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Thursday, February 18, 2016

Do 60% of Craft Beers Suck? (No.)

Last week, an interview with Jon Taffer created a bit of a stir when he offered his thoughts on craft beer.
I think that about 60% of craft beer basically sucks. I’ve been to a lot of the facilities. They’re not exactly clean. They’re rookie-run. The problem is that people are now looking at craft beer as an investment opportunity. They’re getting into it to make money. Many people don’t get into it for the love of making beer.

That’s why I think there’s going to be a wash out in craft beer over the next two years. Half of the craft breweries are going to disappear.  
Everyone has an opinion on where the market's headed, and comments like "60% of craft beer sucks" and "half of craft breweries are going to disappear" are sure to get clicks. They can also lead to useless semantic debates that boil down to what the meaning of "sucks" is.

A random brewery in Portland
you've probably never heard of;
it makes excellent beer.
I'd like to take it in a slightly different direction. It's possible Taffer has located a stratum of badly-executed brewpubs that I'm just not aware of, but I don't think so. My experience is exactly the opposite. I have been hugely impressed with the quality of new breweries. There have been a couple of twin developments that have helped this along. For one, brewing is now much more professional than it was a decade ago and earlier. There are thousands of trained brewers in the country, and a high percentage of them have studied brewing in school. That really raises the floor on bad beer. A professionally-trained brewer may not make exciting or innovative beer, but s/he's going to make competent beer. Brewers know the science, and they know what off-flavors taste like and where they come from.

Customers are also far more educated. They may not know the technical term ethyl acetate, but they know what a sharp, chemical flavor is and that it shouldn't be in a beer. A city of any size will have several breweries, and customers can tell which ones make the good beer. For 60% of the beer to suck, most of the customers would have to be ignorant of what good beer is, and they're not.

There are bad breweries out there. Good breweries make an occasional bad beer. And there are quite a lot of average breweries out there making beer you wouldn't describe as spectacular, but which is by no means bad. It was enlightening to travel around the country this year a little bit and get out of my Portland bubble so I could see what the real America was like. What I found is that there isn't really a Portland bubble anymore. The country has caught up with the West Coast. In fact, the consistency of American breweries is now every bit the equal of the UK, Belgium, the Czech Republic, and Germany. (Even in those countries, about 20% of the breweries "suck"--about the same as in the US.)

The US beer market has a number of challenges confronting it. Bad beer isn't one of them.


  1. Agreed. I had an infected homebrew from a friend the other night, and it reminded me how long it's been since I've had a truly bad craft beer. They're few and far between. Deschutes' tasting panel is a really interesting model, and I've never had a true misfire from them.

  2. Several years back, I was lamenting the fact that although I lived only 2 miles from Stadium Brewing Company in Aliso Viejo, they made terrible beer. I mean it was so bad that their drink specials were for macros. At the time I thought it a shame, and that the only reason they stayed in business was that they were next to a big movie theater in a busy complex.

    So I didn't go back for YEARS. It appears in the time in between, they've figured it out. They now have decent beer made on-premises, and they've dramatically expanded their bar to have a LARGE and very solid guest tap list.

    As you point out, when you're in a saturated market, the market learns and begins demanding quality. Stadium upped their game in response.

  3. I think it depends largely on the geographic location as well... I rarely have an undrinkable beer in Oregon... in Montana however those undrinkable beers seem waaay waaaay easier to come across. I think it is an fine example of how educated consumers do play a role. Oregon=more educated consumers= 'nary a bad beer. Montana= less educated consumers= more bad beer.

  4. I have had more bad craft beer than good here in Ontario, Canada. The bigger, established craft breweries always make good beer. It's the new guys who suck. Beer is stupid expensive here and I am sick of wasting money on buying crappy beer.

  5. I really hate articles and interviews like the one Taffer published. As a consultant I work with people going through bank underwriting.

    First of all, from my experience he's dead wrong on why people are getting into craft beer. Certainly there is more venture capital for breweries, but all the projects I have come across and consulted for are driven by passionate, motivated craft beer lovers. And often they are putting all their savings and resources into the project

    Secondly, I don't know where he pulled the arbitrary, "60%" number out of, but it certainly isn't based in reality. Jeff is spot on when he observes that the knowledge and talent base has improved tremendously since the 90's. As has access to quality ingredients and adjuncts and better engineered and fabricated systems.

    My biggest problem with, what I think is essentially fear mongering click bait is that it has real repercussions. Underwriters can be knee-jerk reactionary and real people with real dreams and excellent business plans can be denied loans because they came across articles like Taffer.