95% A-hole Free?

Photo coutesty Foulmouthed Shirts

It used to be said that the craft beer industry was “asshole free.” Then someone made that figure a bit more realistic and many now refer to it as “99% asshole free.” For years, that was entirely true. Now? I begrudgingly consider it 95% asshole free. That’s still amazingly better than you’re apt to find in any other industry, social scene, or grouping of any sort. Look at the people in the last classroom you were in. In the last office job you have/had. In your family, even. The fact is, whether you’re a brewer, a beertender, an avid beer fan, or in some way connected to the craft beer milieu, odds are you’re a pretty great guy or gal. I look forward to our next or first beer together. (Unless you think I fit into the 5% of jerkwads, in which case go eff yourself.)

For a long time, there was a sense that it was one-for-all and all-for-one among the band of brewers, at least all the little guys versus the few big guys. That’s changing. Not on the whole or in giant leaps, but I’ve noticed some disparaging comments here, or there some snide remarks pointed at a new or neighboring brewery. Obviously those utterances don’t make the utterer an asshole in any overall sense—there’s a big difference between being an asshole and just acting like one—but brewers are saying some assholish things about their colleagues.

Here’s what I chalk the uptick in dick mentalities to. In the short term, maybe we’re all just crazy from the heat. I notice people get really ornery during hot spells. And summer weather always means busier brewing schedules to keep up with demand, so maybe brewers are working too hard. But this isn’t some solar flare-up in hot-headedness. I think it boils down to one thing--competition. Real competition.

The current issue of Draft Magazine ran a story by Joe Stange given the ominous title, Will it Fall? It outlines that despite the surge in breweries and sales, many brewers aren’t exactly celebrating. The concern isn’t that there’s too much of a good thing, just that there may not be enough consumers of this good thing we have called craft beer.

This ain’t exclusively brewspaper news about our fun, quaint little project involving glorified boutique beer. Time Magazine Business & Money section news also got in on the action. Though the journo lists all the reasons why the industry could theoretically be reaching saturation, he ultimately lands on the side of this these beautiful 2,500 snowflakes we call craft breweries snowballing into a full on avalanche of craft beer consumption.

I agree wholeheartedly. And yet. And yet it feels like not everyone who is getting into the game, or who got into it in the last few years, acts like the tide is still rising and raising all ships. Are they concerned that there isn’t room for them? That they may not get as big a piece of the pie as they’d like? Or, as Stange rightly brings up sans sugarcoating, perhaps some credit for the surge relates to increased variety, not necessarily quality.

Everyone knows that not all craft beer is excellent. We might agree that most of it is still better and preferable to the mass-produced stuff, but with so much beer out there, there is simply no issue in finding at least some good beer. Not here in Oregon, and not in nearly every part of the country at this point. But what I find is that it isn’t the brewers or owners in the underserved sections of the US or within Oregon, but the ones in the markets that might be deemed “saturated.” I interview all of them and, like I said, I’ve noticed some snide comments and disparaging remarks. Maybe these people think it’s OK to say to me because I’m not the average customer sitting at the bar ordering a flight. But I am the guy sitting in their office (which in many cases IS the bar) with a digital recorder in my hand. And maybe it’s that recorder that keeps them from spitting vitriol even more. Maybe I’m actually only hearing a small amount of the negative chatter. Interestingly, most of the comments aren’t even about the actual beer, but the decisions, practices, and, sometimes, personal nature of competitors. I almost never hear direct shit-talk about a competing IPA (or brand). Funny how that’s the one thing that’s still taboo even if it’d make the most sense. Maybe I’m dopily optimistic and think this industry should really be about mutual respect and collaboration among the fraternity and sorority of brewers and beer lovers.

It’s a crowded field getting more crowded by the day. The subject of limited shelf space and finite taps is a common topic of conversation. And no, I don’t think we’ll ever fully convert the remaining 93% of the population that drinks light or Lite beer, but we will keep chipping away. Why, the Brewers Association just released “mid-year data on the U.S. craft brewing industry, which showed a 15 percent increase in dollar sales and 13 percent jump in volume in the first half of 2013.” (Those numbers were almost mirrored here in Oregon with the most craft-savvy market already.)

Whether the bubble is about to burst or we’re about to reach a bona fide tipping point (I vote the latter), the degree to which beer producers are on edge about the growth—which they themselves are a part of and not entitled to any more than anyone else, whether they opened in 2013 or 2003—is palpable. Draft knows it. Time knows it. The New School knows it. You and I know it. The people whose job it is to make and sell beer are on edge, but no one has a lock on it; no one is more or less entitled to join the industry. (It goes without saying that if you're joining the ranks, please make sure your product is up to snuff!) There are over 2,500 breweries in operation already, and if most of the ones currently in planning come to fruition, we’ll have over 4,000 in the immediate future. Until the sky starts falling, maybe cool it on the attitude toward your fellow and future colleagues.


Brian Yaeger

Brian Yaeger is the author of Red, White, and Brew: An American Beer Odyssey. He contributed to the Oxford Companion to Beer and writes for All About Beer, Draft Magazine, CraftBeer.com, Portland Monthly, Willamette Week, and more. He earned a Master in Professional Writing (with a thesis on beer). Other than GABF, his favorite, can't-miss event is the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Fest where he's drawn to any band with a tuba. Along with his wife, Half Pint, he runs Inn Beervana Bed & Beer in Portland where he also lives with his baby boy I.P.Yae, and German Shorthair Pointer, Dunkel. 

7 comments:

  1. Funny you should mention how you notice people getting really ornery during hot spells; there was a study published recently which came to the same conclusion: http://news.msn.com/science-technology/do-hotter-temperatures-lead-to-hotter-tempers

    ReplyDelete
  2. What would have been truly ironic is if the owner of this blog wrote this post.

    ReplyDelete
  3. Looks like I'm hardly the first to pick up on an uptick in assholishness. First our good friend Jeff Alworth @ Beervana posited on its eventual, inevitable rise back on Halloween, 2011: http://beervana.blogspot.com/2011/10/sam-calagione-and-other-99.html (Readers will delight in reading the 1st comment by a certain wench-non-grata)

    And then my online pal OlllllO from PHX last year went darker and said the beer industry's population is 75% A-hole: http://www.beerphxation.com/2012/03/bloggers-take-inventory.html Interestingly, he said that's actually, partially a good thing!

    So whataya think. Does craft need more or fewer assholes?

    ReplyDelete
  4. I'm all ears, Anonymous commenter who is too scared to leave their real name. What did I do to become such an asshole (yet you still read the site and comment) ?

    ReplyDelete
  5. This is a great and timely article. As someone who is currently writing a business plan for a start up, and enrolled in the soon to start PSU course for brewing management, it has been very frustrating to hear and see the clique that exists amoung some in the indusrty. The attitude that those who came before are entitled to the existing market and/or continued growth places negative pressure other brewers is unfair and unwarranted. When a market reaches saturation as is pointed out in many of the articles, than the consumer is faced with a choice of products with diminishing returns, wherein the products themselves reach a pinnacle of development. That is a good thing for the beer indusrty as we've had decades of low spectrum product. A brewer at 10 barrel once told me that it wasn't the additional breweries that was a problem, it was that too many of them wanted a piece of the same regional pie. "Go to the towns and neighborhoods where they are underserved and grow your business there", was the advice. At least it was helpful instead of the tired old diatribe of "when will it fall?" and "there are too many breweries" and other Chicken Little rants.

    ReplyDelete

Try not to be a dick.