A new era of craft beer is dawning before our very eyes. While craft brewers celebrated continuing good fortune at their annual conference in San Francisco, brewery owners, executives, and accountants in St. Louis, Chicago, and Belgium were putting the finishing touches on a deal that would send shock waves through the beer industry. Whether you think the headline should be “The Killing of the Golden Goose” or “A-B InBev Signal Defeat,” we can all be sure that things won’t ever be the same again for craft beer.
Passionate enthusiasts often have a difficult time accepting that, at its core, craft beer is a business. While the community aspect of craft beer is a wonderfully inviting quality, brewers ultimately run their operations, not as non-profit beer funhouses, but as companies with bills to be paid. Brewing remains an incredibly capital intensive business and one grows more expensive as the industry’s production numbers continue to explode.
Two years ago, I warned in these pages that the expanding reach of small craft brewers into far-flung regions of the United States was not sustainable. While beer lovers from Indiana to Rhode Island were understandably elated at the chance to sample beers from Dogfish Head, Great Divide, and the Shelton Brothers’ international portfolio, few appreciated what such an incredible selection actually signified for the industry.
Sending a few pallets of beer far from home to little known distributors in distant states was easy money. As local demand continued to soar and popular beers ran short in key markets, many craft brewers were left with the disheartening but necessary prospect of pissing off a lot of newfound fans in these remote states. And while Three Floyds and Dogfish Head may be the biggest names in the market withdrawal game, it’s time to brace yourself for the inevitability that many of your favorite brands will eventually have to pack up and move back home, leaving you with nothing but distant memories of hops and malt and a taste for the past.
I know it’s not a popular view, but the Great Beer Retreat is actually going to be good for the industry. We are entering a new era of craft beer, one in which selection around the country may shrink but where local beer will grow increasingly strong and entrenched roots. And that is exactly what craft brewers need to compete in the cutthroat world of beer.
This kind of strategic retreat is a sign of strength and not weakness for craft beer. Look no further than New Glarus Brewing of Wisconsin for reassurance of this point. Founded in 1993, the brewery grew steadily, expanded into neighboring Illinois and even sent some of its specialty releases to a few other states, including Massachusetts. By 2002, the brewery decided to exclusively focus on its home market. Nearly a decade later, New Glarus still only distributes beer in one state and it’s grown to become one of the nation’s biggest craft brewers.
While we’ve been blessed, perhaps even spoiled, with unbelievable selection, consumers should actually appreciate losing a few brands. Dedication to local markets will define the next generation of craft beer, which will result in lower shipping costs, fresher beer, more direct attention from the brewery and its staff, and deeper and stronger distributor relationships. So while disappointment is understandable, craft beer will be better for it.
One brewer recently told me that these are the good old days. And indeed that’s true. Unless you live in major cities on the Eastern Seaboard, change is coming for you. Craft beer will never be the same again so enjoy this golden era. Even with the inevitable advance of major change, one thing remains clear: great, local craft beer isn’t going anywhere.
-Article appeared in Issue 51 of BeerAdvocate Magazine.