The Proliferation of Breweries in America

By Fred Crudder, Industry Brew Expert

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Every year around this time there is a gathering of the American craft beer community called the Craft Brewers' Conference. This is no beer fest, although plenty of beer will undoubtedly be consumed. This is exactly what it says it is: a conference. The people attending just happen to make the best beers brewed in America, so naturally they are going to hoist a few. But during the day, it is all business. Industry stats, growth, threats, innovations, trends, best practices, etc. Like I said, it’s a conference. And it always starts with a “state of the industry” address, where we inevitably hear about the number of breweries thought to be in operation in the country at the time. But wait…thought to be? You mean they don’t know…?

Moving Target

The reason the Brewer’s Association cannot pin down the actual number of breweries in America is simple: so many are opening, or are in different stages of development, that by the time they calculate an accurate number, it has already changed. Add into the mix a closure or two, a re-categorization here and there, and you get the picture. Things are just happening too rapidly in the craft brewing world right now to say precisely how many breweries we have. The question of whether or not we should be celebrating this proliferation is a little more complex and the answers will most likely differ depending on a few keys issues.

Are You In Or Out?

If you are in the beer industry, the service industry, or any type of retail industry where quality beer is sold, you may not be excited about the proliferation of beers over the last few years. Who can keep up with it? No one. People whose lives are devoted to knowing everything they possibly can about beer can barely keep up. And some of those people are downright obsessive when it comes to beer. The people who just really love beer AND who immerse themselves in it daily have basically moved on and accepted that they can’t keep up. Then there are people who simply like beer and drink it as their go-to beverage the majority of the time. Those folks have been forced into a constant state of confusion every time they see a line of tap handles, a beer menu, or the cooler doors of a well-stocked beer store. They are being presented with so many new options at every turn that they need help, and a lot of it. So the people in “the industry” are now being expected to possess an encyclopedic knowledge of a subject that is in constant evolution. The minute you think you know what you’re talking about, it’s already changed on you. You can’t win. But is this how we really want the world of good beer to be...forever?

Can The People Be Trusted?

Ask “the people” how they feel about this constant barrage of variety. Is it a good thing? Do they love it? Should it stay this way? They’ll say yes, yes, and yes. Who doesn’t love variety, right? Who wants to see the same old stuff all the time? No one. But the people cannot be trusted. They only think about their short-term gratification. What they have created, in their insatiable appetite for variety, is a new set of criteria for what makes a beer good and what doesn’t. Is it new? That’s it. End of story. “Is it good?” has been replaced by, “Is it new?” Or more accurately, “Oooh, what is it?” The once familiar styles, which were not only acceptable, but at one time groundbreaking, have suddenly become passé. Failed experiments are being rebranded as “cutting edge” brews. I am not proposing that we turn off the flow of innovation, not by any stretch of the imagination. But maybe it’s time to at least pump the brakes a bit.

A Victimless Crime?

But these are adults, so let them spend their money how they choose, right? No harm, no foul as they say. But are there really no victims here? As people continually chase what’s new, they are leaving behind beers that were perfectly fine in the first place. Therefore, finding some of those beers is getting increasingly harder and harder. In their places are inferior products, products that by their merits alone wouldn’t have a place on that shelf or that beer menu. But by simply being new they have some sort of cache that catapults them ahead of beers that, if weighed on flavor alone, are far superior. The victims here are people who know what good beer tastes like but are having a harder and harder time finding it. More criminal than that is what this trend has done to perfectly good brewers. In the interest of keeping pace, some of these brewers have started turning out abominable train wrecks of flavor in order to stay “relevant”. While world-class recipes founder towards obscurity, talented brewers are being forced to compete with less skilled or experienced practitioners of the art. So no, it is not a victimless crime. All beer lovers are the victims. Many beer lovers are not only the victims here, but are also the perpetrators of the crimes of which they themselves are victims. Their own behavior is both rewarding and punishing them at different intervals.  

So Now What?

In all fairness, some of this ceaseless innovation has produced great results. It hasn’t all been varying shades of bad. In fact, the American craft brewing industry is now inspiring the rest of the world’s brewers and not just in countries with emerging beer scenes of their own. Countries with the richest histories of brewing are also taking cues from good old American ingenuity, and in most cases, this influence is less than ten years old. If we were not doing some amazing things with regards to innovation, none of that would be happening. So how do we maintain this creativity while still preserving the classics? Great question. It all starts with consumer behavior. What you do with your money dictates what breweries do with their beers. Stop taking chances with your dollars...so often. Go ahead and stretch out from time to time. Try something new and wacky when you feel like it, but go back to what you know and love. Think about tried and true beers as ”quality assured,” or more importantly, “satisfaction guaranteed.” Stop spending so much time pretending to like the beer you bought and spend more time drinking the beer that you love.