What in the hell is happening with craft beer?
My beloved hobby, once spent carefully huddled around a coffee table in friends’ living rooms during conversation over bottle shares, has now become the hobby of, well, everyone. I can’t even drive to Walgreen’s without passing a craft brewery these days. For us “old school” craft beer lovers, there is something very, very wrong happening to our community, but what it is and more importantly – why – it is, is difficult to pinpoint. The bottom line is that the once close-knit craft beer community – an inclusive one that sought to differentiate itself from other beer drinkers by embracing anti-establishment of “Big Beer” through sharing the love and complexity of smaller craft beers around the world – has now become exclusive, entitled, and trade-driven.
I’ll be the first to point out that I don’t know what happened, but I certainly have theories. It most likely goes back to supply-and-demand economics, I mean, what doesn’t? That, in tandem with looser beer laws equals a very inviting, fertile ground for passionate homebrewers to embark on the dream of starting a brewery. Conversely, it also is fertile ground for money-hungry venture capitalists to establish breweries just to make money releasing shitty IPA after shitty IPA. No passion necessary. If you look solely at the numbers, there were roughly 1,500 brewpubs in 2000. Now, that number is at 4,200 with no signs of slowing down. Even if you don’t know the first thing about economics, I’m sure you can start to see that problems are inevitable.
A Dividing Line in Craft Beer Drinker “Generations”
For the first time, there are different generations of craft beer drinkers. (Source: this awesome article by Gear Patrol ) This demographic used to be black-and-white (macro beer drinkers vs. microbeer drinkers), but now there are facets of craft-beerdom. The first generation of craft beer consumers, the generation that includes brewers from breweries such as Sam Adams and Sierra Nevada, were about anti-establishment and quality beer. Oh, and another major thing: bringing others on board. There was camaraderie within the craft brewers, often times with the competitors being mentors and friends. The second generation of craft beer drinkers reflected these ideals, and got into the hobby right before the post-2012 (I am not sure when the 3rd gen emerged) mega brewery boom. The third and fourth generation largely comprises a wave of millennials who have completely different expectations than Grandpa 1st and 2nd gen. This new generation of craft beer drinker is seeking excitement and rare beer “whales”. Is there tension between these new groups of craft beer drinkers? I say yes. This quote from the Gear Patrol article not only sums up the tension between competing breweries (Um, just take a gander at all the trademark litigation between breweries in the past few years), but craft beer drinkers are feeling it as well:
“Before, it was ‘Hey Bro, we’re here in the trenches together, give me your hand, I’ll help you out’”, said the owner of one Denver brewery, who asked not to be identified, of the changing landscape of competition within craft beer. “Now, it’s ‘Hey man, I’m over here doing this, so you better keep up, better get your act together.’”
Kim Jordan of New Belgium Brewing further comments:
“Some people now don’t see the industry as [the first and second generations of craft brewers] do”, said Kim Jordan of New Belgium. “They are getting in for money and are motivated to get out. That is a much different dynamic than those of us who got in for our love of beer.”
Just Because it’s “New”, “Rare”, or “Local” Does Not Mean it is Good
Craft beer quality is both increasing and decreasing as craft brewers struggle to keep up with the demand of new and old craft beer drinkers. The good: There are more options to choose from than ever before. The bad: There are a lot of bad options. Take, for instance, that 75% of the population lives within 10 miles of a craft brewery. Think about that for a minute. Do you remember the time where you had Columbus Brewing, Elevator, and Barley’s? And if you wanted other good beer, you got your friends together for a road trip up to Great Lakes? Things have completely changed. Some solid beers have come out of the neck-and-neck competition, but likewise, some awful beers have come from it as well (it’s my opinion more awful than good). A Columbus brewer and Facebook friend of mine recently posted on his page how disappointed he was to be out and have a beer that has “real problems”, likely due to a brewery rushing to put out the beer before it was ready, to meet this “MORE NEW BEER” demand. The question: does the market reward this behavior? I think, unfortunately, that it does. To a point. There is a constant stream of sources tickling our sense of FOMO so we don’t miss out on any of the new stuff. Beermenus.com and Untappd are two examples where new beer comes in every second, and it seems people are on a quest to conquer them all.
This new generation of craft beer drinkers, unlike the craft beer drinkers of the past, tend to be more about new beer than good beer. I think they tend to confuse rare with quality; they are not synonymous. If a passionless craft brewery puts out mediocre one-off beers (and presumably isn’t paying to register them, because how can that be profitable) and people keep coming in to buy them because it’s a new tick mark in Untappd, then that brewery is going to keep being rewarded for brewing sub-par beer as long as it’s passable (and close to the house). A shitty beer in a cask with coffee beans or wheatgrass is just a shitty beer with a treatment on it. A lot of us can tell the difference between a good beer and a bad beer.
Suffering, are the tried-and-true craft brewers that consistently brew good beer but are getting overlooked because they have not gussied up their beer to become more exciting to the new wave of craft drinkers. With the market flooding, small breweries are having to find a niche and hope that it reaches enough people to stay in business. Just having a great Scottish ale isn’t cutting it anymore. There are a lot of small craft breweries that specialize in one style of beer, crazy label artwork, or some other identifying criteria that set them apart from the hundreds of other competitors. I am noticing a lot of beer that is “just OK” is enshrouded by kitchy, clever packaging or marketing and amazingly that seems to be effective in continuing to sell beer.
Is Untappd Helping or Hurting Beer Culture?
I am sure that the founders of Untappd had no idea that the app would get as popular as it has, having over 1+ million beer check-ins monthly among its half a million users. In an age where Tindr and Snapchat (these are the dividing lines between my generation and the next, I’m sure of it) are completely accepted ways of communicating, it seems perfectly fitting that an app such as Untappd -that fosters not only riding the wave of new beer check-ins, but also the exhibitionism associated with bragging rights that accompany all your slain whales – would be as popular as it is. It makes perfect sense. Badge me, bro!
This is not to say that Untappd does not genuinely bring some craft beer lovers together; I have met other aficionados though use of the app, and it undeniably is a wonderful tool for anyone who isn’t blessed with a great memory. As with any social media app, oversharing is annoying and Untappd certainly is no exception.
Trading in beer circles is nothing new; I can recall many of my friends trading other craft beer lovers via Ratebeer or Beer Advocate “back in the day”, as beer distribution had not been as widespread as it is present day. The difference between then and now is that most of them were trading for a beer that was not available to them, and so they could share it with other craft beer lovers (in a beer trading group, for example). Not to post on forums about $tradevalue$. In my opinion, this “trader culture” that is now present is now falsely driving demand, while “mules” are being sent to wait in line to get their max allotment of beer (I have even heard stories of people paying off homeless people to take place in line to get more beer). The best example of how this is negatively affecting craft beer culture is up at Hoof Hearted in Marengo, OH. At some point, this brewery started putting out top-quality mega IPAs and DIPAs and caught national attention, mostly through trades originating from Columbus (it is also not lost on me that cans are easier to ship). The can artwork is kitchy, the beer is good if not great, the style is in line with what is popular, all contributors to its popularity. Since they self-distribute, they rolled out beer releases on Sundays for several months, with each release gaining exponentially in attendance until they started running out of beer. The first “mules” in line were purchasing 3 and 4 cases of beer (no limits were imposed) leaving the other people standing in line (some just for the bar) with nothing. At first, the beer lasted a reasonable amount of time before it sold out, but during the most recent releases, the beer sold out right away. Are the people buying 3 and 4 cases of fresh-squeezed IPA drinking that beer? Could one even get through 4 cases of Hoof Hearted Roller Blabe while it’s still fresh? It seems more obvious that Hoof Hearted beers are now flagged as trade bait, and even more realistically, that people are bypassing the 3-tier system in Ohio and garnering those beers for illegal resale (#hopslamgate). The whole experience is just a major turnoff for genuine craft beer lovers that want to patronize the taproom and appreciate their beers, as many of us stopped going altogether (which is a shame, because I truly do love their product). Thankfully, the demand seems to have been met with the opening of their new taproom in the Italian Village, however, what would have happened had it not?
Perhaps even more detrimental is the sense of entitlement that accompanies some of these “trader culture” beer hoarders. When did this start? When did it become acceptable to tweet the brewer and tell them that you’re driving 2 1/2 hours so you want to make sure you’re guaranteed a parking spot and a beer? Also worth mentioning is the recent uprising about #Hullabaloo16. The Columbus Craft Beer Alliance put on (what I thought to be) a great niche high gravity beer event, only to have it met with physical threats and criticism of there not being rare enough beers. Are you serious? There were tables upon tables of excellent beer that went undrunk just because it wasn’t rare. The CCBA retaliated against the negativity by canceling future Hullabaloos.
What Does The Future Hold for Craft Beer?
A fellow longtime craft beer drinker friend of mine Micah Siegmund (@Dogbrick) likened this whole shift to the comic book boom of the 1990s (Prior to that, we had the video game crash of the early 80s). He explains how the analogy of what happened then might be inevitable for craft beer. Again, economics and false demand: