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Friday, January 4, 2013

Elephants and Grasshoppers: Thoughts on 2012

I'm a little behind. I was away for a week while everyone was putting together lists highlighting the significant beer themes of 2012. It's an amusing concept, despite the fact that 2012 was not really amusing on a number of counts. But I digress.

In beer blogland, there's the best and worst of 2012. It's all about polls and geek opinions and perhaps it's a worthy exercise...as long as you don't think too much about the potential conflicts of interest with info coming from industry-connected folks with axes to grind and brands to boost.

The truth is, stats like best new brewery, best new brewer, best new beer in a bottle, best IPA, etc., are meaningless in the greater scheme of things. What they are is marginally entertaining factoids...perfect for the beer version of Trivial Pursuit if that's what turns your crank.

The big elephant in the living room for 2012 was the continued proliferation of new breweries, along with the expanded retail presence of craft brands. All the other stuff is just subterfuge. Trust me on that.

Let's look at brewery growth. There are now more breweries (certainly more than 2,200 at year's end) in this country than we've had at any time in our history. That's useful to consider when you think back to simpler times, when most American cities and towns had several small breweries.

You don't need fancy stats to see that craft beer has made huge inroads in retail and related settings. Just open your eyes. Bottle shops are popping up all over the place. Dive bars that once served nothing but sludge are now pouring craft beer. Big box grocery stores and convenience stores alike have figured out that craft beer is good business and good for business.

Somehow lost in the conversation is the fact that overall craft beer growth is horribly uneven. States like Oregon and Colorado are far ahead of the curve while others, particularly most of the old Confederacy, are so far behind the 8-ball they will likely never catch up.

Of course, state-to-state comparisons obscure the real story...which is that specific areas have experienced off-the-hook growth and are probably producing more beer than they can consume or sell elsewhere. Portland is a prime example, though we are not alone. We now have more than 50 breweries. And counting. How many can we support?

Most beer people would rather not talk about it, but I wonder if we don't already have too many brands competing for a pool of customers that is expanding slower than brewing capacity. The signs of an overcrowded marketplace are already out there for anyone who cares to look.

First there's wacky. In a overcrowded marketplace, brands must work hard to differentiate themselves. Around here, we see this represented by the escalating number of strange concoctions...brewers using fruit or spices in IPAs. It won't be long before someone invents Grasshopper IPA, dry-hopped (obviously) with organic grasshoppers. Sounds yummy! (If you see this on a future episode of Portlandia, remember you heard it here first.)

Then there's price. I've watched prices for craft beer in stores and pubs steadily increase over the past couple of years. In a shitty economy, no less. I realize craft dollar volume is growing slightly faster than production volume (15 to 13 percent for 2011, according to the Brewers Association). But rising prices in an ultra-competitive market during bad economic times? This can't be a supply and demand issue because we have more than enough supply. Are prices rising to make up for lagging sales volume? Hmmm...something to contemplate.

For now, though, I'm gonna kick back and enjoy a pint of (experimental) Grasshopper IPA.

Happy New Year!


  1. Probably not more than in history--150 years ago there were around 3000 (though the stats are not totally reliable), but probably they low-ball rather than high-ball things.


  2. I was going to say "recorded history," which would have jived with the Brewers Association graphic. Oh well.


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