The new year might be challenging for craft brewers. Recently, a few pundits have opined in various beer publications that the industry is heading for the same type of shakeout that occurred in the late 1990s. During that time, there was a quick spurt of growth in craft beer that ended in a collapse that was labeled a bursting of a bubble. Many entrepreneurs had jumped on the craft beer bandwagon expecting big and quick profits. Much of the beer produced was, candidly, not particularly good — and that, among other factors, led to the collapse. Today, most of the men and women leaping into brewing are passionate about craft beer and are in brewing for the love of beer (and their desire to make a living at it). Even though the quality of craft beer that is available today is extraordinary, the danger is real: We could be headed for an oversupply of excellent beer.
The market for craft beer is growing, but not nearly as fast as the supply of an incredible selection of beautiful beers. One of the laws of economics is that when supply exceeds demand there is a problem for producers. For generations, megabrewers have used effective and relentless advertising to increase the demand for their products and create brand loyalty, but craft brewers are financially unable to do this. Craft brewers by necessity rely on word of mouth and guerrilla marketing techniques such as festivals to reach potential customers — a slow process, indeed.
So will there be a shakeout? Unfortunately, I think so, because the number of craft brewers is increasing too quickly. The survivors will be the brewers (and their investors) who have the patience to tolerate slow growth and the capital to hold on during the lean times. Regrettably, these survivors may not be the best brewers. The most successful and widely distributed craft breweries today, such as Rogue, Brooklyn Brewing and Sierra Nevada, have been around for over 25 years. The new guys have a long road ahead of them.
For now, the overabundance of outstanding craft beer with its many choices is a boon for consumers. My concern is that many enthusiasts, while they do not have brand loyalty, tend to gravitate toward a particular style such as IPA and stay with it; the style becomes a comfort zone. I have noticed that many good beers languish on the shelves of local retailers because they are largely unknown in this area. For craft beer to prosper and the market to grow, enthusiasts must be willing to expand their beer horizons.
I have asked some local beer people for some suggestions on beers that are available in Columbia but are underappreciated. These suggestions are a good starting point to break out from your comfort zone in the new year:
Wes Patrick of Green’s Beverage Warehouse: Green Flash West Coast IPA
Doug Aylard of Vino Garage: Konig Pilsner
Tucker Turner of Morganelli’s: Jester King’s Mad Meg
Ashley Bower, organizer of the Columbia chapter of Girl’s Pint Out: Coast Brewing’s 32/50 Kolsch.
If you gravitate towards hoppy beers, then make an effort to explore the complex maltiness of beers such as Brooklyn or Samuel Adams Brown Ale. If you prefer malty beers, then try some of the more hoppy beers that still have a solid malt base, such as Harpoon IPA or Aviator Red.
To really get out of your comfort zone, select something new and different at your favorite bar or local retailer — be willing to take chances. Last week I did exactly this at the Vino Garage and found an interesting-looking beer called Colonel Blides Cask Ale from New Jersey’s Cricket Hill Brewery, a beer and brewery I had never heard of. This one is an English-style ESB and is a tasty discovery that I am glad I made. Cheers!