19 October 2011

The Craft Beer Bubble?

I am extremely passionate about great beer and the craft beer community, but I am curious about what type of beer culture is being built around craft beer right now.  The recent craziness around CBS, beer tickets, anniversary tickets, and the massive rise of people selling craft beer items on StubHub and Ebay is blowing my mind.  I think the long term effects of events like this are going to have a negative effect on craft beer overall.

My bigger question really revolves around the craft beer bubble.  Are we in a craft beer bubble right now?  I guess I should say fad to be more correct. "Fuck no, this guy is crazy."  Do you remember the craft beer bubble that popped in the mid 90's?  I was underage at that point, but the statistics show there was an influx of brewers in the mid 90's and many of them didn't survive.  Is the bottom getting ready to fall out like some over packaged collateralized debt obligations?  Most breweries are doing some type of limited run, rare one off, or collaboration that creates buzz. We have are over 1600 breweries in the US with another 700 in the planning stages right now, and these events will just keep multiplying. I am not faulting them for it though, I think it is a good for marketing and a way to keep the lights on.  This has to end at some point though doesn't it?  It is getting tougher and tougher to try and get any beer with just a little bit of buzz around it. It is getting to the point of alienating people and pissing off beer fans. When I first got into craft beer a brewers one-off or seasonal beer brought me around to their entire portfolio of beer.  I find when I am at beer gatherings people don't really know of the great beer some brewers are producing all year long, but only know or care about a brewers limited run and rare beer they produced.  I was am guilty of this craze with my first experience with Surly Brewing and their much celebrated imperial stout Darkness.  I had my blinders on for that beer, but when I traded for a bottle of it my trading partner put in most of their other beers with it.  The standard line up for Surly is one of the best in the country I think.  I didn't even like Darkness, but I continue to purchase (online vendor that ships to my door) Surly products because they are fantastic.  I think less people are doing this though and are focusing all of their efforts and beer dollars on the newest and rarest of the rare.  What will this do long term?  Do people even know how great a well made pilsner can be? I hate to say it again, but how truly great session beer is as well.  I don't really see much on the beer boards about Metropolitan or Notch beers, but they are making some of the best and well made beers around.  They are not loaded full of crazy ingredients, wild yeast strains, or barrel aged, but I like that.  The beer is wonderful and is conducive to conversation.  I just want to go to my local and have a few pints with my friends and overall shift in attitude to everyday beers is disturbing.

Take the recent craziness with CBS.  I can't believe how much money people are paying for it on Ebay.  I've seen places that are selling it for $100 a bottle through their online webshop.  The sheer number of bottles of Dark Lord, CBS, Black Tuesday, and many other rare beers on Ebay shows something that is really taking off and won't get any better.  Tickets for the Three Floyd's anniversary party are going for $100 bucks to $180 bucks as of publishing on Stub Hub.  I will guarantee that a bottle of the anniversary beer will be on Ebay before the event ends that day.  I really hate that people are showing up for these events and looking for tickets with the sole purpose of selling them for a profit. I know people that were following the Cavalier beer truck around seeing who got bottles of CBS.  To those Ebayers and Stub Hub people doing this just for profit if you promise to drink it I've got some hand bottled homebrew for you. Its an imperial Kvass with brett and Ebola yeast strains.  I call it "Bend Over and I'll Show Ya!"

I hope I am completely off base with this, but beer cultures in other countries I've visited are not built on what we are building right now, and I don't think this trend can continue for the long term.  These one off beers are exciting and some times are pretty fantastic, but the year round beers are what keeps your favorite brewer in business.  The crazy growth of craft brewers right now is only sustainable if they sell out all of their beer and not just one rare beer one or two times a year.  Do you know the price of stainless steel fermenters?  There are many brewers out there that are hundreds of thousands of dollars or even millions of dollars in debt growing their businesses right now, but I really think what is happening is the craft beer world threatens the continued growth of great beer.  I hope I'm wrong, but things seem to be getting worse and not better.  I truly hope I am incorrect, but I would love to see a culture being built around great beer that is accessible to anyone at just about anytime. I want to see craft beer get to a 25 to 35% market-share one day and share my passion with more people, but I just don't see the long term viability of what is happening in our niche world right now.



  1. Interesting points, although I think it's easy to forget that some of the absurdity over CBS and suchlike is actually a pretty small percentage of an already small percentage of beer drinkers - it just gets coverage because it's exceptional, and that gets magnified within beer geekery social media.

    However, I completely agree that there are many great session beers being completely overlooked; part of that is because many people don't bother rating them online, or they give them low ratings because they aren't 10%/hopbombs/insert oddity here. I love bizarre beers, but I equally champion great 'normal' ones - it's hard to beat a Yards Brawler.

    I don't think we're seeing a bubble per se, given how difficult it is to get financing for a new business at this point, but it's possible we'll see more distinct segmentation. The challenge will be fore those 'normal' breweries to get some of the publicity oxygen that can be (often unwittingly) hogged by a few (excellent) outliers.

  2. I couldn't agree more Matt. I myself have been just as guilty as the next of going crazy for the next rare beer on the horizon, yet I find most of them get stashed away.for a later day and i rarely get to enjoy them. I was recently discussing this same issue with a friend, more precisely how I had fallen in love with Deschutes while in Oregon. Am I excited to have 2 bottles of Abyss in my cellar, definately, but i would trade those bottles in a heartbeat for a.steady supply of Black Butte Porter or even more so Mirror Pond Pale. Both of those beers are every day works of perfection that honestly blow much of the hyped beers out of the water! I will take a good session ESB, a kolsch, or a nice balanced porter any day of the week over some juiced up super beer I have to work to get once in a blue moon.

  3. Matt - Lisa tweeted this and I read it and had to comment. As someone in the research mode of opening a nano brewery, I worry about the craft beer bubble all the time. I do however think the issues you discuss: 1. bubble; 2. absurdity over rare beers (e.g. CBS) are two separate and different issues - unrelated to each other. I won't address the second, but the first.

    The bubble - with the tremendous growth the market has seen in the last five plus years, and with established breweries expanding at a pace unseen in the past, and finally, with over 400 breweries in planning right now, it's easy to think we are in a bubble. I am not sure the answer, and not sure even if an economist could find one. I do think we are maturing as a beer market in the U.S. Our tastes are diversifiing and beer drinkers are becoming more educated and discerning what they buy - but the craft market is still miniscule as a portion of the beer market overall.

    Is this surge like the 1990s? Where capital rained free and people where trying to cash in? Yes and No. I think there are some people who are trying to cash in - that's part of why people go into business. But, with the limited available capital, and the more educated beer market, it is an even harder market to enter than before.

    I do think we are seeing a beer resurgence similar to what you see in other countries. Smaller breweries, making great beers for a smaller audience (mostly geographic in nature). I like to think of what I read about in Belgium as I plan my brewery. Small, local and supporting their town - that's it.

    I believe the beer rush we are in will calm eventually (but not burst), and we'll have a new normal. Maybe three tiers of brewers, the Bigs, the Crafts (Dogfish, Stone, Sam Adams, Sierra, etc.) and then local/regionals.

  4. You're doing a lot of cross-pollination with this piece, but I agree with you in the main.

    If the basic consideration of a genuine beer culture is ready availability to better beer, as opposed to an absence of choice, then the goal in terms of aesthetics as well as a more "popular" price probably points to (a) session beers, and (b) locally brewed session beers.

    No disrespect is intended to Josh, but if you're looking for your everyday Porter to come from Oregon, a central point is being missed: Owing to the nature of session beers, they're ideally suited to form the backbone of local/regional beer culture precisely because that way, they're not obliged to travel.

    My thinking had evolved on these matters, both as a consumer and a brewery owner. Simply stated, if I want my metro neighborhood to grow a beer culture, Imperial Brett-laced Kvass cannot EVER be the change agent. However, session beer can be. It isn't at all sexy, it's harder work than beer people (including myself) think, and I'm guilty of not grasping it in the past.

    Good post. Thanks.

  5. I agree with Mellody about the bubble. Everything I've read about the bubble in the 90s (which I admit isn't a ton) is that it was more about opening crappy brewpubs than breweries and that the beer quality overall was pretty awful. There was a lot more money available which was given a lot more freely then too. I think the fact that some breweries have had to pull out of markets due to sales exceeding their expectations shows how strong the craft market is right now compared to the 90s. Breweries will fail though since there is a limited market but that's always going to be true. Failure does not a bubble make.

    On the second topic of limited beer releases, people worry too much about them. You say there are a lot of bottles on Ebay, etc. I say who cares considering the quantity of bottles actually available is so few. Breweries don't make their living off releases like that anyway. Founders isn't growing because of CBS, they are growing because of their Pale Ale, their Porter, etc. Allagash is growing because of White. The one-offs or limited releases are ways for brewers to play around not for breweries to become rich.

    Besides that, as Lisa pointed out, we all see the beer world very different than normal people. People who don't look at BeerAdvocate or RateBeer all the time (which is the vast majority of people right now) have no idea about limited releases and so don't care about them. Most people don't even know who Surly is, let alone their once a year stout, since they only distribute to Minnesota. Every interest in the world has the segment that is too obsessed and it's just a matter of ignoring that segment if it bothers you so much.

  6. Every interest in the world has the segment that is too obsessed and it's just a matter of ignoring that segment if it bothers you so much.


  7. The only way I see the hype around special beers being an issue is if the majority of people are forgoing drinking session beers in order to spend their money on limited releases. I do a healthy amount of beer drinking, but the vast majority is sessionable beer from local or regional breweries. Sure, I like to get rare beer and always bring back stuff I can't get at home when I travel, but that is mainly for fun and to grow the stock in our beer cellar.

    I certainly don't buy my allotment of Dark Lord and then sit around drinking that two times a week. I store that in the cellar and break it out on special occasions. Most of my beer dollar goes to everyday beer. As others have said, most beer drinkers probably have no idea about Dark Lord and if they do, they certainly don't care enough to buy a bottle for $100 on eBay. We are a long way from the majority of craft beer money being spent on limited releases. Just visit your local pub to see how many patrons are very happy with the sessionable fare.

  8. Could it not be argued that the "rare beer" crowd makes up a small portion of the craft beer market? It seems like successful brewers A) have tasty beers people like or B) have a brew pub ppl like to go to.

    For instance I live in Cleveland. I like going to Chophouse Brewery for the atmosphere, location and happy hour. The beer happen's to be better than most too. The Brew Kettle's pub is ok, but I buy their beer regularly. Sometimes you get the perfect combo like Great Lakes Brewing Co. Love their beer and love going to their pub.

    The point being that its these two draws that are going to keep the casual craft drinker interested and maybe pull in the non-craft drinker. One could argue these two groups make up a larger portion of the total craft market and are driving its growth. Those willing to pay $100 for a rare bottle are pretty much going to drink craft beer wherever they can find it. Its the former two groups that are driving the industry growth.

    Therefore, as long as brewer's either consistently produce good beers or a fun pub to go to the industry should be fine and these rare beers/events are merely a small anomaly in the overall market.


  9. Really good dialogue going on in here.

    This segment is a niche within a niche. I guess because I am involved so much in craft beer that I see things much differently than someone else who isn't. I just want to make sure that craft beer is always an affordable luxury and is always approachable. This trend might turn out to be extremely dangerous from an applicability standpoint.

    I think Roger makes a great point about starting so much local and sessionable. Nothing makes me much happier than sitting outside of Bank Street Brewhouse with the sun on my shoulders and community dark or beak's best in my belly. I feel we might be losing that bit of what I love so much about beer. If you've heard the phrase "I'll be down the pub" spoken by so many English beer consumers doesn't really have a common phrase here in the US. That phrase needs to be in the American lexicon.

    Thank you for all of the conversation points everyone.

    No one got my ebola joke or my Christmas vacation reference I take it.