There is a point, somewhere around 24 or 25, when you understand you can’t act like you did in college. It is that point where you have been out of college the same amount of time you were in college. Your job is going well. You may be up for a promotion. You’ve gotten a couple of raises and have moved to a better apartment. Maybe you’ve even bought a car that is reliable. However, you keep thinking of yourself as a college student with no responsibility. You still try to go out on Thursdays and drink with your friends until the wee hours, but slowly you and they realize, you have to go to work the next day and it’s much easier to work without a hangover. Maturation comes in steps of realization that point out to you that the things you did in college may have been fun, but they aren’t feasible all the time.
Craft beer likes to continue to think of itself as this bunch of insurgents. This rowdy bearded group of pirates out to make beer and have fun drinking it. The slow realization that this fun anything goes insurgency has become a business with all the attendant problems is creeping across the craft beer world. At the high end, beer is a business that is increasingly cut-throat. Layoffs and plant closings are here in this little happy valley and they aren’t going away as the business matures and morphs into its next phase.
Some of the answers and quotes in this Jason Notte piece show an almost naive or arrogant belief that the explosive growth of the last few years would continue unfettered. That is either a lack of common sense or a lack of vision. I don’t know.
Until the last few months, anyone who dared say that the kind of growth craft beer saw over the last 4 or 5 years was not sustainable was accused of saying the “craft bubble will burst.” That seemed to be a way of pushing the inevitability of maturation down the road so people would not have to think about it.
I think there were bad assumptions made by many in craft, in retrospect. One, there seemed to be a belief among many that they would get to make their beer and eat away at Big Beer’s edges and Big Beer would not respond. Big Beer did respond by buying some smaller breweries and investing in others. They did that because they saw something coming that many of the larger craft brewers didn’t.
I think among craft people the initial assumption was that the Big Beer national brands would be replaced by a group of smaller craft national brands like Sierra Nevada and Stone and Ballast Point. While that has happened to a certain extent, Big Beer is also being replaced by really small beer. If you are a craft beer drinker in North Carolina, Big Beer was replaced with Sierra Nevada, Stone, and Ballast Point, but also Olde Mecklenburg, Lonerider, Newgrass, and Legion. Craft beer is becoming increasingly localized which somehow the people who helped create the attitude that local and fresh is better didn’t see coming or maybe they thought they were immune to its effects.