A decade or more down the road, when we look back at this era of craft beer’s history, I suspect we may find ourselves quoting that classic Dickens line, “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.” Craft beer’s explosive growth over the past ten years has been marked by both the unbridled enthusiasm of possibility and a concurrent Chicken-Little dread of its imminent collapse, creating a tension and disbelief as the more dire predictions failed to materialize.
But here we are now, more than a half decade past the start of the loudest “this bubble is going to burst” cries, with more than 6,000 operating breweries in the United States and at least another thousand in planning—almost four times as many breweries as existed back in 2008. It’s been quite a wild ride, and while it may sound cliché, the only constant has been change.
When I look back at the Spring 2014 issue of Craft Beer & Brewing Magazine®, our first focusing on IPAs, I’m reminded of just how fast this change can happen. At least a dozen of the beers we reviewed, including blue-chip beers such as Stone IPA or New Belgium Ranger IPA, have been reformulated, rebranded, or retired. The beer drinker’s love affair with West Coast IPAs that started in the mid 2000s and drove that early phase of growth has today yielded its energy and excitement to a diverse array of concurrently popular styles—sour and wild ales, hazy and fruity New England–style IPAs, barrel-aged beers, and all manner of adjunct-laden beers inspired by culinary flavors. Time will tell how much staying power these current trendy styles will have, but from a beer drinker’s perspective, it’s the best of times.
The business of making and selling beer is more of a mixed story. Modest market share goals gave way to bold predictions of 20 percent share by 2020, and while the craft sector in 2017 continued to eke out year-over-year growth, the single-digit growth levels have been cast by many as the start of the bust cycle. Brewers who took on debt based on 2013–2015 growth trajectories are facing real financial challenges that are, in some cases, causing ownership changes. Regional craft brewers who enjoyed consistent growth over the past decade face not only the traditional challenge of big beer, but also growing competition from alternative business models focused on hyperlocal own-premise sales.
And those small and local breweries focusing on taproom sales (and cans and bottles sold through their own taprooms) face increasing competition from similarly scaled breweries and brewpubs, as the concept of “local” represents smaller and smaller geographic areas. There’s more interest in craft beer than ever before but also more competition than ever. Best of times, worst of times.
This environment of tougher competition, savvier consumers, and fast-moving trends, can be a tough one to navigate, but success is still out there for those who seek it. We’ve designed this magazine, the Craft Beer & Brewing Magazine® Brewing Industry Guide, to study the practices of those breweries who are taking calculated risks, finding growth, and future-proofing their businesses by adapting quickly to changing circumstances. From topical departments to brewery case studies, we hope you find valuable insight in these pages that helps you improve your own brewing business so that your future represents those best of times.