Looking Back, Looking Forward To A New Year Of Beer…

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End of the year predictions have become de rigueur in the beer world. I’m not much for prognostication, especially in an industry as diverse as the increasingly international world of craft beer. It’s better to reflect on where we’ve been over the past year to get a sense of what is to come. Reviewing the past year, I’m struck by how much American craft brewers remind me of students just completing their sophomore years of college. Having secured their footing, they understand how things work but remain unsure of what their futures hold; excited to experience the wider world but still nervous about making their mark.

2011 brought an awkward mix of maturity and growth for the American craft beer industry. It began with a seemingly revolving door of explosive sales numbers and ended with many breweries trying to figure out where to go next. This latter question continues to daunt breweries, both big and small. While most breweries continue to experience extensive growth opportunities, managing their budding popularity is proving difficult. While the prospects for expanding by double or even triple digit numbers exists, the costs of meeting such explosive demand are substantial and expensive. The prospect of incurring massive debt loads to feed stainless steel cravings is a stark concern even for many younger brewery owners. Such trepidations leave many breweries rethinking strategies and returning focus to their home markets.

After years of deploying their forces to battle fronts far from home, however, some craft brewers are returning to their native bases only to find a crop of newcomers setting up new encampments. The nano brewery trend continues to germinate, with many developing steadily from one and two barrel systems to seven, ten, and 15 barrel operations. If these players stabilize their products and can survive to grow to a profitable level, this new generation of craft brewers will inject both excitement and a touch of fear into more established operations.

Craft brewers weren’t the only winners in 2011. Both Anheuser-Busch InBev and MillerCoors scored substantial successes and in ways that leave craft brewers with much to ponder in 2012. A-B’s Shock Top and Coors’ Blue Moon continue their tear, wedging their way into many new craft beer channels. Whether the big brewer craft-style beers are true competition or mere door openers for craft brewers is a big, unanswered question open to great debate. What is undeniable, however, is that their success suggests a continuing shift in the American beer drinking palate. Whether the big brewers can branch out beyond their infighting over dominance of a single style (witbier) also remains unclear.

Besides uncertainty over their futures, craft industry players are showing greater poise and better judgment in their decisions, both signs of a widening maturity. After years of substantial price creep, we’re starting to see signs that craft brewers and bar owners recognize there is a ceiling to what consumers either will or should be expected to pay. While some crafts and nanos continue to charge ridiculous prices for specialty bottles, and a niche of beer super nerds continue to line up at midnight or 3 a.m. for new releases, many markets, including New York City, have begun to level off and even become affordable. As crafts gain increased scale and local focus, prices will hopefully continue to stabilize and perhaps even improve for consumers.

Finally, with a few years of education behind them, craft brewers have developed greater appreciation for the larger world, maybe having spent some time abroad, and appear less bent on throwing wild, extreme beer ragers. As hundreds of new breweries open across the United States, a larger percentage seem satisfied to explore the nuances and challenges of brewing lager beer and lower alcohol session offerings, both very welcome departures from the excess of recent years. With their emergent wisdom and experience, I look forward to seeing what comes in the next school year.

-Article appeared in Issue 60 of BeerAdvocate Magazine.

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