“We drink our fill, then sell the rest.”
“We only brew what we want to drink.”
“We brew for our tastes; we don’t care if anyone else drinks it.”
Anyone else remember bold statements like that? I’m pretty sure I still have some promotional materials from the early 1990s with this kind of stuff on them.
Statements like that used to be the unofficial motto of a number of new brewers. They were going to make good beer even if no one was knocking on their door to buy it. They were going to make what they wanted, whatever the consequences. They made lagers, even when they knew they cost more to make. They made Belgian styles, knowing that educating the consumer about such niche beers would be an uphill fight. They made sours, when so many people—other brewers, too—thought “sour” was nothing but a flaw. And yes, they threw a ton of hops in the beer, when there was still a discussion about “too much hops,” which seems quaint now.
Where’s that spirit today? I don’t mean that brewers aren’t making beers they like anymore. They’d be crazy not to. But the ballsiness verging on arrogance seems gone. What do brewers make today? The stuff that someone else is making that gets wet-pants reviews online. More IPAs (but with new hops and late additions); more wild ales (but with new techniques); more stouts (but with new added flavors). The stuff that the loudest customers want.
Brewers are more customer-driven, a direct democracy, not the republic that we had before, when the brewers used their best judgment on what beers were good. Now they mostly make what we make the most noise for, and what we spend the most money on. It’s gone from, “We brew what we want to drink,” to, “We’ll brew what you want to drink. Just tell us what that is.” Crowdsourcing, in a more or less direct way.
Well, maybe it is. So is that a Good thing, or a Bad thing? Because this isn’t a rant, a moping whine for the good old days. It’s an observation of a fundamental shift in guidance; maybe it’s maturity from the brewers and the drinkers.
After all, who wants to be told what to drink? Not me, not at all. But back when the brewers made the decisions, most of us had no idea what we wanted to drink, just “not Bud Light.” Once we tried some of those beers, we started deciding what we liked; more hops, less fizz, more body, more color, and apparently we didn’t mind if it cost more.
The brewers obliged us. Then they made more beers they didn’t know we’d like: sours and Brett ales, saisons and double IPAs. Turned out we liked those too, so they made more … and along the way, something else happened. What we liked was change. Our favorite flavor became “new.”
I thought that was great, until I remembered what happened with flavored vodka. When flavored vodka first hit big, there were a handful: orange, pepper, lime. People tried them, liked them … and then wanted to try another kind. So we got strawberry, apple, blueberry, lemon, kaffir lime, and then everyone did those, and then there was whipped cream, and Swedish fish, and tomato, and “Dude” (as in “not the trademarked ‘Mountain Dew’ but that flavor”), and “Electricity.” And they almost all lasted about eight months and then went away. People wanted “new” and they got nuts on that. Now most bars have shrunk their selections to a normal size again.
Is that going to happen with beer? Accelerated differences—new hops, new fruits, new bugs, new herbs, new wood—and then poof! It flies up its own ass and we go drink wine?
I don’t think so. I don’t think new is going to go away, either. Rather, with 5,000 breweries, and a significant chunk of the market to play in, I think we have room for fun. There’s room for New England IPAs and all-wild brewers, and there’s also room for session beers and Firestone Walker Brewing Co.’s 805 Blonde Ale. We can buy direct at brewery tasting rooms, or sample at bars, or buy a case to take home. There’s even room for a brewer to stand up, look us right in the eye, and tell us that she’s only going to brew what she’d drink.
I’ll have what she’s having.