Wednesday, January 29, 2014

America’s Beer Renaissance: Consumer Choice and Variety in the U.S. Beer Market

I was born in 1982. Only a few years before my glorious arrival there were a meager 44 breweries in the United States. Today, the red, white, and blue proudly boasts 2,722 breweries with an additional 1,744 in the planning stages to open in the future. That kind of growth is hard to fathom and has played a massive role in giving consumers something they were yearning for only 30 some odd years ago; consumers now have a choice.

The beer industries growth during my lifetime has been nothing short of amazing and while there is plenty of positive to focus on (that which I'm only overlooking for the purpose of this post), I wouldn't be me if I didn't take a moment to give my "yeah, but" on a topic that means so much to me. Yes, the beer industry is booming and growing at an incredible pace. Beer drinkers in America are happier than they've ever been, but I'm beginning to ask myself if it is time we start asking when is too much simply too much.

I'm not even talking about "the bubble" in this case. Economics aside, simply trying to choose a 6-pack is a serious undertaking nowadays. I walked into a store on a Friday not so long ago looking to pick out a 6-pack and a bomber for the weekend and it turned into quite the drawn out event. This particular store has a good selection of craft beer, but it's small pickings compared to some of the other booze distributing behemoths in the area. Heading into the store I didn't possess a plan in regards to the beers I would be selecting, but I figured I could freestyle myself into something good within five minutes. Instead, I circled the store like a lost puppy completely confused as to what I wanted. I was asked if I needed help at least three times, but I declined each time not having a clue which direction I wanted the sales clerk to pull me in. I've tried roughly 600 distinct beers in the last 3+ years. Yes, that's small time compared to some of the more intense beer chasers out there, but it's more than enough to have a good idea as to what I like. I read about beer every single day and obviously I write about our fermented friend. On top of all of that, I brew 6-8 times per year so you'd think a decision on beer wouldn't be so difficult.

But it was difficult and I think it's because there are already just way to many choices out there. And despite having over 2,700 breweries to turn to, so much of  it is essentially the same thing. IPA's pop up left and right, but how many of them actually need to find their way to the market? How many are truly adding something unique to the landscape? There are great IPA's out there and thank the hop gods for that, but for every exciting slam dunk of an IPA there are ten that come out that taste, look, and smell like every other run of the mill IPA already on the market. At $9 and up for a beer, it's too expensive for me to keep guessing what's going to be good and at that price I expect to get my dollars worth. I love that we all have a choice now, but I'm not looking forward to having even more beer to choose from knowing that far too many of those that await are beers that we don't need and will only contribute to an already difficult choice.

Let's take a look at Stone Brewing Co. Their brewery alone released 74 beers in 2013 and that's not including what they consider their standard offerings. That's simply too much. There's variety and choice and then there is new for the sake of making new. How many of these beers really added something truly different from beers they already produce? A handful, maybe? So, who not focus on perfecting those beers and taking them to the next level. Flooding the market with something every time a new hop finds its way to your brewery isn't innovative. I wouldn't expect a restaurant to put out 74 different variations of a hamburger in a year just because they like having fun with different types of salt and pepper. On the same token, I don't feel the need for breweries to release endless variations of generally the same beer just because they want to use new hops or ship out 3 different versions of the same beer with one minor tweak. The NEW NEW NEW angle is simply a marketing ploy used to take advantage of the craft beer communities obsession with always going for the next new thing. Other breweries see the success brewers have spitting out beer after beer and before you know it they feel like they need to start throwing out infinite seasonals and one-off's to keep people's attention. Instead of having a shelves full of well thought out perfected over time beers we have shelves filled to the brim with beers offering the same basic thing someone else already did all in the effort to keep up and keep beer enthusiasts interested. The whole "limited release" thing is much the same. As consumers, we wanted choice and now we've got it.  Now it's time we start showing how choosy we can be. Do we need a billion pumpkin beers? IPA's? Imperial fill in the blanks? No. What we need from craft beer is to really put the craft in craft and as consumers it's our job to demand that of our breweries.

From a business perspective, I don't fault anyone for making decisions based on what they know will sale. Stone or any other brewery should do what they know will bring the green in. What I hope for is that we get to a point as a beer drinking community where we begin to become much more discerning about the beers we select, choosing beers based on merit and quality. I want my beer to be the sole speaker as to it's quality, not the fact that a brewery threw a new hop into the boil the second it got its hands on something new.

We're to the point now that on average a person lives within 10 miles of a brewery. Taking into consideration the continued growth of the industry mentioned up top, you've got to imagine the miles to brewery number will only continue to lessen. It's great that there is so much out there for all of us to enjoy and that it doesn't require a 4 hour journey to acquire the beer we want, but how many of these newer breweries are necessary? How many are going to produce offerings that make them stand out from the crowd? We need to start looking to the best option and not the newest or most rare. We need beers and breweries that are at the top of their game so that trips to the beer shop don't turn into tossups when it comes to picking out a new beer. It's not enough for a brewery to simply produce a beer that's better than the can of Bud our Dad's grew up on. We're past that point. Now's the time to expect more of our existing craft breweries and realize that more breweries is the wrong talking point to consider when we're discussing what is a healthy beer market in the USA. Despite what the cute 5 year old girl from the AT&T commercials thinks, more is not always better and I'd like to think the beer community is a little more evolved than the group featured below.

Thirty-five years ago, I think it's fair to say that the USA was a beer wasteland. Overall, we had a whole lot of nothing on offer. Thankfully, those days are behind us and we now have plenty to choose from. But let's not allow our enthusiasm blind us to the fact going from one extreme to the other could be just as damaging. We wanted a choice and today we have that. Check that one off. Goal Complete. But now that we have a choice, let's move on to bigger and better things. Let's look at the beer we have and stop worrying about the beer we don't have or the beer that's next. What are we doing good? Where can we do better? What's going to separate USA craft beer from the rest of the world? Is it going to be the fact that we have a variety of the best beer on offer anywhere in the world? Or is it going to be the fact that our shelves have evolved from  a handful of choices to one where our shelves resemble a well organized flea market and we're spending 90% of our trip at the beer store clawing through mediocrity hoping to find that one gem? I think you know where I want to go, and I hope you're with me.


  1. Very good article and well thought out! I am in the same boat as you on with the abundance of choices when entering a beer store. There is limited shelf space for beer and not every beer is good. Though, I don't see the point to always get the most profound beer to your palate or the most rare. it is palate over-load and a decent beer is what I am looking for most of the time (though there is times that I want to be blown away, I think that being blown away every time would lead to everything being the exact same). If we are just wanting the majority of the good beer out there, it lessens diversity and competition and all the sudden we are back to beer desert, where the large breweries rule the market.

    I am on the thought of buying locally. Every once in the while I'll go for something that is out of my state of Michigan or out of the country, but that is few and far between. I also brew for a brewery and the majority of the beer that I drink are in breweries at a 25 mile radius of where I live. I tend to drive to breweries every weekend also that are farther away. It has became a hobby of mine.

    I am also on the thought that ever town can support a brewery. A brew-pub, not a brewery that distributes. It should be a destination for those who love beer. Anyway, great article. My comment jumps around a little and sorry for that.

    1. I'm very much the same way in regards to buying local. If we spend all of our time seeking out beers from the more established Craft guys I don't see how the local guys can survive long term.

  2. Freedom of choice includes the freedom to form one’s own opinions, so we completely respect yours. Nearly every beer enthusiast has had that harrowing experience of wishing they could take the total contents of a bottle shop home with them rather than playing Sophie’s Choice. It can be daunting to make a decision, but we don’t believe limiting decisions is the way to remedy that problem. There are hundreds of beer styles originating from countless geographical areas around the world. We revel in exploring them all, adding our own twists and even coming up with our own creations and style hybrids. What we don’t do is make new beers simply because a new hop comes out or a new ingredient becomes available. Our beers are well thought-out and made with keen oversight to produce refined brews. That’s right, they are all refined before they ever make it to store shelves, cold rooms or our bars and restaurants. Making more styles doesn’t mean any styles must suffer—if it did, we would stick to a handful of beers, but we’re more than capable (as we’ve proven over the past 18 years) of producing wide ranging varieties of beer without sacrificing our lofty standards. Last year we made 74 beers in addition to our core line-up. Some of them were smoked, some radically hopped, some barrel-aged, some made spicy with peppers, some flavored with exotic edible ingredients, some blended, some spiced, some spiked with the bounty from Stone Farms, some realized from the standout homebrew recipes of members of our brewing team then produced on a professional level. All of them were different and delicious. Which of these should we have NOT brewed? We’d have trouble answering that, especially since we’d first have to reconcile the reasoning behind limiting the number of choices we provide craft beer fans. It’s incomprehensible why someone would want less choices instead of more—at least to us. It’s true that some corporations brew new beers based on marketing and sales decisions, but we’re not one of them. We could sit tight on tried-and-true recipes, but what fun is that? We’re all about celebrating all that beer not only is, but all it can be, and that can’t be done through stagnancy. Of course, as stated in the first sentence of this comment, everyone is free to formulate their own opinions. This is ours and we stand by it, as well as beer drinkers’ right not to be dictated a finite number of decisions when there are so many options to be had within the vast craft beer universe.