Increased competition within craft beer, attacks from Big Beer, “startup brewers” looking to cash in on the boom: these are the hurdles facing craft beer as the first and second waves of brewers phase out and new generations take over. How will craft beer respond, and where are we headed as a nation of drinkers?
Brooklyn Brewery’s Steve Hindy and I were having lunch in Williamsburg when someone across the bar banged on the table and called out his name. “Steve!”
We both looked over, and everyone at the table had their glasses raised. “We love your beer”, one of them said. I asked Hindy if he knew them, and he shook his head no. He raised his glass in return, a big smile on his face, a touch of red coming through in his cheeks.
We were at the first bar that ever bought and served his beer, Teddy’s, just a few blocks from the brewery. We were talking about what differentiates “big beer”, the ones produced by corporate conglomerates like Anheuser-Busch InBev and MillerCoors, from today’s large craft breweries — Brooklyn Brewery, New Belgium, Sierra Nevada, Sam Adams, and Oskar Blues. He told me all about his grassroots beginnings, about how he, like all craft brewers that emerged in the ’70s, ’80s and ’90s, went door to door with his beer, offering samples to bar and restaurant owners, while big beer had complete control of all the distributors. The interruption from the other table had given Hindy something else to point out — something else that set craft brewers apart.
“See”, he said, “that’s the main difference right there. [Craft brewers] are accessible, part of the neighborhood. How many Coors Light drinkers would be able to identify the CEO of MillerCoors?”
The spontaneous illustration highlighted one of the key aspects of the original craft beer movement: the concept of small brewers introducing locally made beer to their local neighborhoods. Even as today’s large craft brewers have blossomed and expanded, they have remain committed to where they grew up. But as Hindy and Co. begin to approach the age where retirement becomes a not-too-distant reality and the next generation of brewers begin to make a name for themselves, craft beer and its down-home roots are coming to a crossroads. As Kim Jordan of Colorado’s New Belgium Brewery put it,
“There’s a fairly big shift happening as the founders of this movement transition out. There’s a new dynamic brewing that we haven’t seen before.”