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CRAFT BREWING IN AMERICA: SEE SHARK. JUMP SHARK.

October 1, 2012

I’m certainly not the first and I know I won’t be the last to talk about “jumping the shark” as far as craft brewing in America is concerned. Last year, there were numerous posts about it when the Hanson’s beer-making project became public. People have talked about it with the growth of beer-drinking among middle-aged women. They discussed it when someone realized Abita was now available in 46 states (and that’s a problem?)

First of all, let me say that while some people seem to be just waiting for the “craft beer trend” to fade away, I am not one of them. Even among those who love beer, however, there seems to be some strange desire to be the first to accurately pinpoint the date, hour and place where the “high water mark” of the craft brewing movement could be notched into the pier.

Trouble is, there’s almost never a single event that marks a transition like that. Usually, it is a series of small, sometimes barely-noticed developments, often followed by a whopper or two—that signals an important change. I remember working in the computer industry in the late 90’s – like everyone else, I was all over the internet, looking for the great opportunities during that boom period. Now, I’m no economic or business genius, but at the time, even I started wondering where everything was heading after reading about some of the deals that were going down.

People were getting crazy money for “me-too” internet plays, after a major segment pioneer had already established a strong customer base. There were plenty of stupid business plans based on unrealistic models, vapor-ware products, poor research or a general lack of business sense. It couldn’t be sustained. More people started to question the numbers…recognize the hype…and pull back their money. Those who didn’t lost most of what they had. That was the Internet Bubble.

Now I think it can be said that brewing is clearly a different type of industry. But what focused my initial thoughts on this subject was a recent article in the Washington Post (Craft Brewer with a Cult Following”) noting that Cabinet Artisanal Brewhouse agreed to a distribution contract that will place its beer in 35 states and Europe in the coming months. This is may not seem unusual; it’s only when you note that the proposed output of the brewery is only 1500 gallons a month does the whole thing seem a little silly. It’s also noteworthy that the brewer—according to the article—has only brewed a handful of test batches. You’ll find a lot of “there are plans to…” and “there is talk of…” bits and pieces in the press release, er—uh, I mean article—all  of which sound strangely familiar.

I then started looking back through my Twitter stream over the past couple of weeks. Am I reading more about deals and investments…not only in new craft breweries, but in the beers themselves? Just a couple of weeks ago, Stan Hieronymous tweeted Sure sign of a craft beer bubble?” – linking to an article in thestreet.com about the “10 Best Beer Investments for Your Cellar.”  Are we starting to see a few brewers more concerned about achieving cachet and cult interest among a very few well-heeled “cellar beer investors” – rather than producing something great and memorable that a lot of people can actually drink and enjoy?

Is this exotic beer even going to be enjoyed at all—or is it going to sit in a cellar as an investment, or sold on a secondary market for a profit? Perhaps the primary question here: is the beer actually good enough to warrant any “investment” interest at all? Is it all just about marketing?

Sure, it’s possible to be successful doing both things—that’s been proven. But something just doesn’t feel right about this. And before you think I’m too eager to blame the brewers, don’t forget that a lot of those people who brought us the Internet Bubble didn’t know shit about the Internet. They were outsiders, who didn’t understand the fundamentals of the web, the limits of technology, or even the behavior of the average consumer. They just wanted to cash in on the explosion of interest and make a quick buck.

It concerns me that we might have a little bit of this now creeping into the craft beer world, too. So much concern with “exclusivity”…”investment potential” …”exoticism and rarity.” I’m just worried that people with no real interest in beer, beer culture or brewing may be starting to have a disproportionate effect on the industry—at the expense of the actual beer drinker.

Some say we already had an initial craft beer bubble over a decade ago–and there is much evidence to back them up. Even here in Akron, we had our share of local brewers expand and spring up; Burkhardt’s brewpub grew, moved to a bigger location and went out of business. Blimp City had a great product – then promptly disappeared. And there were others. Maybe some people had the right idea—but had it a little too soon. Regardless, good beer didn’t go away.

No, what we have seen over the last decade is not so much the growth of a fad as what I would characterize as a long term, inevitable sea-change in the beer market, and of course, beer culture. I feel secure we’ll never go back to the pale, tasteless world that was American Beer in the mid-70’s, and I think the big brewers, more than anyone else, know this. Things have never been better…or crazier, or wilder, or more experimental, or more segmented, or more flavorful, or more local. Can it be sustained over the long term? Mostly, I think; the pendulum may swing back toward simplicity, lower alcohol and faithfulness to style  at some time in the future, but even so, like most things—the truth will always be found somewhere in the middle.

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