Here is a cool article about a very small brewery in Toledo, OH named Black Frog Brewery and the brewer who started it. Go read it. When you are done come on back, I’ve got some other stuff to say.
I received a Twitter reply from a person who reads my blog from Sweden the other day. She says I’ve begun to repeat myself and should write new things differently than I have in the past. If I didn’t already have that sense, I would have ignored the tweet. What I must do is move past the philosophizing about the issues I see in craft beer and try to find solutions.
Major League Soccer spent the first six years of existence marketing itself to everyone but American soccer fans. They did everything possible to attract families with kids and tweaked rules to make it more appealing to the average American sports fan. All of that led to the league almost running itself into the ground and forced a contraction of 2 teams.
In my head, I often link MLS and craft beer together. Their resurgences almost coincide. Whereas MLS faced its existential crises early, craft beer is just now facing up to its own. Three things have happened. One, the natural enemy to craft beer, big beer, has evolved its strategy from disdain to treating craft beer as a respected enemy. That means instead of just ignoring it waiting for it to go away, big beer is using its normal “aggressive” distribution tactics to stifle craft beer’s growth and then buying up competition to prop them up as their own versions of “craft” or “high end” beers.
Another thing that has happened is the number of breweries and the craft beer audience has expanded faster than anyone was ready for over the last 5 years. That means the number of breweries has increased while the number of quality brewers hasn’t at the same time the number of novice craft beer drinkers has skyrocketed. So, a lot of new drinkers are drinking mediocre at best beer and propping up new breweries. The new drinkers aren’t learning what a good beer is and the breweries aren’t forced to do better.
Finally, this dramatic increase of breweries is happening at the same time the number of bars and available tap handles have started to shrink. That means this fraternity of brewers that prided itself on its friendly competition is getting less friendly. Though it is happening out of the sight of the public. For the most part.
In short, craft beer is having growing pains. More accurately, it is a recent graduate out in the real world where his idealism and optimism is meeting the cynicism of capitalism. How do you hold on to who you are and what you believe when everything coming at you attacks those things? How does craft beer navigate in this new and changing world without compromising the thing that makes it special and different?
Demand more from ourselves as ambassadors and teachers
If we are going to take on the role of watchdogs for the industry, we should have the tools to do so. Become a Cicerone or Beer Judge. Make your staff do the same (if you have staff). Then impart the knowledge you’ve gained to customers when it makes sense and without being a condescending jerk. All these novice drinkers need to learn about beer somewhere. It’s better that they learn it from us then out on these streets. Also, if you are going to sit down and taste beer with a new brewer trying to sell you beer, it helps to be able to talk to them in brewing terms when you give your feedback. If you show, you know something about beer, they may take any criticism you give better.
Demand better from new brewers
Everyone in the industry needs to be honest with new brewers. The collegiality and fraternity are great. However, if one brewery is making bad beer it effects all the brewers in the area. Everyone with the experience and gravitas should taste new brewers’ beers and be honest. Have a dialogue with them to find out what their intent was with the recipe and whether they think they’ve successfully hit it. Be respectful but be honest and make the new brewer be honest with himself. Craft beer buyers for bars and restaurants should be equally honest. When a brewery rep or owner comes in to bring you beers to taste, tell them the truth and don’t buy beers that aren’t good. However, you too should give them constructive feedback on the beer. Explain why you aren’t buying it; what flaws you taste. The people within the industry must be the ones to take care of the industry.
Remember who the enemy is
It isn’t the brewery that just opened down the road from you. It is the one whose headquarters are in Belgium or South Africa. The collegiality and fraternity I sometimes mock in craft beer is part of the reason I love craft beer so much. You are competing with other craft brewers, but they aren’t the ones trying to destroy you. Understand that you may not always have a tap handle up in a good craft bar. Just remember, it is better that you will be up later and that the tap handle replacing yours for the moment is another brewer you like and respect. That is much better for all involved than if it was a faux craft brand out of a big beer company’s high-end portfolio.