May the Best Brewers Win

March 27, 2013

Forty-three breweries closed their doors in 2012 and the Brewer's Association is predicting a three-fold increase in closures next year. This culling - albeit painful - is important to the health of any market. We hope it is the best breweries that stick around and the bad ones that fail but that isn't always the case.

The Craft Brewers Conference is underway in D.C. and according to attendees the message has been very clear: "Wanna stay in business? Make good beer."

I would love to think that quality is the most important factor in this business but that has not been my experience. People create irrational & emotional attachments to brands. Some latch on to whatever is new or rare, others whatever is local or most accessible.

While some beer geeks may skip beers from breweries who don't measure up, even at the bleeding edge of this market, quality is often a secondary motivator. I want to see the best brewers win but we're past the point where you can succeed on the merits of your beer alone. The majority of craft beer drinkers are simply not discerning enough for that to be true.

I am encouraged to see Ray Daniels' Cicerone program gaining traction and even some direct to consumer education from breweries like Stone via BeerU. They strike a nice balance providing information without being stuffy. And they've just drastically expanded their reach by live streaming classes online (You can watch the Stouts recording to get a flavor). Even their Enjoy By IPA had educational underpinnings - although I am not sure the message was preserved as well as the delicious hop aroma.

Ultimately, many people have bought into just the craft part of the craft beer story: celebrate small, local, "hand-made" anything. Yes, they'll take a bit more flavor along the way but most have no idea how beer is made let alone how to spot a stale or poorly executed product.

It's an uphill battle. Dr. Charlie Bamforth regularly notes that 33% of the population doesn't mind skunky aroma, some even enjoy it. How do we build better beer drinkers without undermining the casual, approachable beer ethos? Sending back flawed products and avoiding low quality brews; that smacks of the snobbery beer drinkers decry and mock in the wine world. But if we want the market to support the best beers we need to teach people how to identity what that is.

To end on a positive note: for every brewery that closed last year, 10 more opened. And there are over 1200 more in the planning stages. So we will see many more opportunities to drink, learn and teach in the coming years!

Filed under: [beer]

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