Let’s Talk Doom, Gloom and Craft Beer Bubbles

popping bubble

In an industry with such monumental growth in recent years, it’s no wonder people are asking all sorts of questions these days. Interest for beer is at an all-time high, which means curiosity among enthusiasts is right there to match.

Lately, however, if people aren’t asking “what’s the next IPA?” it’s been something along the lines of “when do you think this bubble will burst?” The fate of beer is a popular armchair quarterback activity, often based on ideas of vanity stats like the number of breweries in the country instead of where things stand culturally and economically.

In 2011, there was fear of a bursting bubble because 2010 offered record growth for craft beer. Then again in 2012. And 2013. Of course in 2014. Definitely in 2015. And the song plays on.

Sometimes I feel this discussion is almost as ubiquitous as putting beer into cans.

At the core of each of those news stories – and most conversations I’ve had on the topic – is that people see the fast growth in overall number of US breweries, try to translate what that number means to them personally and assign a judgment based on their expectations and experiences, assuming things must be heading in a bad direction.

But what if Sam Calagione’s “bloodbath” of fallen craft brewers isn’t coming? That was a prediction made two years ago, after all.

Instead, what we’ve seen over the last five years is an influx of smartly created businesses increasing sales and prices – all the while met by demand.

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You Can Listen to Me Talk About Beer, Too

radio microphone

I’ve been pretty busy lately with summer vacations and freelance writing, but last week was a busy one, with several opportunities to talk beer with some great people. You may read my writing on this site in your own voice, but now you get to hear mine!

A few appearances you can listen to on your podcast player of choice:

  • The Beer Temple Insiders Roundtable – Talking a variety of topics, from Ballast Point leadership, BrewDog and more.
  • Operation Shutdown – I acted as “special guest” to talk about my recent post on media coverage of cans and why we can stop talking about it now.
  • Tales from the Cask – For some reason, the podcast crew let me help judge a homebrew competition. You can listen to that episode here and, as luck would have it, I also came on the show two weeks prior to try some Lost Abbey beers and share a couple stories from my recent trip to Italy and Belgium.

Back to the writing grind soon, but give these shows a listen for extra insight into what’s been driving some of my thoughts and writing lately. I welcome chances to chat beer, so if you want to get in touch, check out my contact page to drop me a line.

Bryan Roth
“Don’t drink to get drunk. Drink to enjoy life.” — Jack Kerouac

New England IPA and Creating Beer Culture

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The more I read and write about the beer industry, the stronger I feel that American beer culture should often be seen through hop-tinted glasses. The IPA, a defining American style, is “almost like an adjective for American brewing,” as recently pointed out by Jeff Alworth.

Everywhere you turn, IPA is having some sort of impact on consumer buying decisions, brewery production choices and the fate of some of our beloved, heritage brands. Jeff and I are on the same wavelength: hops have done incredible things for the American beer industry and through this prism, evolution and innovation continues to happen. American ingenuity pairs well with America’s favorite craft beer.

Which is all part of the reason why I’ve been watching with great interest the most recent development of the Northeast/New England IPA. There have been many stages of growth from when Sierra Nevada and Russian River started the modern hop-forward movement to today, bringing us from bitingly bitter, malt-balanced, fruity and cloudy IPAs. But what we see now with the NE IPA is a giant venn diagram converging. Aspects of our brewing culture are coming together, showing maturation of the industry and its drinkers.

The NE IPA isn’t just a trend. It’s a part of the broader cultural implications of beer.

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This Is My Definitive and Only Post About Putting Beer in Cans

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Everyone is talking about cans. For years – really, years – writers covering the beer industry have written stories on a near monthly basis about this “hot, new trend” in craft beer: breweries putting beer into cans.

This is one of my biggest pet peeves and it shows no signs of stopping. I recognize that part of it, as Norman Miller points out, is that the very average person (Elderly? WAKA WAKA.) may still be curious about cans and not understand why companies use cans.

OK.

From my biased, curmudgeon, Old Man Yells At Cloud point of view, it’s time to move beyond stories highlighting when a brewery puts liquid into a can. This is not innovative, this is not new and after several years of this happening within the space of craft beer, it is no longer a trend. It is a norm. According to tracking by the Brewers Association, about 2 percent of craft beer volume was going into cans in 2011. It was up to 10 percent in 2014, an increase of about 2 million barrels of beer.

I don’t have specific numbers beyond that, but I imagine your anecdotal experience aligns with mine and we can safely assume the percentage is much higher halfway through 2016. According to craftcans.com, 550 different breweries can 2,162 beers today.

Putting craft beer into a can is no longer a news story. It’s a press release.

So what the hell is there to actually write about cans? Beats the hell out of me, but guess I’ll try.

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Is It Time for the Beer Industry to Start Counting Calories?

jefferson beer quote

There’s a reoccurring conversation I’ve had in recent months, talking with with others about why people make the decision to drink craft beer.

The answers are plenty – taste, community, etc. – but one that typically doesn’t get a deep dive is a reflection on why “craft” matters both as a designation for the beer and the way people feel about it. Ever since the Great Recession, American consumers have reevaluated how they spend their money and on what, especially in terms of food and related goods.

First, people started caring more about where their food was coming from and how it was treated, which you can see from the dramatic rise of U.S. farmers markets over the last 20 years.

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That went hand-in-hand with changing attitudes about quality of foods. In the wake of the Great Recession, American households cut down spending on eating out, prepared more meals in-home and decreased daily calories, especially in terms of fat, saturated fat and cholesterol.

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So what does this have to do with beer? Even when money was tighter during the recession, craft beer still thrived. People felt a greater connection to a product that not only tasted different, but were OK with spending more on the perceived quality that came along with it. Beyond their wallets, drinkers also began giving greater consideration to what it meant when consuming craft beer in terms of ingredients and nutritional content.

Years after the recession ended, these attitudes continue to grow. People are paying more attention to what they put in their bodies and what that means for them in the immediate and long term. Naturally, now may be the time to start paying closer attention to how that plays out in terms of what our brains and waistlines want when it comes to beer.

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The Perfect Tap List as Determined by Beer Nerds

beer taps

Over on VinePair, writer Will Gordon recently shared an interesting game/exercise: creating “16 Perfect Taps” at the hypothetical bar of your dreams. It gained some traction among beer enthusiasts across social media as drinkers compiled their own lists picking out their favorite ales and lagers to take up each tap.

I thought an interesting twist might be to make the process a little more objective, from my point of view, by using the subjective ratings provided by beer lovers across the world.

Taking Will’s outline from his post, which breaks the tap list down into 16 categories, I sourced choices from four rating sites: RateBeer, Beer Advocate, BeerGraphs and Untappd. Each website offers its own proprietary ranking system, whether a formula devised by RateBeer and Beer Advocate or the “Beers Over Replacement” of BeerGraphs. Untappd, of course, has the bottle cap rating system.

Using that base, I picked the top-ranked beers from each site with the caveat that choices from RateBeer or BeerAdvocate needed to have at least 100 rankings. I have no interest in including a beer that is very highly rated, but has only been “checked in” a dozen times.

Let’s take a look at what we’ll be drinking…

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The Myths We Tell

plato-stories-quote

We love drama. We love emotion. We love stories.

Hardwired into our sociology, humans are drawn to the narrative arcs we create to highlight the challenges and successes – real or make believe. Storytelling is part of who we are:

…human beings are natural storytellers—that they can’t help telling stories, and that they turn things that aren’t really stories into stories because they like narratives so much. Everything—faith, science, love—needs a story for people to find it plausible. No story, no sale.

But how those stories are constructed is just as important as why they’re being told.

As the beer industry has matured in recent years and businesses work to separate themselves from each other, crafting a story and message that runs through an overall brand has become almost as important as crafting a good beer. People want something to connect to beyond their pint glass.

Through this same effort, however, those in the beer community have created broader stories that extend past individual businesses into the ethos of what beer – or, often, “craft beer” – is supposed to be about. Mostly, it creates a perpetual “us vs. them” scenario discussed among beer lovers who shower praise on The Small Guys, hate on The Big Boys and show anger or indifference to those caught in between.

Certainly, there are many facets to the political and business side of the industry that rightfully rile people up. But when we home in on these topics and put our blinders on, there are stories we have so easily accepted we fail to see the partial fallacy of a “black and white” scenario.

There is plenty of gray to go around.

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What We Mean When We Talk About the ‘Death’ of Flagship Beers

tombstone

Not once, but twice last week I read about a presumptive sweeping movement in the beer industry: the death of the flagship brand.

First, it was Chelsie over at Stouts and Stilettos, followed by Derek at Bear Flavored. Two different takes and perspectives on the cultural rejection of the notion that breweries, as a business, might have One Beer to Rule Them All.

Is there truth to this? Maybe a little, but no more than what we could glean from when Andy Crouch wrote about this same topic in 2012 :

So in the end of an era for some pioneer brands, where consumers appear ready to fully embrace their long-developing beer brand promiscuity, the first era of the flagship is over. The ultimate result of the evolving craft beer consumer’s fickle palate is the end of relations with these former beaus, only to be replaced with a new, younger and hipper string of beer relations.

Let’s for a moment assume we’ve spent the last four years witnessing the Death of the Flagship. The most important point we should talk about is addressing the audience for which “flagship” matters.

I am the 1 percent. If you’re reading this post, chances are you’re the 1 percent, too. We are the ultimate minority, the beer enthusiast who thrives on promiscuity and badges on Untappd. We want to learn about new beers from new breweries to fill our portfolio of experiences, often at the risk of ignoring heritage brands or simply buying beer in “bulk,” opting for single servings instead of six-packs.

There is nothing wrong with that. However, there is still 99 percent of the beer drinking public out there for which that behavior is not the norm.

Then again, this topic is wildly complicated. What we need to be asking, then, is what do the numbers show? Are flagships dying? Maybe, but not like you think.

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Zymurgy’s “Best Beers” List Loves Hops, Clings to Heritage Brands

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Death, taxes and Pliny the Elder being voted as Zymurgy’s “best beer” in America. All the things you can count on for the past eight years.

In fact, to see any change at the top of this list, you’d have to go all the way back to 2009, the last year the top-two beers *weren’t* Pliny (#1) and Bell’s Two Hearted (#2).

What makes the annual poll unique, however, is that it’s voted on by members of the American Homebrewers Association, not the public at-large from around the world, like Beer Advocate or RateBeer. On that point of information alone, you can surmise why Zymurgy’s list always includes unforgettable heritage brands made by the likes of Sierra Nevada and Dogfish Head. In just about any other scenario, beers made by these breweries are long past their expiration date of relevance to the Beer Nerds controlling review boards. Not so much on this year’s list – again.

BUT … the results are still similar in at least one way: these voters love their IPAs. More than 18,000 online votes cast with up to 20 allowed per voter picked the favorite commercial beers available for purchase in the United States.

Let’s see what’s trending.

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Let’s Build A Wall! U.S. Brewers Going After Mexican Import Market

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It’s getting hot out there. People are thinking beaches. Naturally, they’re thinking about beer, too.

With temperatures continuing to climb toward the summer months, what better time to “find your beach” then now? Fittingly, it’s a frame of mind successfully captured by Corona when it comes to pairing beer with an occasion. Of course, many of its peers are doing the same at a time when Americans are aiming to relax on some sand or in their backyard. As the mercury rises, so too have sales of Mexican beers.

Corona Extra, which has long been the top-selling imported beer, was joined by Modelo Especial last year to form a one-two punch at the top of import rankings. They’re not alone.

“For Mexican imports, it isn’t one brand that is driving growth, but rather nearly every brand within Mexican imports is growing either through distribution expansion, new marketing efforts and shifting consumer interest,” Danelle Kosmal, vice president of beverage alcohol practice for Nielsen, told Beverage Industry.

According to IRI data, Mexican imports represent 65.6 percent of the dollars spent on imported beer and 65.9 percent of the volume of imports brought to supermarkets and other stores in the U.S. In 2015, Mexican imports grew by 15 percent year-to-year in dollar volume. Slowly, those numbers continue to grow, too, buoyed by the country’s sizable Hispanic and Mexican population.

While sales of Mexican beers have chipped away at the market share of other foreign brands, it’s doing something of the opposite for U.S. brewers: It’s acting as inspiration.

Businesses are apparently thinking one way to make American beer great (again?) is by capturing some of this market.

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