Do you ever find yourself wandering into a new brewery that just opened up in your neighborhood and leaving really unimpressed? It’s a weird topic because craft beer really is an industry that is booming. In the past two months there have been 2 new breweries that have opened up in my local area and there are 3 more are slated to open within a handful of months. I should be thrilled about this, at this rate we’ll be in a beer mecha and topple the dominating hand that Starbucks and chain bars like Buffalo Wild Wings have on local areas replacing them with hand crafted beers for all to enjoy. Here’s the problem that I’m noticing, with the influx of new local craft beer popping up I’m noticing a disappointing trend of unacceptably generic beer. Generic IPA, stout, pale ale, and usually a blonde or lager to appeal to those who are not “hardcore beer nerds”. Taking it a step further a lot of these breweries really come off like they all took their beer recipes from the same generic brew recipe book and just slapped a name on it that matches the theme of their decor. Hmmm, cowboy themed decor….. call it “Hondo’s Favorite IPA!” Great! let’s turn one of the best things about craft beer, the local brewery, into a bastardized version of Applebees! What could possibly go wrong?
If you look at most sites top 10 beer lists they are dominated by IPA’s and Stouts. What does that mean? If you’re going to open a brewery you better have and IPA and a Stout on tap because people are going to look for them. Like most craft beer enthusiasts I too love a good stout or a good IPA, but it really isn’t hard to find fantastic representations of either style. So if I wander into your brewery and the IPA you serve me is not only uninspired and dull, but it also tastes suspiciously like the uninspired and dull IPA I tried a week ago at an equally unimpressive brewery well then we have a whole new problem. The independence represented by a well crafted beer is what makes the craft beer experience. Brewers that I truly respect treat each batch of every brew as a piece of art and that is demonstrated in the craftsmanship of their product. When I go to Witches Hat and order a Train Hopper yes I am ordering a single IPA, but that IPA is different and unique from every other IPA that I have had the joy of drinking.
That experience is what sets the beer apart, it’s memorable and desirable. It creates a palatable experience that captivates and draws the customer back in for another pint, or opens up the doors of enticing you to try a more experimental brew. When I try a flight of beer and I’m significantly more impressed with the mac and cheese than any beer I can’t help but feel let down. Food is great, but it should never be my main reason for visiting a brewery. There’s a brewery very close to home that I frequent to grab lunch or dinner all the time, their food is good and reasonably priced but is far from the reason that I keep coming back. It’s about the beer, and no they might not be a small version of Dogfish, truthfully they have pretty standard offerings like an IPA, Stout, Red Ale and so on. However what they brew is brewed very well. The staff can tell me what kind of hops they use in each beers without simply describing them as pellets. My point to this ongoing rant is that as a small brewery I think there’s two ways to fall in the “good” category. First be really good at what you do, you might not be setting out to reinvent the Belgian Quad, but everything you brew can be a legit beer that is satisfying regardless of when or who is ordering the beer. The second way is to be independently creative and have every beer you make demonstrate your passion for brewing. In other words make me think about the beer in my glass, add something to keep me guessing or debate in my own mind why I like or don’t like your beer.
So why is this happening? What has changed to bring all these new people into the beer industry that seemingly could care less about beer? I’m not 100% sure that the brewers of Budweiser really care about how good their beer is but I think it’s pretty clear that Budweiser is making something that most people want, money. We’ve talked about it ad nauseum, big breweries buying up smaller breweries that have carved out a name for themselves in an emerging market. Depending on the location of the brewery that a businessman might want to open I’ve heard of startups needing anywhere from $50k-$500k to open their own brewery. Even looking on the high end with the right credit score and business plan that number isn’t unobtainable. And if you ever venture into a new brewery in its first few weeks of operation it looks like the owners have hit gold. The places are packed, the brewery runs out of beers, there’s often an overwhelmed look on the face of the staff, and in some cases the staff looks confused when talking about the product that they’re serving. Then you come back a few weeks, maybe a month later, and the whole vibe is different, the staff settles into their job, flagship brews are back on tap and you get a better idea of what the brewery really is. More often than not you get one of two outcomes, a brewery that rebounds and starts to grow into their own style, or a micro brew pub that read Brewing Beer for Dummies and keeps cranking out substandard beer that doesn’t really stand out in any way from the handful of breweries starting up in every market without any heart and soul in the brew they putting out. So what does this mean for craft beer as an industry? Has artfully crafted beer moved into the position of anyone with a little bit of start up capital watering down a bar and hoping that someone will come in and cut you a check so that you don’t cut into Budweiser’s market share? Seems to me like opening up a brewery that can’t produce at least good quality beer is a detriment to the craft industry both in the short and long term. People are willing to shell out hard earned cash for craft beer because it gives a unique and different experience. If you’re new to craft beer and start paying $6-7 for a pint of bland and boring “ipa”, that somehow tastes exactly like the house pale ale, that happens to taste like the blonde ale, why would you come back?
What’s going to keep you from buying your next 30 pack of PBR? You can do bland and boring for a lot less of an investment than what you’re going to pour into a night at the local microbrewery. For people who have been into craft beer for a while the response is pretty different, you stop going to that brewery and when asked give your opinion. This isn’t to say that there are not many fabulous new startup breweries that are popping up all over the country. If you’re into beer you really should make it a point to try as many new breweries as you can. There will always be breweries that you think are fantastic and those that you can’t stand.
The term “good” is subjective, and my opinion of good will likely differ from yours on a fairly regular basis. On the flipside of that I think the term “bad” as it relates to beer is a bit more universal. If you look back through the timeline of posts on sommbeer there are plenty of beers that we have featured that I wasn’t a fan of, but that doesn’t make them bad beers. There’s a huge difference between a beer I don’t like and a beer that is poorly crafted. Jolly Pumpkin in Ann Arbor Michigan is a perfect example of beers that are crafted beautifully and are held in extremely high regard; however I’m not a fan of sour beers, thus I’m not a big fan of Jolly Pumpkin. This doesn’t mean they make a bad product, far from it, it’s just not for me. But you’ll never hear me say a negative word about their beer, I have too much respect for their beer and what it brings to the craft beverage industry. Boring brewing is a problem, and I’m not sure what the cure is to this problem, starting conversation about the subject seems like a good starting point because ignoring the issue and hoping that it simply goes away doesn’t seem all too likely.
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