Craft Beer, All Growed Up…

Posted on Posted in Anchor Brewing, BeerAdvocate Mag, Bell's Brewery, Boston Beer Company, Craft Beer, Freshness Dating, Goose Island, MillerCoors, Two Hearted Ale

All grown up and ready to don his crown, the prince busily makes plans for the future. All hail the new king of beer. If you read the beer press lately, you’d be forgiven for thinking that craft beer has conquered all. The Brewers Association’s recently released half-year numbers demonstrate that despite the economic downturn, craft beer sales continue to boom by double-digits, to the enduring shame of macro beer producers. Without question, no other brewing industry segment can touch craft’s fire.

But before we start the next round of mutual back-slapping and pint raising, America’s smaller brewers should stop and consider the decidedly unsettled course of American beer’s future. We have lived through the Age of Extreme and experienced the Era of Collaboration, reveling in years of unparalleled success. Yet the toughest times lie ahead as craft brewers move from the lighthearted teenage growing years to the increasingly responsible adult decades.

For one, succession issues will continue to pose challenges for brewers small and big. As brewers continue to merge or purchase their craft brethren (and competitors), brands and brewing histories may become diluted or lost. In the wake of the recent transitions of Anchor, Magic Hat, Old Dominion, and others, consumers are learning the painful truth that beer is a business and craft brewing is not some fun hobbyist project. Your favorite beer of today may become a fond memory tomorrow in someone else’s brand portfolio.

Growth also brings its own challenges and has already contributed to some serious identity crises in the industry. After years of predicting the event, the Boston Beer Company appears poised (if not already there) to exceed the magic two million barrel mark that the Brewers Association uses to define the size limits for craft brewers. While many recoil at the suggestion of disinviting Sam Adams from the craft beer party, the truth is that many craft brewers are far from small operations. How the industry defines itself, while caring for its pioneering elders will continue as a rolling boil.

Beyond trying to define “craft”, the industry’s success also challenges the consumer’s understanding of what the whole industry stands for. As growing pains set in, brewers find themselves stretched increasingly thin. Due to demand and quick sales, brewers send beer to markets thousands of miles from home, sometimes while their local patrons can’t find their favorites. To date, only a handful of brewers (craft or not) have chosen to brew their beers in distant breweries to satisfy new markets, but this trend will rise. But if Goose Island brews its Honker’s Ale or 312 in New Hampshire, is it really still Goose Island? Many consumers don’t think so.

Craft brewers also have to contend with the increasing interest of macro brewers in their profitable and growing market segment. As I predicted several years ago, Blue Moon has become the nation’s best selling craft/faux-craft beer. It’s a sales juggernaut that shows no signs of slowing, especially with MillerCoors’ creation of the new Tenth and Blake Beer Company spinoff. Expect the big guys to be more aggressive as they spend more time playing in the craft beer sandbox.

Finally, craft brewers need to get their own houses in order. In the very first issue of BeerAdvocate Magazine, I took craft brewers to task for refusing to put bottling or brewing dates on their packaging. While we have seen some progress in recent years, freshness dating continues to be a problem that many of the industry’s biggest players refuse to adequately address. While I personally love Bell’s Two Hearted Ale and included it in Great American Craft Beer, I shouldn’t have to go to the brewery’s website and enter a batch code to find out when it was made. A few stale bottles have caused me to rethink buying this longtime favorite and many others from craft brewers that should know better.

–Article appeared in Issue 48 of BeerAdvocate Magazine.

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