Got Beer? Don’t Burst My Bubble

These are some difficult times. We’ve seen a number of our favorite craft beer spots, some of which have endured for decades, slip away before our very eyes. Costs keep going up, and the less said about tax issues the better. Insurance is getting hefty, and attracting the right crowd to continue business is a lot trickier than it was even five years ago.

So is it happening? Is the craft beer bubble bursting?

I didn’t want to admit it. For the longest time I held fast to the belief that the industry could remain strong and independent, and endure with that renegade spirit that began the movement. Perhaps it still will, but it’s going to be a rough ride.

The next few years are going to be difficult. Brewers and bar owners who are on shaky ground already may not make it through.

A few years ago, this was considered the craft beer boom, but then at some point, it became a “bubble.” That worried me more than anything else, as if a sort of self-fulfilling prophecy was being built in the minds of the craft beer industry everywhere.

It doesn’t help that a six-pack of decent craft beer now costs from $10 to $12 where once upon a time, not too long ago, it was $8 to $9. Nor does it help that the industry is hitting a saturation point, flooding the market with a deluge of new brands, all done with a creative spirit and twist, which results in a dizzying array of choices. It’s what we all dreamed of 15 years ago, but now that dream may be turning into a nightmare.

I’ve written before about hop palate fatigue, but we’re still seeing big, bold, IPAs dominating the shelves. In fact, it’s now considered standard practice to have a signature IPA in one’s lineup. This is all well and good, but many of the other styles are falling away into distant niche markets. Unless a beer has a very extreme flavor, like a sour, a massive dry-hopped monster IPA, a coffee-stout concoction, a spice beer, a chili-pepper-infused beer, etc., it tends not to garner much attention. This is as much a marketing problem as it is a sales and competition problem. The true beer geeks will overlook humble golden ales or reds and turn right to the extreme beer machinations of mad brewers infusing white ales with sesame seeds and aging them in Pinot Grigio barrels. I love experimentation, but the exception has become the rule.

The entire appeal of craft beer is experimentation, uniqueness and adventure. But now, even chili stouts and smoked sours have become the dominant figures in the field. How does one even make room for a simple brown ale in all of that? How do you make a nice, inexpensive craft beer and get people to actually buy it?

And what if everyone suddenly did it? We’d over-saturate in the other direction, and the interesting, experimental stuff would be the rarity again. Rarity creates value, and the pendulum would just swing back again.

Maybe we need to re-frame this. Instead of this being a bubble, maybe we need to look at it as the ceiling. Maybe we need to slow down before we all bang our heads. If there’s an upper limit, maybe we should all back down a little, re-think what we’re doing. This movement began because a bunch of rebel brewers wanted something better. Well, we have a lot of somethings that are better. So how about focusing on our strengths? Some breweries do IPAs really well. Others are better at malty brews. Some do the weird stuff with brilliance, and others are masters of Belgian styles.

I say, go with your strength. Push the limits of what you’re good at, not by adding more hops, but by refining the process, technique and skills that got you here. And above all else, stay humble, stay strong and good luck.

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