A New World Order for Craft

Unfiltered by | Jun 2012 | Issue #65

Illustration by Chi-Yun Lau

Ground-zero in the craft beer evolution is perhaps as unlikely and unassuming a place as a fiction writer could conjure in the deepest fantastical recesses of his mind. Tucked into the angelic Blue Ridge Mountains, this region will soon embody a new age of craft beer.

News dropped earlier this year, long rumored, that two Western giants of the craft beer world would move east, making their second homes in a sleepy yet hip Western North Carolina town. Along with its already growing roster of solid local breweries and brewpubs, the additions of pioneer Sierra Nevada and powerhouse New Belgium put Asheville in a position to rightly claim to be one of the world’s great beer cities.

Beyond the town’s obvious charms and budding beer consciousness, Asheville is a beacon for the future of craft beer. Now with news that Oskar Blues will be heading to nearby Brevard, N.C., and that California-based Lagunitas will be building a massive new brewery in Chicago, you can mark this time, this Ale Spring, as a revolutionary turning point in the evolution of craft brewing.

This is the time that craft brewing grew up and officially announced itself as a business first and foremost. While still clinging to its rebellious, punky teen years, craft brewers are now undertaking incredibly adult decisions, doubling down on their operations and taking on massive debt loads to fund expansions. With more than 2,000 breweries in operation and another near 1,000 in the planning stages, the growth of craft beer, both in terms of volume and number of breweries, is unparalleled in the industry’s relatively short history.

If the ’80s were a time of struggle, the ’90s a decade of exuberance followed by deafening silence, and the 2000s a time of measured growth, the past two years have served to define the new decade as one of unexpectedness. While there’s still plenty of success to enjoy, we’re quickly arriving at a new age of stratification among brewers. Never before has there been such a wide disparity between the various classes of brewers, with regional and larger craft brewers growing to barrelage levels thousands of times bigger than their nano counterparts.

The recent Craft Brewers Conference (CBC) in San Diego, Calif., illustrated the incongruity of interests between quasi-homebrewers, making 1- and 2-barrel batches, and brewing behemoths, making hundreds of thousands of barrels every year. While both technically qualify as craft brewers and ostensibly share an interest in better beer, it’s hard to see the point in lumping Lilliputian ventures in with the likes of Sierra and Sam.

With dozens of breweries now producing more than 100,000 barrels per year and employing dozens if not hundreds of employees, we’re on the precipice of a new era of competitiveness. At the CBC, you could sense the change in the air, with no one willing to venture a guess as to the future of the industry beyond offering mere platitudes. These included the recurring mantras of continued growth, success over the Big Two, and a resurrection of the old line that craft beer has a 10-percent market share in its sights.

There were signs at the CBC, however, that the once happy-go-lucky, brotherly spirit of craft brewers is starting to fray. Whether in private or in the conference’s keynote address, sniping between brewers struck frequent notes of division over issues such as the influx and potential glut of new breweries, the definition of “craft brewer,” the eastward expansion of West Coast brewing powerhouses, and future relations with America’s two largest brewers and their distributors.

The impending arrival of hundreds if not thousands of new breweries also has established brewers on edge. As distribution becomes more challenging, and breweries start to compete with one another in new markets and manners across the United States, time will tell how the industry handles this new age of craft beer.