Craft Beer Sales Are at an All-Time High
Dave Edgar, when he was with the Association of Brewers (now the Brewers Association) always included this shout out to the industry in his annual state of the industry address at the Craft Brewers Conference. It’s been a true statement every year since I’ve been a brewer, and quite probably every year since craft brewing got its start.
As we experience yet another great year in craft brewing, with record growth and a record number of brewery openings, I see many good things happening and several things that concern me as a brewer and as a long time fan of craft beer. So here are my thoughts on what I like about where craft beer is heading, and next time, I’ll talk a bit about what concerns me.
The good things:
1. It’s becoming harder to find a bar or restaurant that doesn’t serve craft beer than a bar that does. This is a great development, as even mainstream chain restaurants now often offer at least one good (and often local) craft beer in their draft lineup. This transition has been a long time coming, and I love it. I no longer have to focus on beer selection as criteria for choosing a restaurant! Unfortunately there are still exceptions. Many ethnic restaurants, Mexican, Indian, Thai, Chinese restaurants still need to learn and recognize that hoppy craft beer pairs wonderfully with their food.
2. There are some really great innovations happening. A lot of this stems from craft brewing’s relationship with the culinary arts. Many brewers I know also are good chefs, and with that skill comes a willingness to experiment with exotic and non-traditional ingredients. In addition, hop breeding programs are really taking off and this is fueling the brewing of many new hoppy beers with exciting new hop varieties.
3. The hop industry is really starting to “get it”. Hop growers and hop suppliers are realizing that the future for their business will revolve heavily around craft brewing. Here’s a great example of why: Craft brewers are using an average of over 1 pound of hops per barrel brewed, almost 5 times what the large brewers use per barrel. If craft brewing continues its growth, and hits 20% of the beer market, craft brewing will be using more hops annually than large industrial brewers.
For many years craft brewers were left with the leftover hops, the “too intense” hop varieties that big brewers didn’t want. Big brewers funded most of the hop research and variety development programs, and because of that, most of the research was focused on low alpha, mildly aromatic hops to use in place of European noble varieties and varieties like Willamette. Over the past 10 years, I’ve seen an amazing change here. Craft brewers have jumped in with both feet. Craft brewers are now funding hop breeding programs and research. Craft brewers have hired ingredient experts who were laid off from Anheuser-Busch-Inbev, and that has accelerated the involvement. Membership in organizations like The Hop Research Council and The Hop Quality Group is growing, craft brewers have their own hop varietal research programs, are sponsoring experimental fields and doing other things to develop close relationships with hop growers. More brewers now travel to Yakima WA to do hop selection than ever before-to the point where you can’t get a hotel room unless you book several months in advance.
4. The scenes outside of the United States and Canada, particularly Australia, New Zealand, Italy and the UK, are exploding. The UK, despite having a somewhat stodgy beer scene, has some great craft brewers, and the larger English brewers (at least the Brewmasters that work for them) are excited by what’s happening in the United States. And many other countries are just about to get it too. On my last trip to Berlin, I had some delicious locally brewed craft beer, and I think that town is ready to explode. I am seeing craft beer in Poland, in France, and many other countries. The international market may be the future for American craft beer.
5. The taste room concept is working as a business model for many small breweries. This reduces the need to rely on distribution, and eliminates the food side of the business, which, unless you are a passionate restaurateur, is a pain in the ass. In the San Diego area, what I’m seeing is that the local breweries are becoming the town’s pubs, gathering spots for people who like to hang out together and enjoy beers. I know from my own standpoint, I really enjoy going out on a Saturday or Sunday afternoon and visiting a few of the great local breweries we have here in Temecula. And I always see people I know…pretty cool.
6. Brewers are still willing to help each other out, whether it be loaning hops or malt, yeast, hosting tours, sharing how they brew, how they analyze their beers, how the operate their equipment, or help in any other way. There still is a very good level of camaraderie in this business that is one of the things that make it so magical. I hope that never goes away.
Originally published September 7, 2015