We often hear about the three tier system in the beer business, often castigated as a post-Prohibition relic or as a needless by consumers and some small brewers. But there is a new caste system developing in an increasingly stratified craft beer world. On the low end is the rise of the small brewery, including hundreds and even thousands of new entrants. Often working with extraordinarily diminutive batch sizes and producing only an infinitesimal amount of beer, these small brewers inject some excitement, energy, and even confusion into an otherwise maturing, stable, and staid marketplace. Capturing much of the media and blog attention, these small brewers and nanos have upset the tenuous balance, causing bottle prices to skew beyond existing price models and larger craft concerns to scoff at their gumption, pluck, and naiveté. Their novelty aside, these minor players are largely inconsequential in the wider industry picture where the true class division drama is playing out.
At the other end of the pyramid is the all too familiar story of massive global conglomerates battling for control of markets in hundreds of countries around the world. Largely stuck in an increasingly outmoded business model, one focused on fighting volume with volume instead of flavor or style, these large breweries look with a measure of detached concern over the growing characterful beer sphere of influence. While some corporations, such as MillerCoors with its Tenth & Blake division, appear to have change in mind, these companies remain focused on their core product line, often blindly promoting the fading light beer model.
Playing in the shallow end of the big kids’ pool are the top tier craft brewers, including Boston Beer, Sierra Nevada, New Belgium, and a growing class of long-standing crafts, including breweries such as Dogfish, Brooklyn, Harpoon, and two dozen others. These large regional or even national crafts often seem to have more in common, especially going into the future, with their large macro counterparts than they do with the tiny nano-breweries fledgling for inclusion in the craft beer club.
What we do not hear much about is a middle class, those mainly local brewers slogging it out in the trenches day after day, often with little to no distributor support. These midsized brewers are the bishops and knights of the craft beer chess game, not gathering as much attention as other breweries yet crucial to the industry’s performance. They are steady growers, not in the sense of showy, explosive, or flashy growth, just solid and dependable. You won’t see press releases touting multi-million dollar expansion projects or tweets about extravagant barrel aged offerings. Instead they make reliable, dependable beers for every day drinking.
These middle class brewers haven’t experienced the growth of their regional counterparts, for a host of reasons, and have often become distracted by the every day business of running a brewery to the loss of creative spirit. It’s in this reliability that consumers mistake predictability for unoriginality. For craft beer to continue its strong evolution, this oft-neglected tier of breweries requires additional support from consumers and a rededication of effort on their own parts. In need of a slight touch up and make-over, a new image, a reboot, these workhorse breweries can move to the next level with some new thinking. Focused on day to day operations, passion often seems to have unexpectedly seeped out of these mid-sized breweries. For those interested in doing more than surviving, updating old recipes, retooling stagnant product lines, or reconnecting with consumers in new ways. As strong and stable operations, they needn’t abandon the characteristics that served them well to date. But taking a cue from the dynamism of the nano trend will help rejuvenate craft beer passion across the industry.
-Article appeared in Issue 69 of BeerAdvocate Magazine.