Much has been written lately of the so-called Craft Beer Bubble, and it is largely irrelevant. It should be of little concern to the craft beer consumer. There are other factors that are more important, and should be discussed far more than they are.
Depending which article or author you read, many folks argue that the United States (and by extension, Canada) is heading to a tipping point. The argument goes that with the large number of breweries opening in the last few years we are due to see a burst of the brewing boom/bubble. The ideas held by these predictors of doom and gloom is that the market will approach a saturation point, some breweries will falter, and then there will be some contraction and consolidation of those that remain. (There are far too many example of these sorts of written pieces to list, but here is a recent article). To some extent this may indeed be true, but there are some benefits to a “bust” in the craft beer market.
Naysayers to this theory hold that in previous eras of recent modern America there were far more breweries per capita than now. This is of course a somewhat flawed argument in that it represents a bygone time where shipping, marketing, access to capital, and even modern forms of refrigeration and product shelf life (via modern packaging and processing) were far more limited than they are today. What is true to this opinion is that in the past, the vast majority of breweries were largely small regional concerns, and indeed many today still are as well. We may still see an increase in brewery start-ups for years to come, but this opinion too also fails to take into account the idea of increased consumer education and experience.
The reality is that we won’t be able to know if there is actually a bubble, unless or until it bursts. Essentially to diagnose a bubble burst and market equalization we need to look backwards. Thus it becomes a matter for economists, historians and the like to go over the data after it happens to diagnose a bubble burst after the fact.
To the modern craft beer consumer, worrying about predicting a possible craft beer bubble burst is of little concern as there is no way to be certain until after the fact. There is something that we can be cognizant of though, whether there is a bubble burst or a normalizing trend in the craft beer market: quality.
Quality is a difficult term to define, and is even more difficult to explain when it comes to beer. Some of the factors to be considered when determining craft beer include
- Shelf stability (flavour, aroma, spoilage)
- Product taste (is it as claimed? )
- Strength of flavour/aroma
- Quality of ingredients
- Cost versus perception
There are of course innumerable factors, and those listed above are there as a rough illustration of qualities that many consumers are (or should be) concerned about.
There are factors that everyone looks for in beers. Many are style driven, but many are also determined (whether the drinker is aware or not) by the brewery before the beer is ever made. When a beer doesn’t meet up to the standards expected by the consumer, then the beer is considered disappointing. It goes without saying that many will not purchase a sub-standard beer again. A large problem that many folks new to craft beer have is that they have been subject to far too many poor quality beers.
From a stout described as underflavoured, to the IPA that finishes sweet or is under-hopped, to the beer that stales or sours too quickly, to the corny DMS flavour of poorly brewed beer, to the telltale taste and slickness of diacetyl, we have all had below average beers. With the proliferation of new breweries we will see more of these as brewers fight for space on shelves and rush their product to market while cutting certain corners. Of course not all breweries will do this, but we have all tasted products from some that have.
As the number of breweries and beers increases, so too are the number of consumers. As time goes on though, I am inclined to believe that these consumers will grow in experience, sophistication and appreciation of truly good beer, and will demand better. The hope is that this demand for better will help cull the herd of breweries so those that make quality beer remain. With this culling, we can hope to see the death of those that make sub-standard, or worse yet, gimmick-laden, beers to sell to the unwitting consumer.
This culling will have a dramatic influence on those that hope to open new breweries in the future. They will know that the bar has been placed far higher for them than for those that came before. They will simply have to produce good beers, or they too will be forced to “bubble” out of existence.
With access to more and better beers the craft beer drinker will be able to enjoy and demand even better beer in the future. Whether the bubble bursts or not is irrelevant. What matters is that the best survive and that those which are found wanting will have to change or go.
We shouldn’t care about a bubble. We should care about good beer.