In the past week, a couple of articles have commented on the sorry state of craft beer. One article in Just Drinks by veteran beer writer Stephen Beaumont focused on the impact hazy IPAs have had on craft beer. Several brewers interviewed for the piece lamented the rise of hazy IPAs, with one even complaining about having to brew a style they didn’t personally prefer or even respect. A generation of hazy IPA lovers were dismissed as “lazy craft beer drinkers who are not willing to explore any other styles…” 

Hazy IPA too often serves as the whipping post for any cold takes by grumpy old craft beer cowboys. Now I’ve long been a critic of hazy IPAs, largely because of the sameness of many iterations of the style, which comically present themselves as different beers. (Cue the joke, “This one was hopped with Citra, Mosaic, and Galaxy. And we hopped this one with Galaxy, Citra, and Mosaic. And this one has Mosaic, Galaxy, and Citra.”) 

I also find many versions of the style not to my personal taste and that’s totally fine. I personally would love to see bitterness and balance make a return to craft beer supremacy but there are still plenty of non-hazy IPAs available in nearly every tap room from coast to coast, so no need to complain. I still drink hazy IPAs on occasion, but we would all do well to keep in mind the maxim of “drink what you like.” 

The Hazy IPA Conspiracy Begins

The criticisms cited in the Just Drinks piece, while hardly new in craft beer discussion circles, are representative of long held grievances against a style that has seemingly buoyed the industry during what otherwise would have been even tougher times. Holding hazy IPAs up as the culprits behind craft beer’s stagnation in recent years is more based on vibes than reality. 

Even criticizing the uniformity of the hazy IPA experience seems a little rich as it’s not like the amber, brown, and pale ales that once dominated craft beer were all that different from one another. Just as with modern hazy IPAs, some were produced poorly, some expertly, but flavor and aroma wise, they were also all pretty similar. That’s the whole point of beer styles.

That some or even many brewers don’t themselves love hazy IPAs hardly matters. Unlike the 1990s and early 2000s when craft beer was personality driven (RIP the “rock star brewer” era), consumers today don’t connect with breweries on an individual or personality level. They don’t know, let alone care that the brewer doesn’t like the style. 

As a rare voice of sensibility relating to hazy IPAs, Lee Lord, brewmaster at Narragansett in Rhode Island, counseled in Just Drinks that brewers need to “keep an eye on emerging and young consumers and see how we can help each other get a new generation excited and passionate about craft beer”. 

Another common conspiracy theory is that the emergence of hazy IPAs caused thousands of new breweries to open that otherwise shouldn’t have. As an industry, craft brewing is no stranger to trend-chasing outsiders jumping into the beer business with dollar signs in their eyes. Hazy IPA didn’t cause the huge rise in the number of craft breweries in the past fifteen years, though its vibrant sales helped sustain many new breweries.  

At the heart of this debate appears to be a seemingly straightforward yet hard to answer question: should craft beer be brewer directed or consumer directed? 

Nano Breweries Changed Everything

Individuals looking to see when things changed for craft beer should go back a few years before the emergence of the hazy IPA style and reconnect with the most significant and influential change that craft beer has experienced in the past fifteen years: the rise of the nano. Largely forgotten in craft beer lore, nanobreweries changed the DNA of craft beer. They radically altered the business model, which went from battling it out for space on liquor and grocery store shelves and bar and restaurant tap handles to an own-premise model where small breweries pivoted to selling beer through their own taprooms, keeping more of the profits in-house. 

The modern nano-brewery trend (putting aside pioneers such as New Albion, Dogfish Head, and other OG small start-ups) started around 2010 with the emergence of dozens and then thousands of small brewery players who only intended to sell beer in their own taprooms. 

The first I can recall visiting was Hess Brewing in San Diego, which debuted its tiny brewing operation in 2010, starting in an 800 square foot industrial space. Founder Mike Hess started a blog, appropriately called the Mike Hess Brewing Odyssey, that chronicled in real time the process of opening his tiny brewery. The blog, which recounted everything from the banalities of navigating municipal bureaucratic regimes to sourcing raw ingredients for brewing, became required reading for hundreds of individuals looking to open their own small breweries around the country. 

On entering the tiny space, complete with a small bar fronting a few tap handles, Hess felt to me more like a curiosity than a harbinger of things to come. But nanos helped create the future of craft beer in which we live. It’s not that today’s landscape is filled with thousands of nanos. The founders of these tiny operations quickly learned that while opening such small spaces kept the capital expenditures down, the math just didn’t work to make them successful businesses. Brewing a 1 or 3 barrel batch takes roughly the same amount of time that a 20 or 100 barrel batch does. But consumers run through that beer at insanely quick rates, requiring a lot of effort to replenish quickly depleted stocks. 

So the nanobrewers, including Hess, quickly learned they needed to vastly scale up their operations if they were going to stay in business. By 2013, Hess had opened a 30 barrel brewery and tap room and has gone on to open several more locations. But it all started with a dream, a little money, and a few barrels of beer at a time served right to his customers in his own shop. 

At the time Hess opened in 2010, there were only 1700 breweries in the United States and it felt like a lot. For most of craft beer’s existence, roughly the same number of breweries opened as closed in a given year. In 2010, 63 opened, and 51 closed. That would be the last year these numbers were roughly on par until 2023. By 2011, 91 opened, and 28 closed. By 2018, 461 breweries opened, and 99 closed. Brewery openings would spike, while closures remained low, until COVID hit. In 2023, 165 breweries opened, while 145 closed. 

Nano breweries and their own-premise model paved the way for the modern craft beer business. 

While the nano model may not have survived, the idea of selling beer in your own tap room took hold, and this was the single biggest change in craft beer in decades. Instead of distributing beer widely across a region or even the country, and trying to sell a handful of common and popularly agreeable styles, brewers could experiment more. They could also act responsively to consumers, who gave them invaluable and immediate face-to-face feedback in contrast to faceless consumers in far flung states. 

Who’s In Charge Here?

At the heart of this debate appears to be a seemingly straightforward yet hard to answer question: should craft beer be brewer directed or consumer directed? 

Brewers long loved to boast that they “brew the beer we want to drink.” But that slogan only made sense in a time when flavorful beer was trying to differentiate itself from macro produced beers. Once craft beer infiltrated the mainstream and became ubiquitous in bars, restaurants, and package stores in the farthest reaches of the country, the idea behind that shibboleth ceased to exist. After routinely receiving direct feedback from customers, that brewers chose to be responsive to popular views, especially in the case of hazy IPAs, is hardly something to criticize. It’s simply good business. Others decry that “marketing” has negatively impacted craft beer. This argument also feels like a strawman for the old “brewer-driven” approach to craft beer that many claim has disappeared.

In one laugh out loud moment in the Just Drinks piece, an “anonymous veteran brewer” blamed craft brewers for their predicament. 

“A large segment of beer drinkers only wants to drink ‘hop juice’ because that’s what they’ve been told they want and breweries became obsessed with making the ‘latest and greatest’ beer that they could charge a lot for. All that stymied innovation and creativity.”

Again, brewers seem pissed that consumers don’t share their palates and style preferences. The level of griping from brewers over the alleged death of the “brewer-driven” model would be laughable if it didn’t have such serious real world consequences for an industry that can’t seem to plot a direction for its future. 

The popularity of consumer products, including beer, wine, and spirits, ebbs and flows over time. In just the past decade, we’ve seen the rise and fall of cocktails, cider, hard seltzers, and many others. Each will continue to play some role in the drinking landscape but no drink has a right to the public’s attention. Craft beer has many issues but chief among them is a generational disconnect. The audience for craft beer continues to age, younger folks make fun of craft beer dads and their beer samplers on TikTok, and the industry stands in a corner publicly wishcasting for the return of “beer-flavored beer.” 

To criticize an active and engaged audience of hazy IPA drinkers just because you don’t personally prefer the style or think they should be drinking helles is self-defeating. Hazy IPA has helped connect younger drinkers to craft beer. Unless you want a taproom occupied by a handful of 55 year old dudes grumbling about the good old days on RateBeer and BeerAdvocate, I’m not sure that shitting on hazy IPAs makes any sense.

Our journalism needs your support. Please visit our Patreon Page to show your appreciation for independent beer writing.