I've got two things to say about this, and I'll save the important one for last. But first, this quote bothered me:
“What the industry is afraid of is low quality, and that will taint the quality of craft beer overall,” says Jeff Schrag, owner of Mother’s Brewing, a regional microbrewery that opened in 2011 in Springfield, Mo. “But I don’t know,” he adds, looking thoughtful. “There’s a lot of beer now that’s tainting the image of craft beer.”Really? "a lot"? I am coming across more poorly-made beers than I have in quite a while -- after running into them all-too-often in the mid-1990s -- but it's still a very small amount, a small percentage compared to what I was getting back then (and I have to lay some of them off -- still -- to bad tap maintenance at bars, though that's better also). So I'm wondering if what we're talking about here is more about "beer that doesn't live up to the wild expectations of alpha beer geeks." Big difference.
I'm thinking about that a lot, especially after a tweetstream I was involved in yesterday about the definition of "craft beer." At one point, people started talking about "gateway" beers, because we were talking about Blue Moon, and I had said that no matter whether you thought it was "craft" or "crafty" (the Brewers Association's cute term for beers that come from breweries they don't like), it was introducing a LOT of people to the wider world of beer, and they often went on to other crafts from there. So, said one person, it's a gateway beer.
I have a problem with that term. Are all witbiers gateway beers? And American wheat, and hellesbier, and blonde ale, and kölsch, and pilsner, and (insert the beer you think isn't as good as IPA or imperial stout or Belgian strong or sour ale here), and -- of course -- Fat Tire and Boston Lager, are they all just gateway beers? If you say it that way, "Oh, they're gateway beers," aren't you essentially saying that they don't measure up?
We're getting too wrapped up in this whole what is/what isn't thing. Step back. Stop telling people that the beer they're drinking is the wrong beer, stop insisting that they drink what you want them to drink. That's the same shit you all got pissed off about when the big brewers did it. When I was a IT buyer for a pharmaceutical 20 years ago, if a supplier started bad-mouthing another vendor, I showed them the door. Tell me about your products. Don't shit on the other guy's. Let's stay focused on the positive.
Now, the second thing... "Will it fall?" Yes, most definitely. Allow me to explain, though it should be obvious. Back in April, I visited the Glenlivet distillery, and walked around it with their "Guardian of Malt," the wonderfully affable Ian Logan. We talked about the boom in Scotch whisky.
"The last downturn was in the mid-1980s," he said. "[Glenlivet's parent company] Chivas just kept turning out spirit, right through the downturn, and now Glenlivet is set with ample supplies of aged whisky." Unlike most of their competitors, he was too kind to add.
"It will turn down again," he then added, matter-of-factly. "It always does. These things are all cyclical, and there are limiting factors on how big it can get." We talked about those limiting factors, but they're really whisky-oriented, and not relevant here...except for capital. Capital is always a limiting factor; how much money can you borrow, at what rate? Capital's been relatively cheap for quite a while, and that's starting to change.
But take it from an industry that has a much longer perspective on this than craft brewing; yes, craft brewing will eventually take a downturn. It's inevitable. Light beer did, and as recently as 2003, that still looked unstoppable. Vodka will. No, really, it will, eventually. And so will craft beer. Now, it may take ten years, it may take twenty, and some brewers will be hit harder than others, but...it will happen. Tastes change, perceptions change, economies change.
Should you plan for it? As a drinker, certainly not. We older farts survived years in a craft beer wasteland; we can teach you the skills you'll need when it happens. But don't live that way now! As Crocodile Dundee said of desert fare; "You can live on it, but it tastes like shit." Live for the moment!
Should brewers, bars, wholesalers plan for it? Well, some. Think harder about expansion plans, and debt in general. But...we had plenty of warning signs the last time around. Keep your ears and eyes open, and take off the rose-colored glasses. This will not last forever...but it may easily last through your next expansion cycle. Pay attention, and you should be okay.
And remember: when I say "fall," I'm talking about retrenchment, a dip, not a disappearance. The few-and-far-between days of breweries we knew back in the 80s and early 90s? That's not going to happen again in our lifetimes.
But yeah. It will fall. Breweries will close. People will drink something else. YOU might even drink something else, hard as that is to believe now. 15% growth just can't go on forever. Happens to everything.