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This story caught my eye today:
Mitch Steele of Stone Brewing Co. of Escondido, Calif., the nation's 10th-largest craft brewery, was blunt in speaking at the conference that began Tuesday and ends Friday. "If you are starting a brewery," he said, "please, for God's sake, hire someone who knows what they're doing." Pioneering Oregon brewer John Harris said that at a time when beer education classes are tough to get into, many homebrewers who have little to go on but rave reviews from friends just open their doors and say, "Here we are." He said new breweries should spend as much money on their quality-control program as the brewing equipment.
There is plenty in this worth thinking about. The obvious one is the direct point. These veteran brewers have a legitimate right to not want newbie screw-ups undermining the quality of the craft beer reputation. Just as a rising tide raises all boats, a receding tide does the opposite. If craft gets tainted by a half-assed reputation all brewers will suffer.
Yet that is not the whole story. Elsewhere in the article, Paul Gatza, president of the Brewers Association is stated to have described diacetyl as an example of a typical error. It's just a news article but diacetyl is perfectly acceptable in certain beers, especial in the open primary sort of brewing that exists in Yorkshire and picked up through Alan Pugsly who trained there and those older north-east US micros who took up his lead. There is a cultural thing about diacetyl that looks a lot like a regionalism being dismissed in favour of big craft's love of global homogeneity. Variety is fine as long as they all vary in a similar way. Difference is not really encouraged.
Then, you read a bit more of the article. There is a statement that this is not about keeping the new little guys out. In a companion blog post, however, the costs of quality testing are discussed. It is stated that "one vendor at the Craft Brewers Conference expo hall was pitching a $40,000 testing machine." Like the new startup brewer can afford that. In the same bloggy article Gatza is quoted as saying, at one recent beer fest, "seven or eight of the 10 breweries needed improvement." He then reports that the brewers disagreed, considering their beers were awesome. Which can only be taken to mean Gatza told each of them so. Maybe through judging. Not sure. But what makes those 70-80% wrong? Maybe their beer was exactly as intended.
I have another suspicion. New smaller brewers have and do undersell the established brewers on price now. You see it all the time in central NY beer stores. The $5.99 bomber next to the $12.99 one... or, worse, the $23.99 one. Me, I like to reach for the cheaper one knowing full well I have been more disappointed by wildly over-produced beers that are far too common today than I am by these well priced new entrants to the market. Could it be that what a least a few of those seven or eight out of ten are doing is making good reliable beer at a decent price that doesn't rely on a bourbon barrel, the use of a marketing gimmick such as making a saison-IPA cross or otherwise buying into the narrative that big craft has set out for the new smaller brewers to buy into?
Don't get me wrong. It is likely that two or three beers at that beer fest did suck. But in a market that has bought into a rarified obsession with off flavours over recent years and which has provided established craft brewers with the sorts of revenue that they can buy into the quality control technology just as macro brewers do, well, there comes a point that their distance from actual micro brewing past is screamingly obvious. What these new brewers are doing is no different than big craft did a decade or two ago. Some suck. Most don't. But few are making the sort of over priced sucker juice that big craft would guide drinkers and their buying dollars towards.
It is refreshing seeing my beer budget go farther with this addition to the available shelf space. Don't believe the competition. It's good news that actual small and local entrant are starting up. Sure a few will suck but that's no different than big craft. The little guys not only deserve your support more than big craft trucking its beer in from outside of your market, they deserve your patience. And a bit of your beer budget.