Could the US Eventually Hit 50% Craft? (Yes.)

Note: the post has been updated below.

This is a very short holiday post. As such it is celebratory and perhaps overly optimistic; but isn't that what holidays are for? There's a wonderful article at the New York Times about how California farmers are having success planting coffee bushes underneath their aging avocado orchards. the hillside slopes, dappled shade, and warm temperature turn out to be great for coffee. In describing the potential market for these coffees, writer Stephanie Strom points out how radically the market has shifted in recent decades.

“People are shifting away from the way my grandparents drank coffee, which was at breakfast and made from whatever coffee was on sale — it was simply fuel,” said Peter Giuliano, chief research officer at the Specialty Coffee Association. “They’re willing to pay for something unusual.”

And then the kicker:

More than half the adult coffee drinkers in America reported drinking a specialty coffee daily, according to the National Coffee Association, or roughly twice as many as in 2010.

Specialty coffee--the equivalent to craft beer--is now consumed by more than half the drinkers in America daily. Daily! Equally remarkably, this has doubled in seven years. I remember the first Starbucks in Portland--it arrived in about 1987. We'd already had craft beer, but specialty coffee as a national phenomenon actually got an earlier start. Like beer, we imagine the trajectory of adoption was a good deal more quick than it was. I'd have guessed specialty-coffee saturation had already plateaued by the mid-aughts. Instead, what happened was a much slower change followed a sea change. The tipping point happened somewhere in the past decade, after which specialty coffee went from being, well, specialty, to completely bog-standard mundane. Everyone drinks Starbucks now.

Keep that in mind as you worry about the current plateau in craft beer. It could easily be that we have hit maximum saturation. It could also be a classic jagged line, where there are moments of waxing and waning in a trendline that nevertheless inexorably heads in one direction. And if it's that latter case, we might also arrive at a moment when the whole country switches overnight. If I were a betting man, I'd suggest we're more likely to be at 50% craft beer in twenty years than stalled out at 15%.

Happy Memorial Day, everyone--

Update, 5/30/17. Although I assumed the context would make this point clear, discussion on Facebook inclines me to think I should make it explicit. When I said "50% craft," I was describing the flavor pie, not the ownership pie. Within the coffee market, the US went from 99%+ canned, pre-ground coffee (and instant, got help us) to 50% "specialty"--everything that is not instant or pre-ground canned coffee. Extend that analogy to beer. We could come to a place in the not-distant future where less than half the beer sold will be mass market lagers, and the rest would be an admixture of all the other styles, from craft pilsners to imperial IPAs, put together--they're the "specialty coffee" of the beer world.

I didn't mean to forward the notion that beer was going to become a utopia in which a hundred million barrels of production was controlled by independent and small breweries. In the event, a great percentage--the majority and probably a large majority--of that "craft" flavor slice will be controlled by multinational beer corporations. They already control a substantial percentage of it, and it will only grow. Still, a twenty percent share of a hundred million barrels leaves a lot of production for smaller breweries.