Grown Up, but Still Growing
What’s good for the brewers of American specialty beers generally is good for American drinkers of specialty beers. Just think back to when there was almost none of the former.
A mere 21 years ago, Michael Jackson wrote in his first Pocket Guide to Beer: “The overwhelming majority of beers produced in the United States are of but one style: they are pale lager beers vaguely of the pilsner style but lighter in body, notably lacking hop character, and generally bland in palate. They do not all taste exactly the same but the differences between them are often of minor consequence.”
Quite simply, breweries—whether they were small regionals, large regionals or wanna be nationals—that tried to compete based not on the beer in the bottle but on price, efficient distribution, and marketing during the second half of the 20th century were steamrolled. Yet most went down selling that same basic American pale lager.
Breweries, most but not all of them new, that have since risen to the top of brewing operations not known as Anheuser-Busch, Miller or Coors sell something different. In the process, they’ve given America back a diverse beer culture. Many have grown steadily for 10 years or more, and grown up as businesses. While stories about breweries stitched together from old dairy tanks and other found materials make great reading, today’s not-so-microbreweries are some of the most modern brewing operations in the world, no matter the size.
Understand that “big” is a relative term—Sierra Nevada brewed 10 times the beer that Great Divide Brewing (Denver) made in 2002, while Anheuser-Busch’s production was 180 times Sierra Nevada’s. It is the big little guys who put most of the beer in our collective specialty beer fridge. They’ve broadened our choices not only with what they produce but also by building the ballroom in which all brewers—including the ones using small and sometimes funky systems—can dance.
New Belgium Brewing co-founder Kim Jordan made that point earlier this year in a rousing keynote speech at the Craft Brewers Conference in New Orleans. “It seems clear to me that we are all part of a single industry, and we must work together to thrive. Just as each of us stewards brands within our breweries, we have a collective brand, the Craft Brewers of America,” She said. “Whether a brewery is a leader, a surging upstart, a niche player or even one struggling, everyone pulls the same amount of benefit from a strong category.”
Jordan’s speech provoked plenty of discussion within the industry, particularly when she challenged its members to triple their share (now 3.4 percent) of the American beer market.
“Four years ago at this conference in Phoenix I was on a panel. Our topic was ‘How can we achieve 10 percent nation-wide market share?’ We said we can’t,” she said. “I look back on that and I am amazed at myself. That is contrary to everything I believe. Because I think that in order to be great, you have to aspire to greatness. If we, as an industry, want to achieve 10 percent market share, we need to see that as our destination, plan what we’re each going to do to support making that happen, and then get after it.”