Monday, May 5, 2014

The Ugly Truth About Craft Beer

Craft beer in America is exploding. As of 2013, there were over 2,388 breweries that had or where operating in the United States, with literally hundreds more in the process of opening. (UPDATE: As of 2016, there are now over 4,000 breweries in the United States!)

Craft brewers are making tremendous strides in converting people to the idea that the pursuit of flavor is a damn good thing. While the big beers continue to lose market share, the craft segment is growing. It’s no longer unusual to see excellent craft beers on tap in even the most generic of chain restaurant or dive bars. The fact that I recently had Ommegang’s Fire & Blood at an Applebee’s, of all places, is astonishing.

But craft beer has a dirty little secret: most of it is mediocre at best.

Not only is most of it pretty mediocre, when it comes to the dozens of new breweries we see every week, a lot of it is actually pretty bad.

We don’t like to talk about this truth. We craft beer enthusiasts are focused on spreading the gospel of good beer. On swaying people away from tasteless mass-produced lagers. On finding the next great beer to celebrate.

There is nothing wrong with any of that, either. It’s all a part of what makes getting into better beer so much fun. It’s a joy to explore new beers and introduce others to beers they will come to love.

The fact is, though, most of those thousands of new breweries just aren’t very good. They're being launched by well meaning people who made homebrew their friends loved, and based on that decided they were ready to go pro. They're young guys who are only a few years removed from their Steel Reserve days ready to show the world how it’s done because they have some clever ideas, brewers who saw how Sam Caligione broke the rules and figure they can do it, too, and so on.

It’s not that easy, though. As a homebrewer myself (and a decidedly average one at that), I know the daydream. I know about fantasizing about beer ideas and everyone loving them and all that.

The reality of brewing is much different.

The rah rah rah! your friends give you should never be taken to heart. Just like writers should never take the praise of friends and family too seriously, neither should brewers. If you are not your own worst critic, you are doing something wrong.

Sadly, many of these drinkable-but-not-particularly-good homebrewers are now vying for shelf space in the pro world, making the chase for good new beers a crapshoot for the adventurous drinker.

If you are exploring craft beer and stick to better known names, it’s hard to go wrong. There is so much good beer out there it's impossible to keep up. The folks who have earned a reputation have done so by earning the trust of drinkers over the years. Few big name craft brewers don’t actually deserve their reputation – I’m looking at you, Rogue, and your overpraised, overpriced swill – but what about the thousands of new brewers we have seen spring up in the last five years or so?

There is a reason why few have ended up on your radar, and it ain’t marketing.

It’s because they are bland.

I hate to say it, because I LOVE supporting the new guy, the little guy, the local guy. I tried to champion them in my Year of Beer series for the Philadelphia Weekly. Thing is, most of the stuff I explore from the newer breweries just isn’t very good. It's drinkable, and that's it.

That's the truth.

And it’s a truth too few of us craft beer enthusiasts are talking about. We’re so intent on carrying the anti-big brewer flag we forget that being a cheerleader for craft is not enough. We have to demand that these new brewers make a quality product. These small breweries need to be good if the craft movement is going to grow beyond a mere niche (and rest assured, it's still a niche), and we need to be willing to call them out when they're producing mediocre product.

Because too many of them are.

PS -- if it seems like I pointedly avoided naming names in this post, it's true, I did. I don't want to trash anyone in particular, though I did have a number of newer craft breweries in mind when writing this.