The Firkin for July 2015

Usually, I have no shortage of rants to get me frothing at the mouth like Cujo or if I am feeling more upbeat, kudos to hand out.

But it has been a relatively quiet month. Yes, there was the Firestone Walker convergence with Duvel but as I thought would happen, the collective goodwill of those two companies pretty much doused any incipient interwebs displeasure.

That means I can take the time to dig into the numbers from the Brewer’s Association that recently arrived in my inbox.

Here are the Three Big Numbers:
1.6 million more barrels sold so far this year versus this point in 2014.
699 more breweries now than last year.
1,755 breweries in the planning stages.

Now let’s do some comparin’ and contrastin’. The 1.6 million barrel growth is impressive compared to the 2011 to 2012 and the 2012 to 2013 increases and is only .2 behind both of those jumps combined but it falls a distant second behind the 2013 to 2014 time frame which saw a huge 3.3 million bump with a gain of 502 new breweries.

That 1.6 number seems even paltrier because this was the biggest jump in the brewery count in the last five years. If the trend from last year had held, you would have expected barrels sold to go up from 3.3. Which tells us that the new 699 are/were producing at a much smaller pace. More Nano’s and garage projects in the mix? Or were there more larger facilities that came on-line last year compared to this year.

There were 1,929 breweries in planning which yielded the new 699. My simple math skills kick out a percentage of openings rate of 36% which if that holds means that at this time next year there should be another 631 breweries around putting the total well over 4K and triggering another round of bubble talk once it hits 4,000 mark. Even if the pace of new breweries is cut in half, it will still crawl over the 4,000 total by this time next year.

What does this all mean? It means more choices and more competition for tap handle space and it means that rotating taps aren’t going away soon. With that choice comes a corresponding duty to be more selective. Even my picky self has started running into not so good beer and I have to come out and say it. No more generic 2.5 star ratings on Untappd. It also means that publicans have to be honest too. If the new brewery isn’t up to snuff, they shouldn’t be on tap. If they are, it better be on discount. Which leads us to the brewers. I know it is financially horrible and damaging to the psyche to dump a bad beer. But I do not want to go to your brewery and hear that a beer was a failed experiment and won’t be brewed again. Morbid curiosity may get me to order it but it would be much better for the brewery and it’s possible long term customers to use it as an educational tool and give away tasters of it to say, compare and contrast to another beer.

Craft beer will continue to grow even if those three things do not happen. But that trajectory will not be fueled by the mediocre to bad beer makers. Nope. Remember that craft beer started as a REACTION to bland and flavorless corn water masquerading as beer. New brewers may not have to react to Bud-Miller-Coors, they may react against bad craft beer.


The Wall Street Journal interviewed Jim Koch of Sam Adams recently and this one question and answer really struck a chord.

WSJ: Could craft beer ever represent the biggest segment of the industry?

Mr. Koch: No. I hope not. Because that would mean we dumbed the beer down for volume, and I don’t ever want to see that. I used to say I make beer for 5% of beer drinkers. The reality has always been that 95% of beer drinkers don’t like my beer. Now, that number has probably gone down to 90%. Because most people drink beer for refreshment, and that’s fine. And that’s the domain of the big brewers and they’re great at that.

This is something that I have thought about occasionally. The less good beer other people drink the more there is for me. But if demand isn’t there then the beer isn’t. So I need craft beer to grow. But how much. If we are 5% of the overall market, is that enough? Is 10% too much?

I, unlike others, do not hate big companies just because they are big. Stone is large now as is Sierra Nevada and Boston Brewing. The beer can still be flavorful or not depending on how it is made.

What I think the industry needs are enough large micros that are on solid footing, financially, who can mentor younger start-ups but also distribute to and educate the non craft consumer.

I don’t think there is a magic number but we should keep pushing. The enlightened few shouldn’t hoard the good stuff.