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.