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Monday, October 24, 2016

The Modern Age

If you follow beer news at all closely, you notice that at any given moment, there's a gestalt to the way the stories coagulate. Each one seems to arrive as a piece in a larger puzzle, one we slowly assemble in our minds. A few years back, that news gestalt told a happy story: the beer biz was forever improving, buoyed by ever greater selection, quality, and evolution. We'd surf over to stories about obscure breweries in remote parts of the country--ones we knew we'd never visit--because the brewer there was making all-foraged beer, or had captured and cultivated wild, local Saccharomyces, or had invented a new process or India pale something. We even celebrated the growth of formerly-small breweries that opened new plants across the country. The gestalt was excitement, discovery, possibility.

Then things changed. When big breweries began buying smaller ones, the mood darkened. It wasn't totally clear how this was bad, just that it somehow had to be. All that growth and discovery has atomized the market on the bottom end even while it's consolidating on the top end. What's the current gestalt? Have a look at these four articles that came out over the past week:
  • Chicago's Revolution Brewing had to recall a huge amount of beer over five brands because of a "quality issue." Said the brewery: "The affected beers exhibit ester or phenolic flavors, which are more characteristic of Belgian-style ales, and which should not be present in our standard American ales.  We believe these off-flavors were produced by a wild yeast that has gotten worse over time and was not identified in time by our quality control methods.   Our brewing team has re-propagated our house ale yeast, and all beer now being packaged at the brewery meets our standards for taste and flavor."
  • From Brewbound comes a story that can be told in the title: "After Raising $3.5 Million, Fort Point Beer Company Prepares for Next Round of Funding."
  • Meanwhile, Boston Beer is not only experience sharply falling sales (bad), but the brewery seems to have no idea why or how to reverse things (far, far worse). 
  • And finally, and perhaps most pointedly, there's this story of a Swedish brewery that is unironically selling five potato chips for $54. This whole article reads like an April Fool's joke (I'm still wondering if it can be true), but here's a taste: "All of the chips have been made by hand," the chef says. "It took a delicate touch, a finely honed sense of taste and time to ensure that each chip would achieve a perfect balance between the various ingredients. The taste is a very Scandinavian one. … Most people recognize potatoes and onions, but what stands out is the quality. All of the ingredients are of a stature that not many will have tried before. These chips are an excellent accompaniment to craft beer, or simply enjoyed on their own."
I smell the flop sweet of greed and anxiety in these news stories. The craft segment now constitutes around 25% of the beer market, which places it squarely in the mainstream. It's no longer a quirky niche where anti-establishment oddballs could make weird beer for a few thousand fellow-travelers. Sam Adams, which has been the largest player in the craft market for a generation, is in the awkward position of having none of that niche support, nor being big enough to trade blows with multinational beer companies.

Breweries like Revolution are rushing to establish a presence in the market, and they're pushing products onto shelves that aren't ready. (I have no idea what the story is with Revolution, but that explanation doesn't quite add up.) It's so extreme that breweries are in constant states of growth, rushing to get as big as possible in as short a time as possible--with no time for reflection or loyalty-building. You may get big overnight, but you don't build a durable customer base overnight. Finally, that potato chip debacle seems emblematic of a huge danger for small breweries--using the "craft" concept to produce wildly overpriced, high-concept products that look far more cynical than anything coming out of ABI. (ABI, for its part, is trying to do the opposite by projecting their small-brewery cred with press releases like the one I got from 10 Barrel last week with this subject line "Holy Sh*t - Our First Newsletter!" So edgy and alternative!)

Most breweries will continue to make great beer because they love to, but we probably won't be reading much about them. "Brewery continues to make great beer, barely grows," is hardly going to grab eyeballs. But most breweries still make up only a small percentage of the beer. For the rest, this is the modern age, when craft beer is all growed up. Both the competition and the risk are real, and so the gestalt has turned from discovery to something far more prosaic: money.


  1. In the early 1990s, when I studied at the Siebel Institute, one of my instructors, Walter Swistowitz, admonished us students during a lecture on brewery maintenance: "There are two types of breweries in the world," he started. We, bearded and ponytailed, leaned forward, expecting 'lager vs. ale', or 'big boys vs. upstart craft brewers'. But, Swiss continued: "There are breweries that have had an infection. And there are those that will." Brewery infections, in and of themselves, are not the sign of the 'craft' apocalypse. A gross repetition might be.

    Swiss was a great guy. His career began, he would tell us with a wink, legally in 1933.

  2. An infection is understandable, it happens. That's why the big boys keep an isolated "pure" strain of their yeasts and do some hardcore quality control. What Revolution seems to be describing is a mutation. In homebrewing mutations can be good and do some unexpected things, but when you want to maintain a certain character it behooves a brewer to limit the number of generations they propagate from their yeast before starting afresh. I'm assuming this extrapolates to larger scale production as well.

    Here's my two cents
    Consumer Fatigue with the "Craft Beer Revolution" has been building for quite a while in my opinion. Initially it seemed like craft brewing had hit on something special. Individual Brewers were experimenting, setting new trends, trying things that while not unheard of, were at least special and unique. Even while this special thing was happening in front of us people were already loosing interest, but it wasn't en mass. Then breweries seemed to go from chasing trends to dictating trends, something that was actually already happening with larger breweries via their special releases program. All of the sudden though alot more medium and small breweries where following industry trends rather then trying to set them. It costs less, and rakes in huge profits. I think what we're seeing is simply consumer burnout. There's not alot that's special anymore, and people are content to follow variations of prepackaged style trends until the next flavor of the month comes along.

  3. "There's not a lot that's special anymore" I'm not sure what that is supposed to mean, but to me, it smacks of the belief that anything remotely traditional must be bad. These days breweries are chasing ever-more-fickle consumers who largely seem much more interested in novelty than in quality, and IMHO it is one of the most destructive forces in the craft beer market. It means money will be spent on marketing and snazzy packaging over ingredients and quality control, and the flavor of the moment will trump the tried and true. These are sad times for good beer.

  4. Thomas, infections happen--agreed. But the description of what happened and how they handled it didn't really square with good QA.

  5. @Jesse

    There's room in craft brewing for both. What I took away is that the trend curve in brewing is emulating the trend curve in the fashion and tech industries.

    I think what we're seeing is a the back end of a bell curve.
    There's multiple trend curves in brewing but the public is questioning the value of craft beer as defined by Boston Brewing and some of the older larger craft breweries.

    Personally I think it's good that people question the value of a product, and what it brings to the table. If the public decides that they want to pursue novelty that will free the market up for more inovation, which will start another bell curve in the end. These are the forces that drive innovation, but also the ones that determine tradition. Where would the US be if brewers dug in their heels and stuck with traditional methods and flavors only?

  6. My point: New flavors and methods have absolutely nothing inherent to do with quality. I suspect a large plurality if not a majority of beer drinkers conflate the two, because new is ALWAYS better... right?