The beer market is trending down, and craft volume is flat. Breweries are closing at a record clip. Input costs are up. Drinkers are often turning to wine or spirits, or else they’re becoming “sober curious.”
If you run a brewery in 2024, it’s as if the bad news just keeps on coming. As always, there are bright spots and success stories dotted here and there across the map—overall, however, the reality is that the current headwinds are as tough as they’ve been in years.
Thing is, except for the boom years of roughly 2005 to 2019, times have pretty much always been challenging for craft brewers. They were tough in the 1970s when Fritz Maytag rescued Anchor from almost certain insolvency and rebuilt it into a regional brewing power. They were tough a decade later when a handful of microbrewery pioneers had to battle the massive marketing budgets of the national brewers to win over customers one palate at a time. And they were tough in the mid-1990s, when a slew of wannabes stampeded to market, watering down the premise that craft was born of passion and creativity and flooding store shelves with gimmicky, flash-in-the-pan look-alikes.
Yes, competition for taps and shelf space is fierce today. Yet craft market share is exponentially larger than it was in the early to mid-1990s, when North American craft breweries were counted in the hundreds rather than the thousands. Plus, unlike their predecessors, most 21st century breweries have the advantage of taprooms and on-site bottle shops.
Given that context, and in recognition of the wisdom gained from experience, we reached out to seven craft-brewing veterans—all of whom have left the industry following years of sustained success—and asked each for any advice and perspective they’d have for present-day owners and operators.