Last week there was a spate of social media posts and articles in the national media about the state of craft beer in America. I’m just now getting caught up on my reading because I was brewing a bunch.
“Bubble” was a term that was quoted in a couple of these pieces. That word will certainly have a strong connotation for any current beer aficionados who also took a beating in the housing crash, and it’ll probably sound familiar to anyone who was drinking craft beer (back then we called it “microbrew”) in the 1990s.
My recollection of that time, as a young dude just learning about the world of beer and starting to homebrew, is of a number of first generation craft brewers, who started out in the 80s or early 90s, blowing minds with totally novel “pale ales” and “porters” for a number of years, subsequently enjoying a period of exposure in the national consciousness and rising sales and trendiness and increased market share, followed by a flood of new entrants into the market, and ending with a downswing of closures and consolidations that lasted until the second generation of craft brewers picked up the torch in the early 00’s.
In the comment sections on these posts and articles, a reason I saw cited more than once for the decline in popularity of 1990s microbrew was a decrease in quality. Although I don’t think I have ever returned as many infected six packs as I did in the last few years of that decade, I have to believe that, as evidence, the “decrease in quality” argument is pretty much entirely anecdotal.
The more interesting – and perhaps indicative – nugget that was tossed around was folks getting into the brewing business (and I’m paraphrasing) “for the wrong reasons.” Certainly there were folks in the 1990s tossing a hat in the ring for whom their burning passion for beer was not chief among their reasons to strike out and brew – just like today (and as an example of that, I’ll cite Chick Beer – Google it). Did that lead to a decrease in beer quality too? Is it inherently wrong to want to cash in on a trend?
Seems subjective and situational, but I don’t remember the blackberry something wheat something-something with the dog on the label that I drank through gritted teeth at parties as having the flavor of chasing a lifelong and dearly-held dream.
But, returning to the present day, here’s some data: according to the Brewers Association, there are about 1300 new breweries in planning, on top of 2000-odd craft brewers already in operation. By volume, less than 1 out of every 10 beers sold is a craft beer (according to the BA’s definition of that term). Even if we discount the naysayers and assume craft brewing’s market share will continue to grow, it seems impossible for the market share to keep pace with the number of new players hungry for tap lines, shelf space, and drinkers.
Given that, it’s hard not to look ahead and expect a shakeout. But at the same time, it’s also hard not to look at the current situation as a definite point in a cycle: the boom-and-bust of the 90s strengthened and grew a number of the first-generation breweries and also gave us the brewers and brands of the second wave.
Another theme from last week was the looming specter of AB-InBev and SABMillerCoors. Let me digress (it’s my blog … I’m gonna digress) and talk about olive oil:
About a year ago, I was listening to MPR and heard an interesting piece on olive oil production in Spain. The reporter interviewed a number of tiny, family-owned artisanal olive growers producing expressive, interesting local oil, and contrasted them with a big corporate concern industrially glugging out indifferent product for the bottom shelves of warehouse stores all over the world. One of the artisanal growers commented that the big company was fully capable of crafting amazing and inspired olive oil, but there was just way more money to be had making and marketing an inexpensive, lowest-common-denominator commodity.
Not to cast any allegorical aspersions on the technically impressive feat of brewing a pale, light lager with precise consistency at multiple facilities around the world, but – doesn’t that sound familiar?
The many plants owned by those megacompanies have process control and resources and infrastructure beyond the wildest-eyed dreams of any craft brewer, but – and I’m not trying to be cavalier here – I’m still waiting to be blown away by anything they’ve put out on general release. Big Beer will muscle into the craft sector, that is going to happen, and it could be an awesome exercise in high-paid executives misunderstanding entirely the forces that drive a niche market segment. Anybody remember Budweiser American Ale?
Whatever the AB-InBevs and Diageos and SABMillerCoors and Fosters of the world end up doing or not doing, the most important thing in the immediate future of craft beer, to me at least, is the opportunity to support – through patronage, through spreading the word – the folks who are brewing “for the right reasons,” whatever that may mean to you personally. Drink local, buy independent, support your local brewery and family-owned businesses. That’s my plan for Black Friday.
Cheers, as always.