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Thursday, May 31, 2012

The End of Craft Beer

Craft beer has been riding a rocket of growth over the past few years, and unless you are unplugged from the beer world, you already knew that.  Everyone is a champion of craft beer these days.  From the guy crushing pints of IPA at your local, to the fourth guy in your homebrew club to start a beer blog, it seems you can't get away from the juggernaut that is American Craft Beer.

But can this be a bad thing?

Here are the numbers: in 2010, there were approximately 1,800 breweries operating in the US.  This includes brewpubs, large breweries and non-craft breweries.  In 2011, this number increases to about 2040 breweries, not including closures (of which there were 35).  Over 2,000 breweries in the country in 2011, all pumping out beer, all needing one thing: ingredients.

An industry that relies on a purely agricultural product to survive cannot be sustainable forever.  At least, not while experiencing record growth.  There is only so much land on which to grow food to eat, much less to boil it down, ferment, and consume the dregs.  Our land is shrinking to strip malls and condos, and the products we rely on to make beer shrink with them.  Take the US Hop Crop, for example:  The acreage of hop farms in Washington, Idaho, and Oregon (the three states we rely on the most for hops) shrank last year by a combined 16%.  Imagine that - the farms that we rely on for our hops are now smaller than they were last year, by a good chunk.  Now, yields have risen by 80 pounds or so, but when the total crop is down almost a million pounds over last year, 80 seems like a very small number.   We all remember the "hop crisis", when the average size of the hop farms decreased by about 9,000 acres (and the price per pound rose but never really seemed to fall?).  With this giant growth of craft beer, are we going to be able to get the hops we need for our own beer making?

Then you move on to Barley.  Most of the barley that we get here in the US comes from our buddy, The Great White North (most of our crop is 6-row, which we don't really use in craft beer).  In 2008, the production was around 11,700 kMT.  Shift to 2010, when production fell to just around 8,200 kMT.

So here's my question to the craft beer world: When will the bottom drop out?  There has to be a limit, and for years we all speculated that the ultimate factor would be the consumer, where they would simply stop trying new beers and stick with the few brands they enjoy today.  But more and more it seems likely that the new growth will be governed by the availability of resources - namely malt and hops.

And here's a question to the homebrewers out there: we are already limited on our selection of barley an hops (though you don't know that) due to contracts signed by craft brewers extending for years and totaling into the millions of dollars.  So what happens when the almost 250 breweries that are waiting in the wings in California alone come online, demanding their share of two crops that have been in steady decline for the last 3-5 years?  Will homebrewers see a rise in prices - again?  Look at the trends - large breweries opening second brew houses - not just expanding, building new facilities.  Sierra Nevada alone is doing a pint night at a bar where 55 taps will be SN beers. Think about that.  Really think about how much malt, how much hops it takes to make 55 batches of individual beer styles, on a scale like that.  And you think you are worried now about not finding Amarillo ...

Just some thoughts I had while on the phone with my buddy Sean Paxton, talking about new emerging styles of beer and the future of craft beer.  I give it 5 years and then, if you don't have your contracts etched in stone, or your brewery isn't in more than 4 markets ... you're out.

I've had a few sources of info for this stuff, but the two I found most useful were the following:
This is just my interpretation of the numbers.  I could be wrong. 

This post written under the influence of Hank III

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Truly Putting It Out There

Ok, I'm going to violate several of my own personal beliefs here and actually question why brands are not getting into politics.

Normally I hate it when I hear a company or celebrity drop their viewpoints on a politician or bill or law, but this particular one I am having issue with.  The issue of gay marriage/civil unions.

Recently, the great state of Colorado voted down a civil union bill without so much as a debate on the subject.  And in North Carolina, they have passed an actual Amendment to their state constitution outright banning Gay Marriage - which didn't matter much as the state has already outlawed it.

Colorado is already known for great craft beer, but North Carolina hasn't gotten as much heat for it, mainly because, well, most of us don't pay the South too much attention.  With the expansion of three large breweries into the state, there is more weight to be thrown around than ever.

And this is a perfect opportunity for craft beer to assert it's power in these states.  To become true industry leaders - no, not only industry, but community leaders as well.  Show the country that craft beer is more than simply something to drink when you are tired of Bud Light.  We have a voice now.  And we are looking to you,  large craft brewers, to step forward and lobby for more than zoning laws or waste water disposal.  The country is ready for equal rights for all, and those that aren't are simply too stupid to see the horizon and all the changes that come with it.

Tell me I'm wrong.  Please, please tell me brewers in these states are doing what they can, and it's not just about growing their market share.  I mean, isn't that what the big, nasty brewers are about?  Push the envelope.  Break the mold.  Become something.  Changing the way we drink is fine, but show that you care more about peoples lives than you do about barrels.

This is a hot issue.  Claim it.

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Marketing is Marketing

Yes, I hate to break it to you, but it's true: marketing is marketing, regardless of who puts it out.  As fans and devotees to a movement that is still very much underground, the breweries we follow and the beer bloggers we read have asked us to segment this information and treat marketing differently.  As if overnight it has changed into something more lofty than sales, and that those breweries that are still doing things "the old way" have some how grown horns and reverted to human sacrifice to hit their Q3 goals.  "Your" beer is not better than "their" beer.  Because your beer has the IBU's listed on the side of the corked bottle does not tower over the other beers simply because they choose a nicer label or a high-priced marketing firm.

I'm drinking this right now, and I am proud of it. 

The age of the craft beer getting by simply on the "poor me" method of marketing is over.  Consumers have taken craft beer to the next level and it's letting us down.  There is no more room for bullying - especially since we have accused the "Big Beer" guys of the same thing.  Telling it's customers that craft beer isn't good, that it's not as consistant.  By brewers saying their beer is superior to another simply because they make less of it is ... kind if insane.  To question someones courage or manhood because they drink yellow beer is, to be honest, scary.  Nevermind the fact there are many styles of beer that are "yellow", that attitude is becoming too aggressive for my tastes.  I don't want to be a part of a movement that says "Drink this not that".  Do you?  Do you really, REALLY care that much about what I drink?

If we are to ever get the mainstream attention we deserve, we are going to have to accept the fact that Budweiser is the best-selling beer in the world.  Does that make it less drinkable, or less valid as a consumer good?  No!  It's a fine beer and one that is extremely hard to make.  Any asshole can whip out a pale ale (and many craft pales taste like it, too), but I can count on both hands the number of breweries that can be as consistant as a Bud or Coors.

We should admire the big beers and learn from them.  The more we alienate them, the more we do the same to those who are loyal brand suporters and will not cross over to craft beer.  Ask your local brewer if he can afford to drive folks away.   But I bet I know the answer.

This post written under the influence of Crass.