Head Retention. Two. Quality V. Locality.
It’s been nearly a year since I started writing this post. I’ve been hesitant to complete it because I feel that its subject matter is controversial, especially given the fact that it’s being broadcast on a platform that is operated by a brewing company that doesn’t have a brewery. Earlier in the week, I was listening to a Podcast that became the impetus for me to finish this single post. In the podcast, one of the founders of Magic Hat Brewing Company, Alan Newman, provides a similar argument to what I am about to present. There is a fundamental problem in craft beer right now that seems to place a focus on being local rather than being good. This problem presents itself in a number of ways whether it be irrelevant style selection, poor brewing practices and lack of quality control, poor cold storage, unimaginative taproom experiences, etc. A year ago I was questioning whether or not a shakeout will happen. Today I have flipped flopped on that position because it is apparent. And part of the reason is that newcomers to the industry are not putting their best foot forward. It will be to the detriment of beer at large.
It's no longer enough just to be the new small beer producer in town. There was certainly a time when the novelty of being the only craft brewer, or the newest craft brewer in town was enough to drive interest and sales, but as the market shifts towards saturation or shakeout it will take more to remain relevant and to keep ones doors open. It was easy to stand out in a crowd when you were the entire crowd. Going forward it will take something else. You cannot just be a brewery.
An Irish Red, a Porter, a Hefeweizen, Golden Ale, a Pale Ale. Brewing styles like this in the early days of the craft brewing and brewpubs were a surefire recipe for success. These beers represented exciting flavors not found in the widely available mass market adjunct lager. From what I can remember, one would see these beers at practically any small local brewery. Success ensued. That formula for success has since shifted. Of those styles listed above, it is likely that another craft brewery is making a better version and it is also likely that it is available in your local grocery store or bottle shop, to say nothing of India Pale Ale. This necessitates the next great thing. For years now, styles have been hybridized, bastardized, and thrown out the window entirely. A discussion of conforming to style is worthy of another post entirely, but let's assume that style is irrelevant.
Quality is still the first and foremost goal, but it is not enough just to make outstanding beer anymore. This industry has always been about creating trends rather than following them. Instead of replicating the model of brewers that came before, authenticity through innovation is becoming more and more important. To create something that is truly unique, a brewery will find itself occupying a niche. How this niche is found is up to the individual brewery. Once this authentic niche is found, a sense of place may develop around a brewery or an individual beer. This type of authenticity is why areas of the world are so famous for their beer styles, whether it be IPA from Burton, Pilsner from Bohemia, Lambic from Belgium or Gose from Leipzig. Beyond Europe, beers are beginning to become associated with regions in the US (despite them all being some version of an IPA). West Coast v East Coast IPA, Cascadian Black Ale, New England IPA. These are perhaps not so much styles beer as they are indicative of where you are. So what is next for the up and coming small brewer?
Authenticity and Integrity are two words that come to mind. You might see these words being thrown around a lot lately especially as it applies to craft beer, so taking a closer but basic look is necessary. Authenticity, or having the quality of being authentic, can be defined as having an undisputed origin or being genuine. Integrity is the quality of being honest and having strong moral principles.
This quality of being genuine is becoming muted or muddy as we are approaching 6,000 breweries nationwide. Of the dozens of breweries I have been to in the past year, I can count on one hand how many I can distinguish from the majority of the pack. For the most part these breweries feature their equipment open to the taproom, a ramshackle bar made from poorly sanded pallet wood, seemingly indifferent and questionably knowledgeable bar staff, and diffuse if not absent air conditioning. While these “features” put forth issues of their own, every spot seems to have the same issues. This is a huge problem. If a consumer can’t distinguish one place from the other, the idea of variety is irrelevant and a unique experience becomes less and less available. What’s more is that the indistinguishable experience is decent at best, shitty at worst. In this way, maybe a shakeout is necessary.
When it comes to local restaurants, no one holds back any criticism they might develop. The food was undercooked. The server was rude. It was too noisy. The drinks were weak. It was very hot in there. No hesitation at all. When one goes into a restaurant, there is a certain expectation of quality that is just not present when people go to a brewery. And the two entities are not all that dissimilar. They are both places where you go to be served a consumable for on-site consumption. Granted, at a brewery that consumable is typically a beverage but more often than not, breweries also offer food whether it be through their own facility or a food truck or pop-up that is operating on site. So why should the expectation be any different at a brewery, especially if they are claiming such authenticity. Restaurants fail because of poor quality, poor location, and poor ownership. This could be the fate that befalls breweries going forward.
At the core of this issue driving sub-par local breweries to prominence is the trend of the farm-to-table/slow food/locavore movement. These practices on their own are great. They are fostering a movement to save us from ourselves and to leave this planet a little better than we found it. Keep supporting local food. The problem is that somewhere in there, we started conflating local with quality. And so I have to drink shitty beer while I’m sweating my ass off. Perhaps it is no longer enough to put a brew house and tanks into a warehouse space and piece together a ramshackle bar to serve mediocre-at-best beer in an unintentional environment. The free-pass to create a shit product needs to stop. A shift towards proper hospitality is necessary where beer is served by people who not only truly care about the product they are serving, but also know proper service etiquette. All of which is useless if the beer is not served in a well thought-out and overall comfortable environment. As the taproom-only/own-premise/local pub vibe becomes the new cornerstone of craft beer, we need to get better at serving beer. A lot better.