Arlington, VA

This sponsored column is written by Nick Anderson, beermonger at Arrowine (4508 Lee Highway).

Expounding a bit on the last column’s theme of anger in craft beer, this time within the industry itself.

This is the true story of 7,500 breweries, competing in the same marketplace, with the number of outlets having not increased at the same exponential rate, as we find out what happens when “craft beer” stops being polite, and starts getting real.

This is the American craft beer industry, 2019: Anger over breweries closing; breweries opening; breweries “selling out”; kids in taprooms; taprooms versus bars; whether new styles are actually styles, or if they’re actually beer; if traditionally-minded beers are traditional enough and who gets to decide; what’s local and what’s “local”; what’s “craft” and what isn’t.

I reached out to people in the industry both personally and on social media to ask why craft beer seems so much angrier than it did a couple years ago. A major theme emerged — saturation (emphasis mine in italics).

“Personally, I think it stems from the saturation of the market.”

“…distribution is basically flat with tons of breweries opening up or in planning… the competitive aspect of the business is getting more intense… supplier reps getting shadier and shadier as shelf space gets tighter…”

“10 years ago, when there were only 2,000 craft breweries out there to choose from, there was enough elbow room. Now with 7,000+, not so much… We may be near the saturation point… It’s no longer a ‘rising tide lifts all boats’ situation…”

Some respondents found blame with brewery reps, with one buyer noting how they’re “getting a lot more pushy,” and an industry veteran referring to the “new breed” of reps from breweries acquired by larger interests as “widget salespeople… more concerned with their numbers” than the culture and history of beer.

Newer breweries caught their share of shade. One brewer told me “a lot of them are horrible,” chiding owners “who think they know more” than their often more experienced brewers. A former brewery sales rep lamented these new breweries “bending over backwards” to get draft lines, often skirting if not outright ignoring laws in the process.

That former sales rep hit on another common theme — “getting much more attitude from buyers and consumers about what I wasn’t doing for them.” Entitlement came up more than once, with one distributor sales manager slagging those they see “trashing a beer or brewer or brewery because he’s an ‘expert’ because he has 800 check-ins on untapped.”

I still felt like there was something more behind it all, and then I heard from a bar/restaurant buyer, “Economic (i)nsecurity causes fear and anger is a fight or flight response to fear. It’s fear displaying as anger” from a segment of the industry that “(s)pent so long with double digit growth and prosperity that everyone forgot it is a business.”

And there it was. Craft beer is afraid.

Now, dismissing bubble speculation is craft beer’s unofficial pastime — hell, I even wrote a column about it my first time here. What has my attention now is that the call is coming from inside the house. That bar/restaurant buyer ended our conversation linking to this tweet, putting a fine point to it; as one current brewery rep put it: “It’s getting real out here.”

Until next time.

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