Here’s my very real question:
WHY is bemoaning the decline and doom of craft brewing such an all-consuming obsession to so many people? Beer pundits used to be content with debating attenuation and mash temperatures and when to hop the ales. But, in increasing numbers, for AT LEAST the past fifteen years, I read this stuff about how “Craft beer is DOOMED!“, “The Craft Boom is OVER!“, “The consumers are turning away!“. EASILY fifteen years, now, and I probably missed a few of these screeds.
Here’s what’s REALLY happening: Craft beer BOOMED, in a way virtually unprecedented in American business, since the end of the 80s, when brewery numbers started to climb stratospherically. In the beginning, the craft community was insanely close and tightly knit. Everyone involved knew and took to heart that a rising tide floats all boats. Cooperation was a given. People shared ideas and methods and equipment and sometimes even labor. It was hippie-ish in its aura. Yeah, breweries failed but usually because they were run by people unprepared to run businesses at all. And the Boom went on for a LONG time.
But anyone who ever studied economics in school knows well the arc of individual modern businesses and especially of business genres. Craft beer was FUN and therefore attractive and therefore generated $$$…after a few years, enough $$$ that corporate interests, many of whom initially saw craft beer as a harmless backwater ghetto of American youth entrepreneurship, got interested in getting involved. In 1994, Anheuser Busch bought a 25% stake in Seattle’s iconic Red Hook Brewing. In ’95, Gambrimus Corporation bought Portland pioneer Bridgeport. This crack in the dam became a trickle and later a flood as AB – now AB/InBev and no longer even an American company – began a new-millennial raid on craft and finally wound up (as of now) with total or partial ownership of twenty compromised breweries, including the eight members of the Craft Brew Alliance, based in Portland. Nearly all of these sell-outs don’t openly advertise the fact of AB/InBev’s ownership, because they know dammed well that many beer fans will refuse to even set foot in their taprooms again.
Some especially dumb/arrogant ones simply took the Trumpian route. Meg Gill of LA’s underperforming Golden Road Brewing, upon the proposed opening of a new taproom in Oakland, even got a tad huffy about being nailed for selling out: quoting now from San Francisco’s fine East Bay Express – “In fact, she suggested more than once that Golden Road wasn’t really even associated with Anheuser-Busch, even telling a group of residents on Wednesday that “non-factual opinion columns” are trying to paint Golden Road as part of Anheuser-Busch, and that such reports are — her words — “fake news.”
Gill then doubled down: “and denied that they were bought by AB at all. She whined that she “feels abused” by all the unexpected criticism, saying – also to East Bay Express – “I think that your articles are abusive. I think that you’re incredibly discriminatory against a successful businesswoman who has done well, partnered with a big beer company, and is now wanting to build in Oakland, just like Rare Barrel or any of these other guys.”
So…let’s get this straight: statements that GR is affiliated with AB are “non-factual opinion columns” and “fake news”…but then she says, in the same city, that she’s “partnered with a big brewery“. Which is it, Meggie? Can’t be both.
Gill is the outlier, the exact mirror image of the first owner to sell to AB, Goose Island’s founder John Hall, who openly admitted selling to AB, refused to apologize, and just waited it out, took his lumps from customers with grace, and moved on into retirement. Those are the two poles of AB selling out. Other large interests have swept up MANY other breweries by now. Kirin bought SF’s venerable Anchor. Heineken bought Lagunitas. And it continues to this day.
Does this spell the end of craft brewing?
Any study of free enterprise economics clearly shows that businesses classes which generate enough growth, A) do NOT boom forever, whether corporate interests intervene or not, and B) Big Will Buy Small and thus has it ALWAYS been. In craft beer, money supplanted good vibes and community as the culture’s primary motivation. Competition replaced cooperation – not in ALL cases but in a growing number. And that is a PERFECTLY normal response to growth. It ALWAYS happens that sheer numbers and outside interests – with armies of feral lawyers and bean-counters – dilute the culture. Other products and past-times and preoccupations come along to divert some of the former devotees. The fucking seltzers and “hard” everythings and “beers” that pander to an emerging generation of younger drinkers who revel in their Peter Pan Syndrome have scalded the hide of the formerly-unique commercial culture.
BUT…This is ALL – I swear to you – NORMAL. It is practically dictated by the dynamics of America’s eternally restless marketplace. The compact disc ran the 8-track tape and the music cassette out of viable existence. Then streaming ran the compact disc out of the market. Who buys a console TV now? It’s flat screens and digital streaming now. Blackberries are deader than 4 a.m. The wine cooler is mostly gone, replaced by wine-based canned cocktails. THINGS CHANGE. That is the ONLY constant in American business. The pandemic has changed, I hope forever!, the way local breweries operate. It USED TO be enough just to make some beer and open the doors and let the audience find you. Now, after the cataclysm of the pandemic, breweries have to encourage engagement. People who used to casually frequent taprooms found out they could live without them when they were locked down. Basic caution and habit conspired to keep people away…at first. Now, with the pandemic mostly finding a level, taprooms are once again busy but not to the degree that they once were.
A large core of smart, motivated brewers worked like Trojans to save their breweries. Business became ToGo primarily. My home state unclenched its alcohol sphincter and allowed practices like beer sold in almost any container that would hold it. Washington actually allowed the almost unthinkable: cocktails in to-go containers. And as the restrictions loosened, breweries began to encourage consumer re-engagement. Those without live music Got Busy and found some. Breweries hold yoga classes, ceramics painting parties, flea markets, pot lucks, petting zoos, singles nights, karaoke, how-to seminars, lecture series programs, my friend’s Sunday morning “Beer Church”, where folks get together to THINK and trade ideas and, on yeah, have breakfast and maybe some beers…and dozens of other events that bring in traffic, now, with more invented every day.
Businesses of all types are STILL wooing consumers back into their brick and mortar operations. Contactless trade has become a Thing, as has online ordering – MUCH more than before Covid. It is no longer enough to just BE in business and trust that restless consumers will magically find you. You have to provide an incentive to people to visit…and the fact that so many, many breweries are willing to do it, to change the paradigm in such a wholesale way, is a wonderfully hopeful phenomenon.
It means that a staunchly adolescent business category, one that existed in a sort of arrested-development haze for two+ decades, has begun to grow up.
I DO get sick of reading all the faux (and actual) learned dissections of what’s wrong with craft beer. But the answer, when looked at in economics terms and over the horizon of history, is Nothing. Nothing is “wrong” with craft beer. The beer, these days – that which is not simply pandering to hordes of wandering kids who piss and moan about those bitter ol’ hops things – that is either made in authentic beer styles or based on those styles but considerably tweaked, is brilliant at a level which none of us has ever seen. If there are fewer breweries, well, there were going to be. The marketplace dictated that, even without a global pandemic, there were beginning to be just too many breweries. With that factor, a scale-down which may have taken several years or maybe a decade, has happened much faster. IS happening right now. WILL continue for a while. But it is a winnowing and a wholly organic one. Breweries which don’t produce products that spark people’s taste buds and imaginations come and go quickly. Great breweries survive. YES, there have been a very few failures of great, significant breweries. Celis Brewing is gone. Old Lompoc and Hair of The Dog in Portland are gone, though HoTD was just because its resident genius-owner, Alan Sprints, decided to retire. Pyramid in Seattle closed. Ditto for the wonderful Social Kitchen & Brewery in San Francisco. MANY more have been sold to other, larger breweries or corporate interests without a big beer portfolio.
In this massive chart – which is admittedly out of date now – I went through and counted all those breweries which used to fall under the loose definition of “US Craft Beer”. I tossed out brands like Labatt’s and Steel Reserve and Affligem and Duvel because they are not US craft breweries. I came out with 60 names. So, let’s say that this list needs a real update and extrapolate out that there are now 25% more names that belong. That is seventy-five breweries sold. Out of the 10,000 currently in operation. And let’s say that the pandemic and its after-effects killed off another thousand. That’s 9,000 breweries. 75, as a percentage of 9,000 is…, ta-da: .08%. Less than 1% of American breweries are in real danger of failure. But let’s be generous to the doomsayers. Let’s say there are now 100 breweries sold out to corporate interests. Let’s say that TWO thousand failed after Covid. Now, that is 100 as a percentage of 8,000, which is…1.25%.
Yeah, the sky is falling.
In fact, craft beer as a class is doing as well or better than more than 80% of all American business categories. Whether that continues or not is up in the air. It’s probably inevitable that the seltzer producers and the hard fruit drinks and heavily doctored/infused “barely beer anymore” makers will – and absolutely SHOULD – establish their own culture(s) and stop masquerading as craft breweries. Inevitably, some legit breweries would choose to follow that direction and simply make actual beer only as a convenience for their older customers. Some traditional craft breweries may well transition into Something Else. But it’s not like people are going to stop making beer. The intractable and fossilized types who resent anything even remotely like change or evolution have had their panties in a knot for years, now, whining – in terms that should make an adult human being feel real shame – that “All these fucking IPAs! You can’t go anywhere and not find ’em taking up most of the tap space!!” In fact, I checked some of the breweries which these loonies named as “nothing but IPAs!’ around Seattle. The largest percentage of IPAs I found on any of the taplists was four on a 12 item list. At one brewery. All the rest were more like 15-20%. Okay, 1/3 IS a lot but that leaves EIGHT fucking beers for the haters to choose from, at that one brewery. It is bogus and alarmist to even try to claim that craft breweries “make nothing but_______!!” It is NEVER true. Do some breweries specialize in a style? Sure! When the venerable Boneyard Brewing of Bend, Oregon, started out they were all about the IPA. But even though the spectacular IPAs got all the press, they never, at any point, made only IPAs. My favorites, in fact, of the original line-up, were their massive Red ale and the more massive “Suge Knight” Imperial Stout.
I freely admit that I do not have that gene which allows me to fixate and over-focus on the peripheral details to the brewing industry. For me, beer is about what EVERY beverage is about, at the essential core: Do I like this and do I want to drink it? I went through my own uber-wonky period when I was in college and for a solid decade after. I read all the historical tomes on beer and brewing. I attended lectures, back in DC, met Michael Jackson (who was sorta the waking refutation of obsession with details), visited breweries in Europe, and did what today’s geeky types do. But I finally realized that NONE of that – not one single factoid or learned debate or technical tract – affected the core issue: Is this good to drink?
I like many of the people who write about such issues a lot; have a ton of respect for the writerly skills of many and the tastes of even more. But it absolutely IS possible to do two things central to the experience of beer:
One: Drink and enjoy with absolutely no knowledge beyond what your own taste buds tell you, and…
Two: See past whatever the current perceived peril is, grasp the basic principles of the marketplace, and gain a perspective that quells most of the alarms.
This little rantlet is no more likely to sway any of the Chicken Littles’ yelps of alarm than their alarms are to make me buy into the idea that Craft brewing has run its course. In a very real way, this post is my version of their whining and over-analysis. But it IS the other side of their coin, written by someone who has more years invested in this culture than most of them and who values what craft beer represents not a millimeter less.
Your conclusions definitely should be at least partially influenced by their warnings. But they should also have a part based in the ones presented here. Without either, you have only half the picture.