Not Too Big, but Too Many?

United States microbreweries, regional breweri...

United States microbreweries, regional breweries, and brew pubs per capita by state. Brewery data from the state locator at http://www.brewersassociation.org/pages/directories/find-us-brewery. Population data from Wikipedia. National totals: 54 regional craft breweries, 377 microbreweries, 975 brewpubs, for a total of 1406. Highest five per capita are Vermont (29.0 per million), Maine (24.3), Montana (24.0), Oregon (21.6), and Alaska (19.0). Data current as of February 28, 2008. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I’ve been thinking about the craft beer market lately.

I work with several craft breweries and folks who want to get into the craft beer and beverage industry and I’ve been reading a lot about new breweries opening, new beers out there, and what the latest and greatest “extreme” beer to come down the pike.

“Oh look, a beer that’s higher in alcohol than my favorite bourbon!” or “Wow! I’ve never had a beer dry-hopped with turnips!” (you get the idea).

Also I’ve been drinking since the mid 90’s and I remember the boom/bust of the 1990s brewpub.

And, I’ve read that now we have more breweries in the US than we did pre-prohibition. Which is great. But it makes me wonder… is it too much?

I love craft beer, and I”ll be the first one to order the new beer I’ve never heard of before. And I totally support local beer and local ingredients, etc. I’ve argued that you can’t be too big to be a craft brewery (it’s about the craft, not about the size of your fermenters, at least in my opinion). But, it seems that everyone with a plastic bucket and a bag of grain is opening up a brewery. Is there enough room in the industry, in the marketplace, for all the players?

I go in the grocery store and its clear that there’s serious politics involved for shelf space in the beer aisle. If you don’t believe me, check out Beer Wars. As we add additional breweries, that’s only going to get more cut-throat.

Now, a key difference between now and the mid-90s is that in the mid-90s a lot of the beer was crap. I’m not pointing any fingers, but a stainless steel pot and a bag of hops, does not a brewer make. At least now, the beer is good. Not all of it is great, but nearly all of it is good.

Making good beer isn’t an option anymore. If you’re not making good beer, you don’t get out of the gate. But, on the other hand, making great beer isn’t a sure thing either. I’ve seen people with great beer not get off the ground because they’ve got other issues working against them (you know, like they’re a jerk or something). You’ve got to make great beer and have your marketing/business strategy straight to stay in the game. Is there a point where there are so many craft breweries that, as an industry, we’re all hurt?

NC is one of the fastest growing beer markets in the world right now, and I love it. But it makes me wonder if this growth curve is sustainable? Are we headed for another brewery shake out or market consolidation? I think the Beer Culture has changed in the last 20 years (good Lord, the mid-90s *WAS* almost 20 years ago!) Do you think that makes a difference?

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