Craft Beer is Dying?!

Hi. My name is TrimTab. And I am a brewer that rotationally brews hazy IPAs, fruited sours, and adjunct-driven stouts. And I’m not sorry. And I’m not going to quit. We’re here. We’re hazy. Get used to it.

 

No, it’s not “hype”. No, it’s not follow-the-herd mentality. No, it’s not anything that relates to the hyperbolic bullshit currently circulating that “Craft Beer is Dying” https://growlermag.com/opinion-why-craft-beer-is-dying/ because of the advent of beers like this. Craft beer is not dying. Not in the slightest. Craft beer is evolving – both in styles and the economics of our industry. And it has been since craft beer began.


Evolution is painful. Evolution involves death for many. But evolution keeps endlessly pushing and perfecting us all into a better version of our collective selves. Unfortunately for some, the “evolve or die” ethos gets lost in ego, nostalgia, or unwillingness to accept that we ain’t in the 90’s anymore. 


The contradictory, pretentious point gets thrown around that the brewing industry is both more innovative than ever, yet at the same time the whole industry is a dumpster fire doomed for destruction because some breweries are putting out a large number of beers that fall into a few select categories (hazy IPAs, fruited sours, and adjunct stouts to be specific). Xanadu is crumbling under the menace of haze, pastry, and fruit! Frequent, well-promoted releases are destroying the Flagship! Marshmallows in beer are degrading our dignity! TRIGGER TRIGGER TRIGGER! 


Here’s a laughably simplified history of how we got to this dystopia.  


In the beginning it was 1980, and there was nothing. Nothing but insipid macro lager. And then the Craft Beer Gods said “Let there be Ken Grossman.” And Ken Grossman was good. Craft beer was a baby, but hot-damn it was alive! However, if you tried to make beer that was more innovative than involving cascade hops you were fucked. Then, over a couple of decades, craft beer stepped out of the primordial ooze and began achieving scale. It was like an eccentric, boozy uncle that shows up to family holidays that no-one really understands, most partially distrust, yet everyone can’t look away from. Chances are if you told someone you were in the craft beer industry up until 2010 they would patronizingly respond with a “good luck with that!” or “good for you!”


It used to be that in order to be relevant in the craft beer world you had to simply exist. Depending on the region and year, if you opened your doors, a sufficient number of people would come by to see the circus. “Have an amber on draft? Hell yea! What’s an amber again?” However, the vast majority of what you saw was a pretty easy paint by numbers, cookie-cutter portfolio of blonde, amber, porter, and pale. It was the kids-menu version of a modern day craft beer bar’s inventory. And that’s said with COMPLETE due respect to the pioneers of those early days of American craft beer. But the fact remains that the focus was less on the birth of a style or creative use of ingredients rather than solid execution of historical styles. Those were the good old days for the “you-kids-get-off-my-lawn” crowd. Beer was beer. 


Over the years the veil was pierced and a critical mass of people came to know, love, and talk – a lot – about the hot new girls that just moved into town over the summer. Hops, barrel aging, mixed fermentation were like some sort of lustful new drug that took the streets by storm. Eventually craft beer became a household name and the tipping point occurred in terms of public acceptance. Since 2010 these United States have been on a hair-on-fire bullet train trajectory of growth. Enter the era of IPA sub-styles arriving like a kaleidoscope. Enter the era of 20x earnings acquisitions. Enter the era of blindly writing checks to add tens of millions of dollars of extra capacity and additional facilities. The craft beer party reached Caligula-level proportions. 


Along the way, the next criterion was developed for a brewer to get a seat at the adult table – you had to brew world class beer. As people’s palates improved, standards elevated. If people had been burned by buying sub-par and/or out of date beer, they would move on to other, more reliable brands. That was the cautionary tale of the 90’s – the only time of beer retraction since prohibition. The 90’s collapsed on itself when a surge of bullshit breweries were opening up, peddling bullshit beer, and eventually everyone said, well, “bullshit” and stopped buying. So, step one, make quality product. Everyone can get behind that right?


Then enter the era of local. Craft beer has always been the darling of local communities, but as the years have rolled on things have shifted seismically towards a local focus post-2010.  Brewers began the decade with a rubber stamp of approval. Core beer was THE beer. Either that, or you had to be local. And for a time, especially in new craft beer markets, local could even allow breweries to survive, even thrive, by having beer that was admittedly below standards. Thankfully that has changed, and now local breweries are held (and should hold themselves) to the highest standards possible, and now the brewery down the street not only has fresh, but also potentially world-class beer. Hip-hip-hurray for the home team – as it should be – and as a result the number of brewery openings have skyrocketed with no sign of slowing.  Everyone can get behind that right? 


Well yes and no. Hell yes if you’re a new, local brewery. Not so much if you’re a small-to-mid sized regionally distributed brewer or even a national player that relies on the flagship distribution model. The proverbial wagons have circled and now it’s a lot tougher to maintain traction in a market where the customers get direct contact with their favorite local brewers. But regardless, everyone can at least agree that it's progress seeing so many new small businesses start up. It’s the damn American Dream. 


Next, enter the era of taprooms. This ties in with the local phenomenon. As state legislatures collectively loosened their restrictions on local brewers, in the vast majority of states you can now not only tour your nearby breweries, but you can also enjoy their beers on site in a bar-like setting. It’s like a manufacturing plant and the show Cheers made a baby. Taprooms proliferated and became so much more than bars – they became the ultimate third space and community center. And they also became a critical source of revenue for all breweries, especially ones in the early years. It even became a revolutionary new business model, with some breweries choosing to only sell their beer within their four walls.


This led not only to profitability at lower volumes, but also provided the canvas to explore an infinite number of beers without the weight and pressure of putting a beer through distribution. The old model was three cores and four seasonals a year. The taproom model provided freedom. We are poised to put out over a hundred different beers this year. 

Everyone can get behind that right? 


Not so much depending on who you ask. For small, emerging brewers, taprooms were a critical tool, and for craft beer drinkers this provided a direct line to the minds of their local brewers. For all others in the three tier system, the tension starts to rise because of how much this disrupts the apple cart. Thankfully, as taprooms established themselves the nefarious nature of them has dissipated. We believe that our taproom helps drive interest for our beers at other retailers and we have only seen distribution increase as our brand has grown inside our four walls. It’s not a zero sum game. If anything, our taproom has boosted craft beer sales at retailers by fully engaging people into the full creative potential our brewery has to offer. Then things start to accelerate. Rapidly.


Next era – in-house packaged releases. This changed things further, with breweries not only having the opportunity to pump out a large variety of beers, but to also offer brewery-exclusive packaged releases. Sounds logical enough of a progression, but for many this might as well be a different dimension from where craft beer began. This involves small batches and disproportionately larger labor to produce beers that look and feel as if they were nationally distributed. While this creates more variety for consumers, it also drives up costs for breweries – which means higher prices on the shelf.  Marketing becomes much more important in this model. The risk of introducing new recipes dramatically increases. And along the way, craft beer consumers have almost become conditioned to expect “what’s next?” rather than loyalism to any one beer. Enter Untappd. 


Everyone can get behind that right? That’s where many get off the train. For many breweries, that is a cost they aren’t willing to spend. Throwing the rule book out and saying “fuck it, why not” to any and all ingredients? Let the hysteria set in.


This is where the line in the sand gets drawn. This version of craft beer looks nothing like where it started. And the pushback can be understandable. If you want to be a set-it-and-forget it brewery, this landscape sucks. It’s a challenging distribution model, and retailers are swimming with new arrivals – it can be overwhelming at times. And for Homers everywhere that just want things to go back to the good ole days and think that drinking a fruited beer is somehow emasculating, this might as well be the end of times for beer. 

It’s all relative I suppose. Definitions and perspectives about what craft beer should and should not be are bound to differ depending on who you ask. But if you ask me, the notion of “craft beer is dying” is really more a symptom of those that want the craft beer industry to be an image of itself that it has grown beyond. I think a better phrase would be “the rules that defined the craft beer industry up until this point are dying.” 


Yes, you can now brew with marshmallow fluff and keep a straight face – because its fermentable and delicious. Yes, you can explore hops in a non-brilliantly clear way with confidence – because suspended hop matter uniquely expresses all of its qualities. Yes, you can put out a new beer, in package, every week and people will maintain interest – because it’s what they fucking want. 


Can you expect your beers to stay relevant as a brewery if you don’t put out new, awesome, innovative beers on a pretty consistent basis? Can you solely rely on distribution as a new brewery? Can you sustain your volume and people’s interest through a few, core beers? Maybe so… but probably not. 


The social experiment of American craft beer has been a history of progressive innovation, not retraction. Honestly the rabble of people bitching about the demise of craft beer sounds more insular and insecure than an honest critique. Some of the banter almost borderlines on middle-school clique-ery – casting shade on people they don’t understand but secretly admire. 


It’s like they say, there are three cycles of success with an innovative idea. 


In the first cycle people ridicule you. 


In the second cycle people hate you. 


In the third cycle people view the idea as self-evident. 


I believe that we are in the second cycle. 


And that is what I believe is the most unproductive thing about this dialogue – the language being used to describe breweries that follow our business model. The term “hype” is thrown around, denigrating breweries that specialize in the styles we love as “trendy”, “unoriginal”, or hilariously ironic – “typical”. On the one hand it is said that we are innovating just for the sake of doing so, and at the same time that we are unoriginal? First of all, that doesn’t make sense. Second of all, asking for people to dial back innovation is pretty much as close to sounding like an old angry neighbor asking you to “turn it down” as you can get. 


Originality in beer is increasingly being construed as synonymous with producing a diversity of styles. No, we don’t explore the full spectrum of the BJCP style guide. We brew the beers we love to make, and the beers we love to drink. It just so happens that the majority of those beers fall into a few categories, people are excited about them, and we are perfectly ok with that. 


Call it hype. Call it whatever you want. But the bottom line is our whole company wakes up every day and brews these beers because it’s what we are passionate about. If another brewery wants to specialize in traditional German, Belgian, or whatever style they choose we applaud that as well. All that matters is that any brewery deeply cares about the beers they make, follows their own singular creative voice, and that the final product is globally competitive. If we lose that as an industry, only then will I agree that “craft beer is dying”.

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2721 5th Ave S, Birmingham, Alabama  35233 

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