Head Retention. One. Shakeout?
So this is something new that I wanted to try. A few people have encouraged me to go a little further with this blog, so I have decided to do just that. "Head Retention" will represent an editorial outlet where I may speak on a variety of beer related topics. At times, these entries may involve something Blue Tape related, but it is really meant to be a window into the larger industry. The views expressed will solely be mine and there is no reason to take them seriously. Jump off from here and form your own opinions. The direction and format of this series is yet to be determined so it will likely evolve over time. For now, it will be located within the Blog tab of the website, but it may be relocated to its own tab, or if it takes off I may move it to a different site entirely (big dreams).
Why the name? "Head Retention" refers to the ability of a beer to maintain a nice foamy top. Among carbonated beverages, this quality is unique to beer. Sparkling wine, cider, soft drinks are all certainly bubbly, but they do not display head retention as a beer does. Without going into to much detail, beer is capable of doing largely due to the presence of dissolved proteins and dissolved hop oils which provide a physical structure for CO2 to resides. Other carbonated beverages lack these characteristics. In the case of these editorials "Head Retention" refers to all of the thoughts that are stuck in my brain. The things I ponder while showering, cycling, serving tables or just otherwise going about my day. This is their outlet. Let's get started.
It is widely accepted that craft beer as we know it started in the mid 1980s. Many of these early craft breweries (not known by that moniker at the time) are still around making delicious beer to this day. Sierra Nevada, Anchor, and Boston Beer are practically household names, but for one reason or another, not all of the first wave craft breweries were as successful. In the early years some merely faded away, others closed due to quality issues, others were purchased by larger non-craft brewers and dissolved. But towards the end of the 90s and into the early 2000s, craft beer saw a huge shakeout. Very suddenly, more breweries were closing than opening. Quality fell and entire brands disappeared. By the mid 2000s, the number of operating breweries dropped to just under 1500 (still a huge improvement over less than 100 just 20 years prior). Since this dip in the curve, the craft brewing industry has recovered in a big way. At the end of 2015, there were 4,225 craft breweries operating in the US. It is estimated that 2 breweries are opening everyday.
Many in the industry believe that another shakeout is coming. This time around it will not be due to quality. The industry has come a long way since Ken Grossman pieced together Sierra Nevada out of old dairy and soft drink equipment. Entire industries parallel craft beer to provide the best possible brewing equipment, raw ingredients and testing devices. There is no excuse for bad beer. The shakeout will not be due to lack of consumer education. Discerning palates will seek out the beers they want. More than ever there is a need of the craft beer drinker to seek out the best and the freshest. The accessibility and anti-elitism of craft beer only serves to bolster this drive, and as it continues, bland and boring "macro" beers will continue to lose market share.
The concern now is saturation. Are there too many breweries opening? Maybe. With two opening every day it can be hard to keep up (Since I moved to Charleston 3 WEEKS AGO, I've noticed 2 more that weren't here when I was packing my UHaul). All of these new breweries WILL be successful if they can make outstanding beer, find a niche, and more importantly have a presence that is more than just "Hey, we make an IPA," or "Come have a beer at our taproom." It's getting the market recognize your brand not only for its quality, but for the experience and the feel that surrounds it. A memorable identity. It is getting harder and harder to make something new in regard to beer. Almost everything has been done before and there is likely someone out there doing it better. So presence and identity will be critical to survive as a brewery in the current environment.
Then again, maybe a shakeout isn't coming. Pick a grocery store anywhere and I guarantee I can name at least 5 beers in their cold case that aren't "macro." Sierra Nevada, Sam Adams, Lagunitas, New Belgium, Ballast Point. Compared to the larger global brewers, those breweries are still small, but they are also ubiquitous. That is something that will likely change with more and more small breweries opening. This may be less of a shakeout and more of an intense regionalism developing. Where there used to be several national brands on the shelf, perhaps there will be a handful of regional or even locally produced beers. Instead of going to the local pub to have an IPA brewed 2,000 miles away, maybe there will be more of a push to actually try a local sour or farmhouse ale, and actually go to its source for enjoyment.
That was essentially a very long way of expressing my doubts about this coming shakeout. In 1873 there were as many breweries as there are today, but the population was a tenth of what it is today. A growing number of breweries will continue to be supported as long as quality, consistency, and identity are the top priority. Yes, breweries will close, but it will not be due to a bubble bursting. The Brewers Association has a goal for craft beer to hold 20% beer market share by 2020. It's going to take more than 4,000 small breweries to do that. Get ready for more.