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Monday, December 22, 2014

The Year in Beer

That time of year is upon us, when in the dark and cold and dearth of news we cast our gaze backward at the year to see what to make of it.  This isn't entirely in service of generating clicks--it is sometimes worthwhile to remind ourselves of events past and see if they tell us anything relevant about life in the present. 

January always starts slow, and because I was in Europe doing research for my cider book (Cider Made Simple), I was out of the loop.  Not entirely out of the loop, though; I did manage to catch the reports of a beer called "Mouth Raper."  A nice controversy to warm up a frigid month (with a follow-up here).  The incident sheds very little light on anything, except 1) that the sheer number of beers made each year means the likelihood of at least one of them offending people is 100%, and 2) people really, really take beer seriously.  Number (2) is a theme we shall return to in due course.

In February, the OLCC released final numbers on 2013, and we learned that a new crop of breweries are making some noise in the world.  The top-ten of best selling beer includes Ninkasi (#3), 10 Barrel (#7), Boneyard (#9) and Oakshire (#10).  On the other hand, four breweries accounted for half the Oregon beers sold in Oregon in 2013.

In March, the Brewers Association changed its definition of craft brewery and essentially scrapped the "traditional" element.  Pyramid came in for an assessment on its 30th birthday.  The horse having left the barn, both MillerCoors and AB InBev decided to close the door and released mass market ciders.  (An abstruse use of cliched metaphor, I'll grant you.)  Here on the blog we discussed hop bursting (in posts one and two).

Very little happened in April.  Seizing the moment, Nat West released his version of a Mexican fruit wine called tepache

In May, another brewery turned 30--Oregon's oldest, BridgePort.  I spent an odd afternoon celebrating this event with brewery members past and present and offered another consideration.  It was the month tragedy struck, as brewing pioneer and Rogue founder Jack Joyce died.

In June, Vani Hari's effort to get beer to fully label its ingredients came under closer scrutiny.  I still think her overall point is right, but she is a catastrophic messenger.  (And if you don't agree, this post is the one to read.)  I had a chance to sample the "craft beers" of MillerCoors and was surprised at what I found.  On the blog, we discussed style evolution in the US.

July is the month of beer.  There are seven million fests in Portland alone, and I spent most of the month with my nose in a glass of local beer.  News was happening elsewhere, though.  In a major theme for the year, brewery openings were astounding.  This article provides the numbers (headliners: brewery numbers have doubled in five year and over the past two years, 8.4 breweries open ever seven days).  Even Cantillon announced it was expanding.

Absolutely nothing of note happened in August.  Or perhaps just memory, which might better explain things.

September was personally busy.  I had the chance to make a lightning trip to the Czech Republic and also judged magazine articles for the North American Guild of Beer Writers.  Then at the end of the month, I went to Victoria, BC on a grand beer tour.  But news-wise, it was no more exciting in September than August.  I mean, this was major beer news:

October brought us the GABF and the realization that five states won half the medals.  It was the month that Ohio-based Fat Head's decided to open up a multi-million dollar brewpub in the most expensive real estate in Portland--which locals observed with slight mystification.  In other curious launches, Guinness put an amber ale in a wooden box and hoped people would shell out $35 for it.  Lagunitas managed to get a fresh hop beer in a bottle and, for at least 48 hours thereafter, it tasted like a fresh hop beer.  Hops native to the US and grown by monks went on sale for the first time, and a New Yorker cover caused a stir.

The last two months of the year have been dominated by an existential crisis.  It was precipitated by the news, in early November, that Anheuser-Busch was acquiring 10 Barrel Brewing lock, stock, and barrel.  It led us to question things like the soul of beer, and the meaning of craft


Does any of this add up to anything?  I think it does.  I don't know how broadly the general public feel it, but 2014 ended with a note of unease about the health and long-term well-being of smaller, independent breweries.  (An unease I don't share, but a pervasive one nonetheless.)  The year started out with anniversaries of two early enterprises that have managed to survive the craft beer era--but which are owned by corporate conglomerates.  Just last week I noted that Founders and Surly are both in the midst of $40 and $30 million brewery upgrades.  As the year went on, we saw a staggering number of new breweries open, and the year was capped by the 10 Barrel sale. 

What we're seeing is the maturation of the market.  There's very serious money to be made in beer, which is attracting a lot of new entrants to the market.  What we're seeing are the first signs of consolidation as older breweries pass to new owners and aggressive mid-size breweries look for capital to grow.  Change is afoot and 2014 won't be an anomaly.  But no worries--with 3,000 breweries out there, surely you can find some beer to get excited about.

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