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102. If You Think Craft Beer's Dead You're Not Paying Attention
Taking inspiration from other voices in craft beer to embrace all the very good things in this industry amid the doom and gloom.
An Incomplete List of the Things I'm Excited About in Craft Beer
Here are some things that have, in the last couple of years, become almost boring in their frequency and predictability: mergers and acquisitions of craft breweries, ink spilled about how common these mergers and acquisitions have become (some of those spills by yours truly), and hand-wringing think pieces about the craft beer industry’s current doomsday times (have also had a hand in this hand-wringing!). Shifts and shrinks are the nature of the beer business right now, and in that sense—maybe only in that sense—business is a-boomin.’
Things are changing at such a rate that…many people simply do not care anymore. I’m basing this quite a bit on my own mild eyebrow-raise at the news of Tilray acquiring Breckenridge, Blue Point, 10 Barrel Brewing, Red Hook, and Widmer, among other brands, from A-B InBev, but I’m willing to be that even those of us professionally and/or passionately plugged into craft beer on a daily basis felt little more than a, “well, shit” upon learning this news that would have been fucking wild just a few years ago. Craft beer is stagnating, maturing, leveling out, downsizing…and while much of that comes in the form of big headlines, no one’s as riveted by the tales of a stagnating industry as they are by those of an industry booming, which craft beer was for at least a couple decades there.
It’s little wonder that many of us are feeling jaded, #overit, checked out. Especially when you consider the perfect-storm timing of what’s going on in the industry right now plus the fact that plenty of us beer enthusiasts and/or pros are simply hitting a time in our lives where we’re feeling our interests and priorities pulled elsewhere, whether that’s from a health and wellness perspective or a personal growth and changing self perspective or both. Stephanie Grant unpacks this beautifully in a recent issue of her excellent newsletter The Share. It’s the plateauing, even dipping, nature of the industry. It’s our own personal journeys. It’s the burn-out, and the constant disappointment-and-rage spin cycle of craft beer’s culture (hey, welcome to the “way to say you only care about straight white people” corner of the biz, Toppling Goliath!). Honestly, craft beer is a hard industry to love right now. But I know plenty of us still do, enough to white-knuckle it through these pains that are growing even while business isn’t, and even participate ourselves in the work behind helping this industry improve.
Stephanie lists out some ways to remind yourself of why you love craft beer. That, and the fact that people have been asking lately if there are no more stories left to tell in craft beer, inspired me to write my own list of really specific little gems that I know I’m excited about right now in beer. (I wrote about this in a more general, and personal, way here, but wanted to take that to the next level with a specific list of concrete industry gems.) In fact, when Boak & Bailey did spark the latest round of the “is anything still exciting about craft beer” conversation, they made their own list, too—I think this is something a lot of us are doing right now. It’s a way to check in with ourselves to see if we do in fact still give a damn, and if we do, to remind us why, and to get us out of our seats and out into the world to experience those wonderful, well, experiences. But I’d say a key element of making these lists—like Stephanie did with some actionable ideas and Boak & Bailey did with specifics—is sharing them. This does the trick of reminding others what they love, too, and effectively fosters the whole community thing that brought many of us into this game to begin with. So, with a hearty hat tip to The Share and Boak & Bailey, here’s what I’m personally jazzed about now.
Let’s start with the obvious. We’re here for the beer, right? This conversation always includes a substantial bemoaning of the lack of “new” in beer. We’ve brewed all we can brew, right? And drank all we can drink? Nothing new under the sun? What’s that the wise Barenaked Ladies once said? “Ooohwoohwoohwooh, it’s all been done”?
It sure can feel that way much of the time. So much of craft beer’s innovation efforts were forced to feed the public’s insatiable IPA thirst, IPA riffs jumped the shark, and now when we do look past the IPA, we’re often looking back to traditional styles.
Well, here’s my counterpoint, which is actually three overarching reasons to remain very excited about beer itself.
Huzzah for those traditional styles! So many breweries are throwing themselves into crafting them with expertise and passion. They’re investing in traditional serving methods. They’re educating staff. The people drinking them include those of us who are thrilled to be able to find something like a grisette more readily available, and those of us who got into craft beer via hazies and so now get to have this whole other world unlocked. Both of those possibilities are awesome. I’m very excited to see more altbier and rauchbier in the world, and I will not accept as an answer that this is not a cool development. Or side pull taps! Or cask ale! Even if these trends are micro, they’re happening. And I will also not accept an answer that it’s not cool that more people can now access and learn about these things.
American brewers are gonna be American brewers, right? We’re still seeing creativity and originality applied to these traditional styles. For every brewery that painstakingly brews a Czech-style lager to the letter, there’s another brewery thinking about how they can put their own spin on it. This is also cool. And you can be a snob about this, as you’re only hurting yourself. You won’t change the fact that there is beer out there for the purists and beer out there for the more open-minded drinkers. All of this fuels discussion, and that in and of itself is cool. I’m thinking of how when I was in New Orleans a couple of weeks ago and tweeted about Brieux Carré’s insanely good tap list, calling out their “Italian-style helles,” there was some immediate intrigue and some immediate skepticism—how did they make a German beer Italian-style? Is this shorthand for dry-hopping? Etc. This could be its own issue; for now, my point is: healthy, happy, non-toxic debate! About geeky beer stuff!
And, yes, there most certainly still is innovation happening in general. Downstream hop products continue to advance. What yeast can be genetically engineered to do continues to advance. Sustainable sources of grain continue to advance, and ways to add complexity to flavor in malt do, too. Don’t kid yourself. Just because invention feels slow in real time doesn’t mean it’s happening. This is the kind of thing you may not realize until you look back 10 years from now—“Oh, wow, we didn’t even have X style of beer in 2023!” Granted, it might be happening at an even slower rate because of the nature of the industry right now, but it’s happening.
Let’s look at some specific examples of all of the above, shall we?
Two weekends ago, I finally got to beercation in Portland, Maine, and was so thrilled to find it Grisette Land. I know we’re talking about some classic, heavy-hitter breweries, but grisettes were on at Allagash, Oxbow, and Maine Beer Company (just counting where I got to and drank them). Oxbow’s Grizacca seemed especially prolific, on tap around town, and not long after getting back to New York, my husband met a friend at one of our local beer shop + bars, Hops Hill, and texted me to tell me Grizacca was on tap there, too. This is just a tiny little snapshot of a few days. I’ve seen little swells of grisette presence here and there over recent years, but this feels like the strongest shot yet we’ve got at making this more of a go-to staple for a lighter, easy-drinking option.
I mentioned this above as well as in my last issue, detailing my New Orleans imbibing experiences, but I’ll break it down here as its own example because it’s such a clear, solid one: Brieux Carré’s tap list. Here you have a small brewery managing to fill their tap list with myriad lager takes. Think about the dedication that takes—that’s not the easy way in the sense of time or money. But they are clearly committed to not just triumphing the lager, but showing how much styles within the category can differ, and even how a brewery can put their own fresh stamp on it. New Zealand pilsner? Italian-style helles? Belgian pilsner? Whatever your thoughts are on these riffs, you no doubt do indeed have thoughts. There’s conversation to be had, as well as unique lagers to be enjoyed.
Let’s go ahead and ditto that for Miel. I was so excited to drink their smoked braggot and their spruce tip IPA because you just don’t have enough of those, “Holy shit, stop everything, I need to focus all my attention on the incredible flavors and aromas happening right now, because I’ve never had anything like this before” moments in craft beer anymore. That’s why a lot of people are questioning whether there are no new stories on the beer front! Miel’s beers are a resounding assurance that yes, there are plenty stories left.
New trends are still developing, even if they’re not appearing from mid air. Also in Portland, I had Amaro di Malto at Oxbow and Day’s End from Allagash. The former is a barrel-aged dark farmhouse ale with 25 different herbs and spices, and a beery homage to the likes of Fernet Branca; the latter a bourbon barrel-aged ale with Lambrusco grape must, Angelica root, and orange peel, and is inspired by the Boulevardier cocktail. Reader, I shit you not, these beers were wild—in a delightful, fun, surprising way—experiences in how much they tasted like their points of influence. I know cocktail-inspired beers are definitely nothing new, but the strong correlations, intentional “we’re going to make a Boulevardier beer” rather than “we made a beer going for the vibes of a Boulevardier and you can look for similar-ish notes,” and the very clear common flavor and aroma notes so easy to find feel new for sure, as does this concept entirely outside of the sour category.
You don’t need me to rehash this territory, as I’ve written about my ~meh~ feelings re: beer festivals ad nauseam here in this newsletter. There are absolutely exceptions, but I believe too many are sloppy—in more ways than one—attempts by event producers to try to profit off of craft beer enthusiasm without really understanding craft beer enthusiasts, and things like safety, education, uniqueness…enough time to comfortably try several different beers without getting stressed out by lines or just getting drunk, enough food, enough water, enough bathrooms…all falling by the wayside. In fact, I could possibly just cut that sentence down to “I believe there are too many.” And as it turns out, the general public may agree. Axios declared the beer fest’s time of death this July, and while I’m not sure I would go that far, these events are seeing drops in attendance and scaling back on size accordingly.
Festivals were for so long such an integral part of the craft beer community and culture, but now, the novelty is gone. You don’t have to travel to a festival and spend loads on tickets to try new and different things; you can pop into your grocery store. So, the only thing that really justifies the existence of a beer festival now is a greater purpose. Bigger festivals that embrace, beyond beer, overall community and celebrate their surroundings. Smaller festivals that dive into a specific vein like lager fests or fests where beer is paired with a certain food. Fests of any size that exist to promote and foster inclusion and diversity.
Local festivals will always make sense to me, and I think ones done well are a reason to stay excited about craft beer. I’m biased, obviously, because it’s where I live, but I feel lucky to know that my local fests are planned by the New York City Brewers Guild with an emphasis on safety, access, and a welcoming atmosphere. They are celebrations of New York City beer, which is really fun for locals who can go check in with the entire city’s beer scene in an afternoon, and just as fun for visitors who can get a taste of that entire scene on their weekend trip. More than mega-hype fests, events like this are more about community and triumphing local businesses and what’s great about that city, wherever it is. That feels like something truly lasting.
This is a good time to tell you, by the way, that tickets are on sale for NYC’s Blocktoberfest, if you’re in New York!
A couple of weeks ago, what inspired our trip to Portland, Maine was getting invited to Mast Landing’s new-ish festival, Wavy Days. Upon first glance, this might look like your standard big ol’ blowout, but I found it to be, again, a real celebration of the fest’s hometown. Its location on the water and its absolutely killer food lineup, which obviously had every bit as much thought behind it as the beer lineup, proved that this fest was a beer fest, sure, but also a really great way to get both the local and tourist community out to drink great beer while reveling in what makes Portland great. It was also really well run, which separates it from the over-saturated pack. It might be hard to differentiate these kinds of fests from each other when you see roster after roster of tons of great breweries advertised, so look for the details. Look for codes of conduct, look for generous time chunks so you know people won’t be getting blotto trying to chug every beer they can get their hands on and that for that reason lines won’t be insane for each brewery, look for things like good food options and live music.
This past weekend, I got to attend Barrel & Flow thanks to Visit Pittsburgh. Stay tuned for next week’s issue where I’ll get all the way into the Pittsburgh trip, but for now, I obviously could in no way write this list without spotlighting Barrel & Flow. This is the archetype for what an exciting beer festival looks like now. This is what has the power to truly shake up the beer community and industry, grow it, diversify it, improve it. We absolutely need more festivals with this kind of dedicated focus on underrepresented people in beer.
Barrel & Flow is so intentional and so well planned—huge bravo to Day Bracey and team. There are tons of breweries there running on the spirit of collaboration, so you can rest assured you’ll be spoiled in options for fantastic beer, all of which was really interesting and creative, too. But there are also Black artists, creators, and entrepreneurs. There are educational tents—I saw tents devoted to breaking down what kinds of jobs there are within the craft beer industry, how fermentation works, what the homebrewing process looks like. There is more than enough amazing beer at Barrel & Flow that it would honestly be fine to leave it there: hey, it’s a major, wonderful, vibrant celebration of Black-led beer! But Day and the local community members bringing this fest to life do not stop there. The information they are making so available to effectively reach BIPOC and welcome them into the beer community and industry is inspiring.
More of this, please from festivals. We don’t need another three-hour event where people race around mindlessly throwing back samples of stuff they could get anywhere. How is your festival inviting new people into beer? How is it providing information, education, access? How is it celebrating the community? How is it intersecting with other aspects of culture? Those are the festivals not just worth still going to, but that can push beer forward in a way that, yes, is very exciting.
Fresh Perspectives and Original Media
When you’ve got all different kinds of voices entering the craft beer chat in the form of creative, DIY channels like zines, newsletters, and podcasts, it’s clear this scene is doing something right, you know? There are still enough truly unique, smart, talented people who give enough of a damn to pour time and energy into lovingly crafted articles and stories and reporting and essays and interviews. They have something to say, almost always outside of the run-of-the-mill narratives that get churned out in mainstream media.
Their dedication is inspiring, because let’s be honest, it’s hard to get anything done these days, let alone treat the world to something like a painstakingly assembled zine. And the result is just as inspiring if not more so, which is that the conversation that is craft beer greatly benefits from these different points of view. I think the people who decide to tell stories and ask questions in craft beer, in whatever format they choose, are some of the most exciting primary drivers of diversity, visibility, and representation in this community. For every bit of that that must come from breweries, writers, editors, podcasters, etc. have such impact on who is welcomed into beer, who sees themselves in beer, and what craft beer culture looks like, how big and wide it is. I know I am always excited by the general fact that these people and their work exist, but I am also always excited to get every issue of their newsletters or zines or every episode of their podcasts. For example:
Stephanie Grant’s aforementioned newsletter, The Share. Read and subscribe here.
Jen Blair’s newsletter, Under the Jenfluence. Read and subscribe here.
Beth Demmon’s newsletter, Prohibitchin.’ Read and subscribe here.
Ruvani de Silva’s blog on Craft Beer Amethyst. (In addition to Ruvani’s brilliant articles, you can find original writing on her site!).
Caroline King’s Bitch Beer Podcast. (Listen here.)
David Nilsen and Melinda Guerra’s Final Gravity beer zine. (Order and support on Patreon here.)
Pellicle. Yes, this is technically more of a traditional operation in the sense that it runs stories by a whole roster of writers, but I’m including it here because it’s run solely by founders Matthew Curtis and Jonny Hamilton along with Katie Mather and Lily Waite as associate editors, it pays its people via intentional sponsorships and Patreon, and it runs special, meaningful stories the likes of which you won’t find elsewhere. Read and become a patron here.)
Enter your favorite here. Who am I missing? Who are you excited about?
Initiatives That Will Meaningfully Impact Beer for the Better
I mean, apologies for the fact that the inclusion of this category here is not exciting in and of itself—this aspect of the beer industry is the driving motivation behind this newsletter’s existence, after all. But, hand-in-hand with intentional festivals like Barrel & Flow, I’d argue this is the most exciting aspect of craft beer. It may make me sound naive, but I truly don’t understand how you wouldn’t find this the most life-force-giving track of craft beer to follow (and hopefully participate in).
Especially considering the general sluggish trudge of craft beer right now in its business stagnation and enthusiast fatigue, it’s all the more inspiring to watch the driven movers and shakers who refuse to let an industry and community they love continue its disappointing legacy of underrepresentation, gatekeeping, and discrimination. They start meetup groups as a lively and friendly welcome to people who have never really felt invited in by craft beer before. They start platforms to provide networking and education opportunities for underrepresented people. They start scholarships and internships to help women, LGBTQIA+ people, and BIPOC find career paths. This is the stuff that has the power to overhaul this entire industry for the better—look, not only could craft beer finally be an equitable industry, but you’re simply going to get better, more interesting, more diverse beer when you welcome in a wider range of perspectives!
This list is absolutely in no way comprehensive. There are so many initiatives I’ve even covered in this newsletter before, ones I will in the future…all doing incredible work. But this is just a sampling of this exciting category:
The Michael James Jackson Foundation for Brewing & Distilling. You know this one and its immensely important work. Through scholarships and mentorship programs, the MJF helps BIPOC enter the industry professionally.
The Lovibond Project. This organization also helps BIPOC embark on craft beer career paths via comprehensive, paid internships at host breweries. I wrote about this more here, but they just closed their initial round of intern applications, and I cannot wait to see the program advance and the talent this industry subsequently benefits from.
Trace Brewing’s Vocational Program. In Pittsburgh, Trace Brewing splits its year between two paid six-month internships in which BIPOC, LGBTQIA+ people, and/or women get to learn all aspects of the brewing process. You do not have to be in Pittsburgh to apply, by the way, so if this sounds like the opportunity you’ve been waiting for, check back on their website in September to apply for 2024!
Beer Kulture. I know I warned this list couldn’t include every organization, but it would obviously be quite the miss to not include the one perhaps best known for its work in this area. Beer Kulture really set an example for other initiatives and breweries to follow, and even works directly with them to develop scholarships and internship programs, while running a mentorship program, listing job opportunities, and more.
Suffice it to say, things may be weird right now and there sure are plenty of negative corners to get stuck in when it comes to craft beer. But the easiest, quickest, most effective way for me to feel reinvigorated re: this industry is by looking ahead where all these channels are taking us. The innovations in beer, the community-building festivals, the creative and eclectic voices in media, the organizations diversifying the industry…and even what the industry itself stands to look like in a few years, when the majority of breweries have realized the time has passed to chase big distro dreams and instead they focus on doing something really special right in their own communities. Community and altbier, my friends. That’s exciting.
This week, I pulled the Knight of Pentacles.
Pentacles is the suit of money, property, and achievement. The Knight of Pentacles speaks to productivity, working hard toward something, efficiency, and developing a good routine for yourself. In fact, this is one of the cards most tightly tied to streamlined processes, methodical work, and attention to detail in the whole deck. I know, it’s not exactly the most romantic card. But it does possess major “getting shit done” energy, and so, really, it’s an essential partner to every tarot card that’s more about inspiring your dreams. You can’t make those dreams a reality without Knight of Pentacles energy. Have your inspiration moments and your big goals, then put your head down and get there, with the kind of intention that allows you to work productively and efficiently without sacrificing essential time for yourself and loved ones.
This card comes up when you are either in the methodical planning and working stage of some project or goal, or when you need to be, as a gentle reminder to get tf to work. It says, “Look, I know this shit can be tedious, but you are making serious strides and that is something to celebrate. It’s mundane, but it’s getting you somewhere exciting, and you should be proud of yourself.” Got it? I know for many of us, very much myself included, having to chip away at a huge task with repetitive routines can be brutal. But knowing you’re on track and making real progress is vital, and will energize you to keep going. Sometimes that’s the most important part, just reminding yourself that that progress is indeed happening, even when you feel like it’s not.
This card really has major brewing vibes in general, because it’s about taking that creative ideal of the beer in theory and making it real through a series of repetitive tasks with painstaking attention to detail and tons and tons of cleaning. You could zero in further on lager-brewing simply because of the pretty strict process and patience required. So let’s go all the way in with a specific lager from a brewery known for doing this exceptionally well: Salem Lager Bavarian helles from Notch.
This Week’s Boozy Media Rec
This one’s been big on the drinks media internet but I have to give this week’s spot to Josh Terry’s “Stormy, Husky, Brawling — Chicago's Divisive Spirit Jeppson’s Malört Is For Everyone Now” for Good Beer Hunting is such a great, fun read. Malört really is such a wild anomaly in the drink world for how its reputation for being awful is part of what fuels its cult following, fan love, and hometown pride. I personally enjoy Malört, and did from the first shot I ever took, much to the disappointment of the Chicago bartender who served it to me and waited for the classic Malört-face reaction.
Ex-BEER-ience of the Week
For reasons I got into above, how could I possibly pick anything other than Barrel & Flow for this week’s—this year’s?—exbeerience?
Until next week, here’s Darby living her best life in Maine.