Tag Archives: craft beer future

What Do We Do Now?

There was a great disturbance in the craft beer universe a month ago.  In the latest of a series of purchases by big beer, Wicked Weed Brewing in Asheville, NC was purchased by AB-InBev.  This had reverberations far beyond North Carolina where Wicked Weed was seen as the leading light of the state’s craft beer by many.

Luckily for me, I had the Cicerone exam to study for and recover from which afforded me the opportunity to organize my thoughts and opinions on the sale.  I did read the writing and opinions of others and can say much of what I read was cogent and interesting even when I may have disagreed with the writer’s conclusions.  However, too much of the writing degenerated into the, “I’m more CRAFT then you” didactic that is part of too much online discourse.  Too many craft supporters take the position that if you don’t agree with every point they’re making you are at best a big beer apologist or at worst a sellout like Wicked Weed.

That line of writing, discourse, and thinking is boring to read.  More importantly, at a time when craft beer is at a very important flexion point in its existence, it bogs the conversation down into needless finger pointing, keeping the conversation from moving forward into, “What do we do next?”

What do I think of the sale?

I am of two minds when it comes to the Wicked Weed sale or the sale of any other craft brewery to big beer.  First, is my business mind.  It tells me that neither I nor anyone else should presume to tell another person how to run their business.

While there are nebulous obligations to the craft beer collective and concrete obligations to the affected employees, in the end, the owner/brewer of the brewery must do right by the rest of the ownership group/investors.  You invest in a fledgling company or start up because you believe you will see a return on that investment at some point.  From a business perspective, this current moment in craft beer is a good time to sell a brewery.  The number of new breweries popping up is beginning to create greater and greater competition, that hurts future growth and current margins of breweries.  Cashing in may be the best advice for many breweries and their investors.

Also, in all honesty, if you are not an investor or a member of the ownership group of a brewery, you have no real idea what the original business plan promised potential investors and you have no idea what the other internal machinations lead a brewery to sell to AB or other big beer company.  You cannot attack someone who starts a business, builds it into a successful national brand, and then sells that business for a profit.  In almost any other business sector that is applauded.

Second is my small business/buy local/craft beer mind.  There are national coffee chains close to my apartment with slightly cheaper coffee and tea, however, I walk to a locally owned place a little farther away that has more personality and keeps my dollars in the community and appreciates my business.

So, while my business (i.e. intellectual) mind understands these decisions and accepts them, this second mind, while not angered is disappointed and saddened.  I am disappointed that we are losing a successful locally owned business to a conglomerate that treats beer like any other factory-made commodity.  I am saddened by the fact that much of the Wicked Weed beer you buy in 3 years will be a hollow facsimile of the Wicked Weed beer you can buy today.

This second mind knows that craft brewing is a creative endeavor and respects and honors the work it takes to make it creatively and financially.  The second mind believes that craft beer is about more than money.  It is a business and everyone wants to succeed, but as Greg Koch, founder of Stone Brewing, put it in this article, craft beer is more of a foot race then a hockey match.  Each craft brewer is running their own race pushing themselves and by extension everyone else by doing their own thing their own way to the best of their abilities.  Big beer treats beer as a zero-sum game where you win or die.  That point of view is not only antithetical to my personal beliefs, it stands in stark opposition to the founding principles of craft beer.

No craft brewer gets into brewing to make money.  The hours are long and there is no guarantee the yeast will create the beer you want or expect.  Brewers do this because they love that part of the challenge and they love how brewing allows them to express themselves.  This separates them from their investors who may not have the same almost romantic vision of brewing and expect to make money from this venture.

We must accept both realities as part of craft beers future to ensure its continued growth.

Back to Wicked Weed. I understand the sale, but I don’t like it.  Sometimes the money they offer is too great to turn down.  This sale like almost all the others before it is understandable and defensible on a business and intellectual level as individual business decisions.  They are, however, against everything the craft beer ethos espouses.

Where are we right now?

First, big beer companies are going to continue buying craft breweries.  That is part of a long-term strategy that will not change and is exacerbated by a business environment that makes some craft brewers ripe for buying.

Second, we know that capital investment in new and existing breweries is increasing as the segment matures as a business.  Many of these investors no longer just want to say they own part of a brewery to be cool but want to turn their investment into a profit.

Third, the almost exponential growth we saw in the last few years in the number of craft brewers is leading to equally exponential growth in competition for tap handles and shelf space among craft brewers.  The larger, regionally focused craft brewers are beginning to get squeezed out of the marketplace not necessarily by big beer and their many tentacles but by the mass of extremely localized small breweries that they inspired.  Many of those larger brewers have been faced with flat if not negative growth in the last year.  That is why this business environment breeds these sales.  For some breweries selling means recouping an investment now when that may not be possible in a few years’ time.

What do we do?

The first thing to do as a craft beer fan is to start simple and start local.  Let your love of craft beer inform your buying decisions of what and where you buy.  If you have local breweries near you, frequent them.  Buy their beer, their growlers, and their swag.  If you go to a local brewery and their beer isn’t as good as you had hoped, don’t frag them on social media. Send a personal email or letter to the owner/brewer expressing your concerns in a thoughtful and respectful manner.  We must be the ones who control craft beer.  Not the faceless conglomerates who could just as easily be selling ball bearings rather than beer.

Another thing you can do is join your state brewer’s guild or the Brewers Association as an affiliate member.  Most state guilds have this option to raise funds and create a group of supporters and volunteers.  For as many issues as you may have with some of the day to day decisions the Brewers Association and state guilds make, they are organizations whose expressed reason for existence is to support and promote independent craft brewers.  Give money, get a t-shirt, get newsletters, and get discounts at members taprooms for stuff you wanted to buy anyway.

Finally, bloggers, writers, and podcasters should try to be more Thomas Jefferson than Thomas Paine.  In every revolution, there is a time for rhetoricians to spit hot fire from the blog post or podcast microphone.  However, there is also a point when that loses its effectiveness.  You need equally iron-willed and no less committed people who will create and implement the ideas and theories that make the revolution’s goals self-sustaining.  Too often, online discussion about craft beer ends up with everyone talking in circles, saying nothing, and going nowhere.  However, for craft beer to continue to move forward through this time of growth and upheaval, we all need to step off the hamster wheel of online discourse and offer something thoughtful and new.

I don’t think big beer is evil, much in the same way I don’t think Hurricane Katrina was evil.  However, there are two things.  First, many of their business practices and the actions their distributors perpetrate in their name are detestable and contemptible and are rooted in the fundamental belief that this is a zero-sum proposition.  Every time we hear those stories we should challenge big beer in ways large and small. Second, AB will turn Wicked Weed into another one of its stable of beers with just a little twist to make it stand out in its sea of mediocrity and that is what is maybe the saddest part. What Wicked Weed could have become will never be.

One Beer Article You Need To Read And Why, 4/26/17

For the second consecutive day, I am highlighting an article that has nothing to do with beer.  Why do I do this?  Because people within a bubble often don’t notice anything outside the bubble and begin to believe their problems are unique.

ESPN is going to lay off about 100 people today.  Some of them you’ve never heard of and some them on air talent.  They are also slashing the contracts of some of the people staying.

ESPN’s revenues are usually around the $10 billion range. ESPNs problem is that a significant portion of those revenues come from carriage fees.  What are carriage fees you ask?  Look at your cable or satellite bill to find out.  Basically, ESPN gets a huge cut of all the carriage fees paid to cable/satellite companies.  However, if you haven’t heard, many people are abandoning cable/satellite for internet over the top services.  That means people are using Apple TV or Roku or other similar services to get their television fix. That leaves companies like ESPN, who because the way live sports rights fees work, screwed.  ESPN bought all the television rights for live sports, but didn’t or couldn’t buy the internet rights.  Now, a successful company that has almost always made the right decision is facing a troubled future.

Again, why I’m writing about this in a beer blog? Because, with all the talk about a craft beer bubble bursting or a shakeout of the craft beer business, we are watching as ESPN, one of the most successful and ubiquitous brands in the world, must lay off people.  ESPN has a good business plan and good leadership, yet they are still subject to the quickly changing landscape of their chosen business.

I learned to accept that people are here one day and then they are not at an early age.  When brands or businesses die, I don’t get angry at capitalism or the people who didn’t buy the thing.  I feel sorry for the people who lose their livelihood because of it and wish them luck and a speedy recovery to the land of the working.  Just because something exists doesn’t mean it must always exist.  Continued existence is not guaranteed for anything or anyone.

The thing I learned most from playing sports and then again when I started studying Zen and then again when I started his blog, is you cannot affect outcomes.  All you can do is what you are supposed to do to the best of your abilities.

If successful and powerful ESPN can make missteps and must lay off people, your brewery no matter how successful may have to do the same thing.  It may even have to close.  However, do not let that be the end.  Whatever happens in the next 5 years in craft brewing, don’t operate in fear.  Just control the things you can control.  It took a long time for me to understand that. It isn’t that there haven’t been failures or missteps, but I learned from those more than any of the successes.  How do you learn to walk? By falling down, getting back up, and doing something different then what made you fall down.

One Beer Article You Need To Read And Why, 4/20/17

Wooderson is kind of cool.  Yeah, it is creepy he still hangs out with high school girls when he is somewhere in his 20s, but he is still kind of cool mostly because he is played by Matthew McConaughey.  He hasn’t learned Chris Rock’s advice about being the old guy at the club.

I don’t think Sam Koch or Boston Beer company has learned that.  However, circumstances are proving that Chris Rock was correct for some brewers as well as Wooderson or guys like this.

Bryan Roth has written a great blog post about Boston Beer and why it may no longer be considered craft by the Brewers Association long after it is no longer considered craft by most craft beer drinkers.  I posit that the average 26-year-old sitting in a tap room he walked to from his apartment this afternoon thinks of Sam Adams the same as he thinks of Bud or Miller.  It seems at least recently Sam Koch didn’t understand this.  Also, until recently the Brewers Association agreed, literally changing its own rules to keep Boston Beer as a dues paying member.

That time is probably over and it should be according to Roth’s research.  Currently, estimates project that only 57.2% of Boston Beer’s barrel production comes from actual beer.  Why is that you ask?  They produce Angry Orchard and a bevy of hard sodas, teas, and other liquids with just enough alcohol to make the drinker think they are living on the edge.

I think it is harder for larger (and particularly legacy brewers) to change course as fast as the current craft beer scene requires.  I believe brewers like Boston Beer, Stone, Lagunitas, Stone and even Sierra Nevada are in danger.  That danger is not from ABI or MillerCoors.  It is from all the small locally focused brewers who were inspired by Boston Beer, Sierra Nevada and their like.

My advice to those breweries is not really an answer, but it is to be nimbler.  Figure out how to change course and quickly and adjust what you are offering to the craft beer public without changing the core of who and what you are.  The one way to do that is to bring in new, younger leadership.

That doesn’t mean to go out and find some hired gun CEO type to run the business.  It means elevating someone who has been with the brewery for a while and is steeped in what the brewery stands for to a position of true leadership and influence.  That is often the child of the founder like in the cases of Sierra Nevada and Bells Brewery.  In the last few years, both companies’ founders have begun the process of turning over decision-making to their children.  Time will tell if the younger leaders can manage this changing craft beer dynamic.

Valar Morgulis.  No one likes to see companies fail and die.  However, no company (or country) is guaranteed infinite existence.  Just as all men die, so do all companies eventually.  We, the craft beer drinkers of this country must accept this, especially of the next few years because some of the brewers that will go away will shock and surprise us.

One Beer Article You Need To Read And Why, 4/19/17

This week I’ve been concentrating on the future of craft beer after the shakeout it is undergoing is over (here and here).  The more I look at craft beer and its future, the more I think comparing the industry to a young college-aged man is apt.

In college, I remember bitching about my favorite bands selling out when they had the temerity to sign a real contract for real money with a real record label.  I remember wondering why women would get offended at sophomoric jokes about women and would use silly gay slurs when talking to my friends.  I remember being young and trying to figure out how to live a life that combines what I believe with finding a job that will pay me actual money.

Look at craft beer at the moment.  We have craft beer drinkers and fans who swear off any beer that takes a dime of “corporate” money while attacking anyone who doesn’t share their vitriol.  We have brewers who can’t understand why women and a growing number of men are offended by some of the, at best, insensitive names of beers and their accompanying labels.  We are watching craft beer grow up in front of us like a parent watches their college-aged son grow up and it is painful at times.

Today, I have two articles that I think speak to the growth and maturity of craft beer in different ways.  The first is about Brewdog.  This article that confirms what I have believed about Brewdog from the beginning which is while I believe that have a core set of values that centers on independence, much of what they say and do is simply self-promotional b.s.  They seem to care as much if not more about people talking about them then they do the independence they espouse.  They are the punk band you grew up liking because they seemed so real.  Then, you found out that was all part of the plan to get signed to major label.

The second article is from a panel Jason Notte participated in recently centered on what is currently happening in craft beer and how that will affect the industry’s future.  I take away two things from the article.  One, near term, we will see a shakeout of the smaller breweries who fail to consistently make quality beer.  This is similar to what happened in the late 90s/early 2000s shakeout.  The breweries that couldn’t produce enough consistent and consistently good beer closed leaving a core of brewers and breweries who led the charge to today’s explosive growth.

Two, many of those breweries that survived that period have become midsize/regional brewers and they are the most vulnerable in this new world order.  With the huge number of breweries, it benefits breweries to either be extremely small and local, part of a loose confederation of mid-sized breweries, or be owned by a huge conglomerate.  Trying to go on your own as a midsize/regional brewer like Stone has its pitfalls, at least in the near term.  I will be very interested to see how all the Colorado and west coast breweries building breweries on the east coast fare long-term.  Remember, Flying Dog tried this before eventually shutting down their brewery operations in Colorado.

This is a wonderful time to write and think about craft beer.  It is at a flection point where things can go many ways.  This is what I believe will happen.  The midsize/regional brewers like Stone, New Belgium, Deschutes will either join together or they will be purchased outright by the huge conglomerates.  At the same time, all the small local breweries that serve their city and maybe a few surrounding counties will continue to thrive because they serve the local need for fresh beer and an authentic experience.

One Beer Article You Need To Read And Why, 4/18/17

“Every time I call it a game, you call it a business. Every time I call it a business, you call it game.”

Today’s article is a clip from one of my favorite movies, North Dallas 40.

This is inspired by two things.  First, me wanting to explore what may happen to craft beer as it matures as an industry.  Here is yesterday’s post to start that off.  Second, it is inspired by a Twitter argument I watched happen last night between craft beer fans and writers.  It is the same argument that has raged in art circles for centuries.  At its heart is the, “You’re not (fill in your art form) enough.”

In craft beer, this usually manifests itself when someone, usually a writer who focuses on the business aspects of beer, talks about beer in a sometimes clinical manner that doesn’t scream “death to macrobeer.” This leads to them being called a sellout or worse yet a trader to craft beer.

Here is my take on this argument.

I started out my working life as a grant writer whose favorite job was working for McColl Center for Art + Innovation.  It is an artists-in-residence program here in Charlotte.  Working there gave me the opportunity to watch artists up close and see how the process works in real life and not in the romanticized version of art we all grew up with.

Real artists don’t sit around waiting for inspiration.  They work all day everyday at their craft.  The most successful of those artists know that at least 25% of that work is selling their art as well as the idealized version of themselves that patrons want.  The best artists not only understand their art, but they understand their place in the greater art world as well as the worth of their work.

I think brewers are as much craftspeople and artists as the painters and sculptors I met at McColl Center.  That doesn’t mean I think every brewer is a true artist just as I know not everyone who sells a painting they created is a true artist.  Some are individuals who found they have an affinity for something and have decided to monetize it as best they can.  Does that make them bad people? No.  It does mean that while their beer or their art is financially successful, it doesn’t inspire the way it should. The thing is, that is probably the majority of what is being sold and it is necessary for the industry to function.

Maybe my favorite part of that clip is when Matuszak says, “Job. Job. I don’t want no fucking job. I want to play football, you asshole.”

Anyone who makes their money in craft beer holds that sentiment dear to their heart. Whether they are an artist or not.  I do.  I have had real jobs.  They suck.  Whenever I’m annoyed by my job, I think back to almost all the other jobs I’ve had and I thank the stars that I run a craft beer bar instead.

I also think that anyone who pays their rent and buys food thanks to their job in craft beer lost their rose-colored glasses about craft beer long ago.  Just remember, you don’t have to lose the fun of craft beer or think of beer simply as a widget to be made and sold to think of ways that you don’t go broke doing this.

There should not be a dialectic between the art & craft of craft beer and the business of craft beer.  For any brewery to be successful and for the industry to be successful as it matures there must be a marriage between the two.  The artists I worked with those years ago taught me that.

One Beer Article You Need To Read And Why, 4/17/17

This feels good.  I’ve spent the last two weeks moving across town.  It is never the physical aspect of moving that upsets my balance.  I am a creature of habit and when you move all your habits get disrupted.  From the direction you drive to and from work, to where you shop and eat, to the sounds you hear as you try to sleep, moving is a disruption.  However, disruption is good.  It changes what you do, how you do it, and it shifts your perspective on many aspects of your life.

American craft beer has spent the last 20 years disrupting the whole beer industry.  As craft beer has expanded almost exponentially the last 5 years, many of us who have been around since the last “great expansion” have been fretting over another bubble bursting.  However, we may have had it wrong.  This article from The Motley Fool has a better term for what is coming: shakeout.

The difference between now and the bursting bubble of the late 90s is that the beer industry has matured and changed.  As the article points out, the coming shakeout will be a continuation of the consolidation we’ve seen begin with the mega-brewers buying up regional breweries and those same regional breweries consolidating themselves to protect against outside purchase.

With such explosive growth over the last few years, we have seen a lot of breweries enter the market who have no business being there.  Those breweries will be the leading edge of the coming contraction.  Of the ones I’ve seen shudder in the last 18 months or so, the most common reason is poor planning.

We all know the apocryphal story of many breweries that started as a home brewing enthusiasm that leads to good beer and friends deciding to pool their money and resources to start a brewery.  That is a dream that dances around the back of almost every home brewer’s mind.  That is a great story, that can go one of two ways that are mostly dependent upon having a good plan.

From my vantage point on the bar/retail side of craft beer, I encounter a lot of small breweries who either self-distribute or are starting to work with a distributor.  Some of the things I’ve noticed about the breweries have come and gone in just the 2.5 years we’ve been open

  1. Inconsistent beer. It is either, they have one good beer and the rest are mediocre at best or they have a few good beers, but they taste different with each batch.
  2. No plan for their beer. What is your brewery’s aesthetic as far as beer and personality? What is your plan for your core/year around beers?  What is your plan for your seasonal beers? What is your process for creating new beers?  Then, how will you market them?  That is why you need to know how your beer and your brewery’s personality are tied together as your business front face.
  3. No distribution/unrealistic distribution plan in your business plan. I’ve seen many breweries come into the Charlotte market with unrealistic expectations.  This market is immature in two ways. One, the craft beer drinking community is very young and new to craft beer.  Two, most the breweries in the market are less than 10 years old.  The market is also very locally focused (meaning Mecklenburg County) and very IPA and lighter craft beer focused.

I want to spend the rest of the week exploring these three points and how they may affect the next couple of years of craft beer.  Also, now with the move over, I have a new part of The Beer Counselor colony that will start in May.

One Beer Article You Need To Read And Why, 3/2/17

I find legacy brewers’ fight to stay relevant in an ever-changing craft beer world fascinating not because of them but because of us.  Our culture at large gravitates towards the new.  We conflate newness with good and innovative.  Where does that leave a brewery that has been around for 20 years in an industry that always leans towards the new hot thing?

You can go the Boston Beer route and pretend you’re not a huge beer company and flounder around like the old guy at the club (I stole that from Ryan Self).  Or, you can do what Highland Brewing has done over the last two years.  Highland has reinvented itself adding new more hop forward beers outside the English tradition while managing to keep the soul of the company intact.

One of the hardest things in life is to admit when something is not working.  That is true in every aspect of life.  From romantic relationships, jobs, you name it, it is hard to say, “I need to do something different.”  It is especially hard when you have built a successful business doing things a certain way.  However, if the landscape you built that business in changes you must change with it.  That is the first hurdle for legacy brewers.

A successful brewery that has been around for 20-plus years must absorb the idea that the world they helped create is leaving them behind.  If they can do that.  If they can admit what they have always done isn’t working as it used to, then they can move on the next step, which is how do they adapt.

That is an easier step to make but a harder one to execute.  Deciding you need to brew a couple of IPAs and start a barrel program is easy and obvious.  Making good beer is where it gets difficult.  It always comes back to the liquid in the glass. You can decide you need to do more IPAs, but if you do them badly or in a way that doesn’t stay within your brand identity, it will be worse than not brewing them at all.

Highland did not allow itself to become wedded to the way it has always done things at the expense of being successful for the next 20 years.  Yet, they have managed to keep their core identity.

We are a strange culture.  On one hand, we seek out the new, the innovative, the bright shiny thing that is slightly better than the thing we already have.  Yet, we also venerate tradition to the point of fetish.  While we love new stuff, we seek the comfort of knowing exactly what is going to happen next.  It is not that we love history.  In fact, many if not most of the people who venerate tradition barely understand history.  It’s that we seek comfort. More accurately, we seek to not be uncomfortable.

To stay relevant and to continue to grow, breweries must learn to embrace that feeling of being uncomfortable.

One Beer Article You Need To Read And Why (Kind Of), 2/22/17

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.

One Beer Article You Need To Read And Why, 2/20/1

I honestly hadn’t planned on writing anything today.  I’ve been going hard at work and here for the last week and wanted to sleep in a little later (all the way to 7 am) and read for my Cicerone study class tonight.  However, in the last month or so it became OK for everyone in craft beer openly wonder if we might have too many breweries.  Also, if we have too many breweries that affect the quality of the beer people drink and it means at some point breweries are going to start closing.

So, I wake up and peruse my Google Alert feeds for beer news and I come across this article out of the Asheville Citizen-Times.  It is a good read about more breweries in Asheville opening and how Asheville may be approaching its own saturation point.  Then I get to the section where Green Man Brewing owner Dennis Thies is quoted.  First, he hits on how brewery taprooms are taking away from bars, which national numbers prove to be very true.  Then, he says something I totally agree with,

“I used to get excited to see new breweries coming in, but I see a lot of amateur stuff now…Guys that open on a shoestring, don’t own their building and they’re making crappy home brew. And the novice consumer doesn’t know the difference between mediocre beer and really great beer.”

I’ve probably written 2000 words in the last week saying this and he nails it in 50.

I think we all agree that many of the newer breweries coming online are pumping out mediocre home brew.  That in and of itself is bad, but in a normal business sector, that problem would be taken care of by people not drinking the beer.  What worries me and I think worries other people is that as these new breweries are coming on line so are new craft beer drinkers.  These new drinkers don’t know any better so they keep buying this bad beer.  As long as the taproom is full, the brewer has no incentive to make better beer.

In the long run, I think these mediocre breweries will fail.  Quality always rises to the top in the end.  However, what I hope doesn’t happen is that in the meantime good breweries fall by the wayside as everyone flocks to the new brewery like moths to a flame even though the beer isn’t good.

I think part of this new willingness to talk about declining quality in craft beer comes from the sense from people in the industry that the bubble burst is coming.  Most of the people saying this out loud are ones who remember the cratering of craft beer starting in 1999.  They know that downturn was triggered in part by too many bad breweries bad and inconsistent beer.

The part of this that really interests me is how this has led an industry that has since its inception preached the all for one, one for all ethos where everyone supports everyone else (at least in words), that industry veterans are starting to call out breweries publicly for lack of quality.

One Beer Article You Need To Read And Why, 2/19/17

If you follow me on Twitter you will know that Bryan Roth and I have been participating in a Twitter/blogging conversation with others about whether a brewery must be good to be successful.  When Bryan first broached the question on Twitter, I immediately said yes.  Of course, quality matters, I said in my most naïve beer geek voice.

I still believe that.  In fact, the quote Bryan pulled from a previous blog post in his latest piece is something I still believe. I think good beer is still necessary for long-term success.

However, we have two issues on the table.  The first, “the good enough” problem.  The second, uneducated consumers.  These two problems feed each other. Then we must ask, how do we resolve those two issues.

The Good Enough Problem

If you know anything about craft beer’s history, you know its origin story.  Long story short, craft beer was born out of a need to make better beer than the big beer companies who were making beer good enough to drink.  Those big beer companies still look at beer as a widget.  Their goal is to make as many widgets as quickly as possible to sell as much as possible.  The key to selling as much as possible is to make it appeal to the widest possible audience.  That means the beer is least common denominator flavorless ice cold yellow water.  It is good enough to drink.

Unfortunately, today’s craft beer brewers are falling into the same trap.  Not for the same reasons, however.  First, too many brewers are new to professional brewing and haven’t quite figured out how to scale up their award-winning homebrew.  Second, they are often leveraged up to their eyeballs to get the brewery started and need to pump out beer to start making money.  Third, they are trying to satisfy a voracious yet uneducated consumer base by getting beer out as quickly as possible.  So, beer that is just good enough is what we get.

Sometimes when a new brewery comes in and has us taste their beer the last one we taste is the one they say kills in their taproom.  They can’t make enough of it.  I usually think, It is the only one that is drinkable.  Of course, it kills in your taproom, no one can drink anything else you make.  Professional advice to new breweries, if the bestselling beer in your taproom is whatever is on the guest tap, you have a problem.

The Uneducated Consumer or Craft Beer As Performative Signifier

I read this good article about Krispy Kreme and Dunkin Donuts.  The author does a great job of breaking down why each is successful and why Dunkin Donuts is more successful as a business model.  What really interested me in the article is in the first three paragraphs and is encapsulated in this line, “…food tends to function as a repository for the stories we tell others about ourselves.”

I spend a lot of times in brewery taprooms and craft beer bars.  Everyone in these places is using craft beer to tell others about themselves, including me.  From the beer geek to the whale hunter to the sorority girls taking selfies with their flights we are all using craft beer to signify to others who we are.

I like going to bars and taprooms with my Kindle and reading while I drink a beer or two.  It is a signifier that I like to read and I like beer.  However, I do it because I actually like to read and I like beer.  I don’t do it just to be seen reading and liking beer.  Many of the newer craft beer drinkers only want to be seen drinking craft beer and have no clue what good beer is. They just want the story.

The problem for craft brewers is, most of these people will move on to the next thing they should be seen consuming in 12 to 18 months and a brewer who was happy to make beer that was good enough for all these people to drink will be stuck with actual craft beer drinkers sneering at their offerings.

What Do We Do To Kill Good Enough?

Mainly, we in craft beer need to hold ourselves accountable.  I would suggest new breweries find people in the craft beer world who they haven’t known their whole lives, are related to or are invested with to taste their beer and give honest and good feedback.  They need to hear from someone they trust with no personal stake in the outcome, what is right and what is wrong with their beer.

I started thinking about this after another new brewery came into the bar for a tasting with the owner and I a few weeks ago.  When the brewer and sales person and their distribution rep(?) left, we looked at each other and agreed none of that beer was good. What I’m going to start doing is taking notes when this happens and try to give the brewer’s feedback on what I think of the beer.

This seems presumptuous to me.  I don’t know if I’m comfortable with doing it, but from now on when a brewery brings me samples of something new, I’m going to sit down and taste it like I would for one of my reviews, and then write the brewery an email with my notes.  Maybe they’ll read it.  Maybe they won’t.  Maybe they’ll think I’m an asshole.

If we in the industry think good beer and quality matters, we must take the responsibility to make sure it stays that way.

We must demand that you have something more than just a good story.  Craft beer is in its ascendant cultural moment right now.  What we should remember is it is just that, a moment.  It will end, and if all you have is your cool craft beer story and not good craft beer, you will end with it.

I guess, what it comes down to for me is, if good beer doesn’t matter, what are we doing here?  If you are willing to make beer that is just good enough for people to drink, what is the difference between you and the big beer companies you supposedly hate?  Yeah, you have a great story, but the Coors, Busch, and Miller families all have pretty cool origin stories.  That doesn’t make their beer any better.