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Tuesday, April 27, 2010

The End of the First Generation of Craft Brewing

Note: this post has updates.

The wonderful thing about the youthfulness of craft brewing is that most of the breweries are Mom and Pop outfits. Even breweries like Widmer and Deschutes are run by the people who founded them. We relate to the breweries in part through the familiar personalities of the founders. It's a labor of love, and that's part of the allure. But what happens when Pop sells out?

Fritz Maytag was so far ahead of the craft brewing curve that he doesn't usually get credit as the founder of the movement. It was over a decade after he bought San Francisco's dying Anchor Brewery until the first started-from-scratch micro opened (Jack McAuliffe's New Albion). Yet he gets the credit. Not only did he brew craft beer (natural ingredients, no cereal grains, robust styles), but he helped guide the first wave of craft brewers--who not coincidentally started in California.

If anyone has earned sainthood for their work reviving good beer in America, it's Fritz. The story of how he took Anchor and turned it around is now told in the manner of a hero myth, and yet here we have the actual man still walking among us--and brewing beer. So unloading the brewery to a couple of vodka guys is more than a little jarring. I have no doubt more than a few sets of teeth gnashed and breasts beaten.

But once again, Fritz is just ahead of the curve. It marks the end of the first generation of craft brewing, when the owners and founders are the same people. Although a number of breweries have already been sold, failed, or absorbed, this is the moment when the future presents itself in sharp clarity. Beer is a product, breweries a business. In the next thirty years, almost all of the extant craft breweries will be under new ownership (a lot of them, to be sure, still in the family). Our kids and grandkids aren't going to relate to beer the way we do. Their relationship to breweries will be like the one our parents had to Henry's. Cool local breweries, maybe, but not more than that.

Things change. We best get used to it.

Update. Stan Hieronymus has an excellent post up with his own thoughts. Jay Brooks has done some reporting and will have his own update soon.

1 comment:

  1. I've met Fritz, he's an amazingly intelligent and diligent man. I still can't believe he's turning his baby over for others to run. Maybe he is ahead of the curve, maybe he has more foresight than the rest of us. Lots of speculations here.

    We just have to hope that Anchor and other breweries don't go down the path of profit vs. beer quality. We've already seen that happen within our own Beer Renaissance.

    Saxer. Bought out and gone.

    Pete's Wicked. Bought out and crap.

    Redhook. Merged, bought out and crap.

    Pyramid. Over built, bought out and crap.

    Bridgeport. Owned by Texan group. Downward slide.

    Portland brewing. Bought out and hanging in there. Barely.

    There are many, many others.

    Craft Brewers Alliance which owns Widmer, Goose Island, Kona brewing and Redhook, seems to be hanging in there and maintaining individuality for now. No one seemed up in arms over these mergers, but the future is unset.

    This could all lead to history repeating it's self. Consolidation and concentration till we hit American blandness and homogenization of style. Fritz Maytag talked about this in his Michael Jackson interview in the Beer Hunter Series. He warned us all that it happened before and could happen again. History is known to repeat it's self. Lets hope we're not witnessing the beginning of this process.

    Here in the NW we have plenty of Mom and Pop or Beer Geek breweries and Brew Pubs, but that can change quickly. It's all happened before.

    Lets hope in 10 years some guy isn't sitting in Japan, and like Jeff with his British beer analysis says, "American beers are such crap. I wonder what happened?"

    Lets hope I'm just paranoid!