s Wicked stayed relevant for awhile before fading away and ultimately disappearing just this year. But Anchor, true to its name, stayed strong. And the Boston Beer Company, under their better known “Sam Adams” alias, became a star. Like the Allies taking Normandy beach on D-Day, craft beer had found a toe-hold. What happened next, was simply breathtaking.

New breweries began sprouting up seemingly overnight. In my hometown of Boston, the craft beer scene went from one brewery (Sam Adams) to a dozen. Harpoon, Otter Creek, Long Trail, Magic Hat, Tremont, Catamount, Nutfield, Ipswich…the list kept growing. Not all of them survived, of course (RIP: Catamount, Tremont, and Nutfield), but enough did to prove that the newly dubbed “craft brewing” industry could legitimately survive in a world dominated by the macros.

It was at this point that Marcus Aurelius’s quote above comes into play. Those of us who worshipped craft beer in those fragile, heady days felt like we were part of some special, shared secret. There was a camaraderie amongst craft beer enthusiasts…a brotherhood. A sense that you were engaged in something a little radical…a little revolutionary. There was little “bashing” of specific beers, beer styles or breweries at the time (other than the macros, of course…they’re always fair game). There was an “all for one” mentality. A sense that any infighting between enthusiasts would be detrimental to an industry that had fought so hard just to get its foot in the door.

Success, as it often does, bred success. Those early adopters began starting companies of their own in the mid-to-late 90s. They recognized that there was PLENTY of room for growth in the craft beer world and that they wanted to play a part in the revolution. In 1980, there were fewer than 10 craft brewers in the country. By 1995, there were well over 500. As more and more people saw the appeal of doing it “their way”, new breweries sprouted up like wildfire. With the increase in breweries, a need to distinguish one from the other arose. Some succeeded through great marketing (Sam Adams). Some through producing aggressive, challenging beers (Stone). Some through exploring unusual ingredients and rare brewing styles (Dogfish Head). And some through producing a universally-enjoyed flagship (Sierra Nevada). Competition for market share wasn’t particularly fierce (even today, American craft brewers still only make up about 5% of the market), but the need to separate yourself from an increasingly crowded field became crucial. The brotherhood of craft beer was still solid, but cracks were showing as brewers had to actually compete with one another for patrons.

By the turn of the 21st century, the floodgates exploded. The number of breweries doubled…then doubled again. By 2010, there were over 1,600 breweries in the US. Seemingly every style of beer under the sun was being produced…and every day a new one was invented. Cascadian Dark Ales, Imperial Reds, Coffee Stouts…these new varieties weren’t just novelties, they became full-fledged “styles” with their own judging criteria in beer competitions. Speaking of which, beer competitions began popping up everywhere. Beer magazines proliferated. And beer blogging became a veritable cottage industry. And here’s where we are today…

Those “cracks” that had started developing in the late 90s are becoming even more threatening today. We are seemingly in a golden age for the craft beer industry. Variety, availability, and popularity are greater today than ever before. But like Rome, that overwhelming success has created problems. The brotherhood of craft beer isn’t quite as civil as it used to be. Today, Gordon-Biersch can sue Oskar Blues for naming one of their beers the “Gordon”. The Marble Brewery in New Mexico can sue the nascent Marble City Brewing Company in Knoxville, TN to change their name even though they don’t sell their products in remotely the same market.*

*Actually, the Marble Brewery DOES sell their beer in Knoxville now. They had previously only sold beer in New Mexico and Arizona, but they decided to make their third market a small Tennessee town that also happened to be the home of a new brewery that had a similar name. Coincidence? The Marble Brewery owner IS from Knoxville and a Tennessee grad, but if you don’t think the lawsuit had anything to do with this decision, then I’ve got a brewery in Brooklyn to sell you.

But more important than the legal wrangling between breweries is the vitriol that has arisen amongst craft beer enthusiasts. As I said before, in the early days of craft brewing, when we were all whispering, everyone was on board. There were no “bad” craft beers even if some were better than others. Just like folks who guzzled up Bud, Miller and Coors after Prohibition, we were just happy to have something different (in the former’s case “different” meant “not bathtub gin”, in our case it meant “not Bud, Miller, or Coors”). But we became complacent as is wont to happen. With so many choices and such ready availability, the voice of craft beer enthusiasts grew from a whisper to a full-throated roar. And with that roar came arguments. And vitriol. And debates that quickly devolved from civil into pure name-calling.

The internet helped of course. The invention that has proven to connect human beings better than almost any in history has also helped divide us in ways we could never have foreseen. The anonymity and impossible ease of publishing opinions on the internet has made it a place where conjecture, hysteria, and outright lying all thrive. The craft beer industry, no matter how civil it had been for most of its history, simply couldn’t avoid those issues. Many beer bloggers began claiming that certain breweries “sucked”. That certain beers tasted like “horsepiss”. That certain brewmasters were “douchebags”.*

*And by “many beer bloggers”, I mean “us”.

Like Rome, the craft beer industry started fragmenting. Camps developed. There were “Extremophiles” who worshipped at the altar of hops and alcohol. There were “Sessionistas” who shunned aggressive beers and devoted themselves solely to a handful of easy-drinking brews at their local watering holes. There were “Aleheads” who thought lager was a four-letter word and “Lagerheads” who thought ale was a five-letter word.*

*Beer drinkers are not good at math.

In short, the brotherhood of craft beer had become more like fraternity row. Each “house” might share the same beliefs internally, but as soon as the neighboring house started spouting a different opinion, they would lash out en masse and urinate on each other’s properties (or whatever the equivalent is in the world of beer opining…actually, it probably does involve urine now that I think about it).

And that’s where we are now. The world of craft beer is bigger, better, and bolder than ever before. But it’s also more fractured, contentious, and uncivil as it has ever been. Like Rome, we’ve succeeded beyond our wildest dreams. And like Rome, we are faltering.

Which gets us back to the question I led this post off with…where is craft beer going? In the short term, the industry will continue to grow, of course. At about 5% of domestic beer market share, craft beer has ample room to keep growing in the US. Big beer has hit a wall. Rumors about Anheuser-Busch purchasing Miller, while total speculation, reveal that the macros have utterly saturated the market and have precious few ways to continue increasing the value of their shareholders’ investments. As the stigma of Big Beer grows, the quality of their product remains as weak as ever. Meanwhile, as craft brewers continue to improve their products and push the envelope, sales of their beers are skyrocketing. The industry is growing at an unbelievable double-digit pace seemingly every year.

But that growth will stop. It has to. Craft beer is not a perpetual motion machine. We may not be at the tipping point yet, but we will soon get to a place where every new brewery that opens can’t succeed. And when that happens, craft breweries will begin failing…in droves. Like other industries, the most successful breweries, whether through marketing, quality, luck, or some combination of the three will begin dominating. Personally, I see a three-tiered future. On top will be the macros which, like it or not, will probably always reign.*

*We may all admit that McDonalds is a “bad” restaurant, but that doesn’t really affect their bottom line. The same is sadly true for Big Beer.

In the middle will be the major regional breweries. Places like New Belgium, Boston Beer Company, Lagunitas, Brooklyn, Oskar Blues, and Founders will cut into the macros’ profits immensely and carve out a large niche for themselves as regional powerhouses that you can easily get in any corner of the country. They’ll be the beers of choice for craft beer enthusiasts in casual restaurants, garden-variety taverns, and for those drinkers that want to know exactly what they’re getting. In the third tier will be the wild and woolly world of true, local microbreweries. The little guys that make funky, esoteric, and often less “consistent” offerings. They’re the ones that can’t afford to compete with the regional ale factories so they’ll serve as the breweries of choice for locavores, true beer geeks, hipsters and iconoclasts. That’s not to say those small breweries will make better beer than the regional ones…it’s just the inevitable result of something becoming “popular”. For example, the Brooklyn Brewery is a very well-respected ale factory, but they’ve gotten so big that most Brooklyn beer bars won’t even serve their offerings because they’re just not hip enough anymore. C’est la vie.

We’re not there yet, of course. Today, craft beer is still a bit like the Wild West and we seem to be in something of a Gold Rush. There are land-grabs, speculation, and lots and lots of fun “characters” driving the industry. But that will settle down. As the industry matures, there will be a shake-out. And we will fondly remember this “golden age” just like Rome did when the Republic fell and the Empire was formed.

And what of those of us who were whispering so long ago? What does the future hold for the craft beer enthusiasts? It could go a couple of ways. We could ratchet up the anger and the intensity. We could continue obsessively drooling over our favorite breweries and beers while utterly slamming those we dislike. We could continue insulting other beer drinkers that don’t agree with us and retreat into our individual houses. The Extremophiles could congregate wiith their 200 IBU hop-bombs and mock the Sessionistas. The Sessionistas could gather in their dusty pubs and drink their 1,000th pint of the same, smooth ESB as always while slandering the Aleheads. The Aleheads could convene in beer bars with 100 tap-handles and heap scorn upon the Lagerheads. And the Lagerheads could sit in their parents’ basements and drink their pilseners while wondering why their beer has no flavor (kidding!).

But I’d rather go a different route. I’m writing this post for a lot of reasons, but mostly to issue a challenge to myself. On these pages, I have said certain breweries “sucked” (Gordon-Biersch). I have said that some beers taste like “horsepiss” (umm…Gordon-Biersch again…that Oskar Blues thing really irked me). I have said that certain brewers were “douchebags” (hi, Sam Calagione!). No more. Even if the actual world of craft brewing will continue along a tenuous path that will, inevitably, lead to some in-fighting, lawsuits, and hostility, I want the brotherhood of craft beer enthusiasts to come back. I welcome disagreement. I welcome debate. But I want us all to recognize that we’re in this together. That we all love and want the same thing. We want beer with flavor. We want beer with character. We want beer with complexity and balance (usually). In short, we want “good” beer. We may not see eye to eye on what constitutes such beer, but there’s no reason we can’t be civil, courteous, and respectful of each other’s opinions.

I may not be able to live up to those high standards (even Wifey will quickly point out that I am an unrepentant asshole), but I will try. I will try to add to the craft beer discourse without reverting to mockery, baseless accusations, or superficial arguments. I will fail, I’m sure. Often, I’m sure. But I will try.

There was a dream that was craft beer. If we all work together, it shall be realized.

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3 comments

  1. Where did you come up with this sucky bucket of horsepiss, you unrepetant douchebag? Wait, we can still insult each other since we’re not in the industry, right?

  2. Are you saying this is the Gordon-Biersch Bock of blog posts? I think that’s a tad harsh. I prefer to think of it as the Oskar Blues Gubna…a promising idea that just kind of fell apart during the execution.

    Either way, yes, we can still keep insulting each other. The only industry I’m in is the “telling Doc he sucks donkey-nuts” industry. And we are growing every year! 122% growth in 2010!

    1. Jesus, that’s what I’ve been tasting in the Gordon-Biersch Bock all these years – Donkey nuts! I could never put my finger on it but now I know for sure. That’s what they get for calling a beer a Blonde Bock. Stop making shit up and just call it an ill-conceived Bock. Or, better yet, make it taste better.

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