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Cheers to America’s Craft Brewers

What it’s all about
Oakes Weekly May 8, 2009      
Written by Oakes

Richmond, CANADA -

The 2009 Beer City USA results were posted today, based on an informal poll. It seems that the comments came fast and furious with respect to the accuracy of such a poll. Never mind that the notion of “Beer City USA” is hardly something that can be empirically tested anyway, people want to gripe about the methodology. Indeed, I have seen a lot of griping lately around the beer world. You’re a beer geek; you know the controversies. I won’t rehash them, nor throw my two cents into the ring. Here’s what I will say, however.

We are heading into American Craft Beer Week next week. It’s an industry promotion, yes, but there’s a message to be taken from it. The dynamics of the beer world are constantly shifting. Think of brewing history in the 20th century. We went from small breweries in every neighbourhood at the turn of the century to a model increasingly supportive of large-scale manufacture. This mirrored the trends in business in general, facilitated by the advent of easy long-distance transport, broad-scale access to refrigeration, and some savvy business people taking advantage of the fact that the key demand drivers were not, in fact, taste-related. Throw in a couple of world wars, some truly egregious legislative interferences (Prohibition, three-tiered system) and we found ourselves in an interesting position in the 70s and 80s. Small brewing was all but dead. European beer culture was fading out.

Enter the American brewer. While many early US microbrewers focused on re-creating their impressions of European beer styles, we saw even with Anchor in the 70s and 80s a desire to create truly American beer forms (in particular, Liberty Ale). Something really cool happened. People took notice and taste became a demand driver for craft beer. I remember what it was like when finding a flavorful beer was a victory. I’ve talked to beer geeks older than myself who remember when finding a Guinness or Lowenbrau Dark was a victory.

I see the bickering, the complaining and I just don’t get it. Where does this sense of entitlement come from? I remember when craft brewers felt entitled to undying praise just because they are small and local and not Anheuser Busch. That never washed with me and it still doesn’t. But neither does craft beer fans who complain every time a beer isn’t perfect. The principles of the universe don’t change. In the economy, fewer regulations mean higher volatility (such as the Great Depression). Likewise, in brewing the fewer constraints the brewer has the greater the expected volatility of outputs.

This creates a paradox. Politicians have to put up with this stuff, too. People love their free markets when everything’s going up. But the minute it doesn’t, they have a problem. But people don’t learn. If you want free markets, you must understand that you need to suck up some recessions every once in a while. It’s the same with beer. If you want great beer – truly wonderful beer – you must accept that there is inherent volatility. There is a lot of risk inherent in making truly great beer. It will fail once in a while.

Growing up in Vancouver I saw the opposite. Brewers don’t take a lot of risks there. You get some all right stuff, but you seldom see them hit really high notes as well. One small brewer up there makes some of the best, and worst, beers in the province. That’s an extreme example of the effects of risk-taking but it leads me to the point here.

American craft brewing is, by and large, about risk-taking. It’s about trying things that have never been tried before. This has lead to a few wonderful outcomes. First, it’s why there are 1500+ craft brewers in the US. Second, it’s why all the other New World beer nations – Japan, Italy, Denmark, etc – have adopted the American “risk-taking” model. The inherent nature of the industry in the US brings far more good than bad.

Being a beer lover is awesome right now. Beershine and I are about to spend the summer in Bamberg, taking it back old school. Back to a land where beers are 5% alcohol. Back to where “barrel-aged” means Schlenkerla on gravity from the wood. The American beer scene has no influence on Franconia’s village brewing scene. We have Old World and New World. The latter is entirely attributable to America’s innovative, risk-taking craft brewers. I think it’s bloody awesome that because of America’s craft brewers, you can go just about anywhere and find a killer beer. We haven’t been able to do that for 100 years. So I’m not going to sweat that I had a couple beers last night that didn’t float my boat. I’m going to toast the fact that I had a couple beers last night that rocked my world. Cheers to America’s craft brewers!



NYHarvey says:

Well written piece and a great point raised.

168 months ago
arjoseph says:

Word up. It's all good to be critical, as long as the general attitude of appreciation endures in the back ground. Tough love still needs to be love. Keep speaking truth, Josh.

168 months ago
Beershine says:

this is a good, positive message--thank you

168 months ago

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start quote American craft brewing is, by and large, about risk-taking. It’s about trying things that have never been tried before. end quote