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.