On April 7, the New York Times published an op-ed by Boston Beer founder Jim Koch about the “ beginning of the end of the craft beer revolution,” citing slowed growth and interference by macro brewers like AB-Inbev. We asked Greg Doroski, head brewer at Brooklyn’s Threes Brewing, to share his thoughts on Koch’s piece.
How much is enough: for the beer industry, for craft breweries, for brewery owners, and for individual brewers? How much do we need to grow? How much more beer do we really need to make?
What troubles me about Boston Beer Company founder Jim Koch’s NY Times op-ed is not his conclusion — “[that] we may be witnessing the beginning of the end of the American craft beer revolution” — but his suggestion that the biggest threat facing craft beer is external, and the implicit assumption that growth is the primary measure of our success. Don’t get me wrong, market consolidation is scary, and these conglomerates can do, and do, real harm, but the same could be said of some bigger regional breweries that imitate the anti-free-market tendencies of the big macros.
In a very real sense, the growth of increasingly large regional breweries and the continued emergence of small local breweries are at odds with each other, particularly as the market levels out. As more and more good local breweries enter the market we shouldn’t be surprised if there is less and less demand for non-local beer of similar quality and style. And while this may depress the potential for growth for breweries beyond their home markets, overall I believe this is clearly positive for the industry as a whole, and for local communities.
While Boston Beer Company may want to cast itself as a David against the big bad Goliath of macro beer, it is important to recognize that they face significant pressure from the many small local breweries making great, interesting, and innovative beer across the country. We shouldn’t discount the threat that these beers and breweries pose to aging brands and breweries that have prioritized growth of market share over innovation, relevance, and sustainability. But, at least to me, this pressure from the bottom is necessary and should be celebrated. It’s these small breweries that gave us New England Style IPA, it’s these breweries that started the on-site retail package revolution, and it’s these breweries that will likely bring us the next big thing.
I am a firm believer that small, independent, locally focused breweries are vital to the long-term success of our industry. I believe there is plenty of room in many markets to support continued overall growth so long as we remember that we can’t all produce 50,000 barrels of beer a year or have markets in 50 states. Out of code (expired!) beer collecting dust on store shelves from breweries that are located hundreds of miles away benefits no one.
Just as it would be unwise for a new brewery to launch solely with a Boston Lager clone, it is equally imprudent for us all to jump into the battle for shelf space with similar beer at grocery stores five states away from our home territories. We must not allow ourselves to focus on the battle for market share without considering each of our places in the greater whole. While beer is clearly a business, bigger is not necessarily better (and to be clear, big isn’t necessarily bad either). Just because you can add another tank, or commission a bigger brew house, doesn’t mean you should. While it’s not for me to decide how big each craft brewery should get, I would ask that everyone planning to expand their current capacity to look inward first and ask themselves how much is enough — because maybe enough is enough already.