I really like Oliver Gray. He’s a great writer, a thoughtful person, and a joy to be around. So when I saw him tweet about “The Session” he was hosting, I was instantly curious. It’s a series of blog prompts among fellow writers—a shared responsibility amongst the unofficial group—in which one person proposes a theme and the rest ponder, articulate their point of view. Then the “host" gathers and comments on the results. A fine idea now on it’s 111th post!
This month’s prompt is “Surviving a Beer Midife Crisis,” and since I was getting on a sleepy Friday morning flight home from the Craft Brewers Conference, I figured it was a nice thing to think about. Mostly because I couldn’t disagree more with the feelings that Oliver, bless him, is having about beer right now. But I’m looking at it from the position of someone who works every minute of every day in beer. And that’s going to be my perspective here.
When I think of a midlife crisis, I picture what most people probably do. A middle-aged man, working a job he’s lost interest in, becoming detached from his family in an existential cocoon, and buying up sports cars and golf clubs to escape the fear of a meaningless life. I’m a perfect candidate on paper. I’m turning 38 years old (or might already be, I can’t remember anymore). I have two boys (2.5 years, and a 2-month-old) and work nonstop. That’s a recipe for a hard turn on 40. But having started the business of Good Beer Hunting three years ago (almost to the day), my experience has been anything but crisis. It’s been exhilarating. And that experience as a father, business owner, and beer industry professional has made all the difference.
“You look younger than the last time I saw you,” said Rob Kolb of Transmiter Brewing as he shook my hand last night at Martha in Northern Philly over some Green Bench Beemo Saison. Three years ago, just as GBH was turning into a strategic and creative business that partners with breweries of all sizes, I stood with Rob in his garage space under the Pulaski bridge on the edge of Long Island City. He was exhausted, literally trying to open the doors on Transmitter in time for Craft Beer Week, and hosting his first group of people—a walking tour with Joshua Bernstein, with me in tow. Neither of us said much. I think we were both fantasizing about sleep at that point. He was still working his advertising gig. I was just shaking off the habits and rituals of a 60-70 hour work week in the innovation industry. Both of us were excited, but anxious about the days ahead.
Three years later, here he is at CBC surrounded by a host of friends and colleagues, and he’s able to say, “I just quit the job. Full time at the brewery now.”
I didn’t get into beer to slow it down. But many of the folks that were first-friends in beer seem to feel that way about the incredible speed and diversity of the industry as it changes underneath our feet every day. They want the cozy subculture back. They want the bottle shares in the taproom with the same 15 people every week. They want the simple proposition of better beer, made by hardworking saints, who never want to change. In short, they want it to be about them. And that’s become a sort of dogma. This industry that preaches innovation and newness and curiosity, seems less open to new ideas, new people, and change than ever before. But that’s just one of the grumble bubbles. It doesn’t define beer.
I define beer by the people who will be a part of its future. In fact, some of my favorite people in beer, and perhaps in my life for some time to come, are people I’ve met in the past three years and done important work with. People like the Crowley family out of Connecticut who started Stoney Creek Brewery and sold 10,000 barrels of goddamn delicious beer in their first year despite everyone saying they couldn’t make the transition from a down-market contract Lager brand to a full-fledged regional craft brewery. They just opened Boston, and the whole of Massachusetts this month.
Or Jake, Josh, and Chris at Central State Brewing in Indianapolis who wanted to build an all-Brett brewery with a flagship Brett Blonde Ale. Despite all the shaking heads and the grumbling, they emptied their first 30 BBLs of cans into the market last week and it’s gone.
Or Andrew Emerton and Lauren Salazar of New Belgium, who have one of the oldest and most legendary sour programs in the country, and are still looking at the innovation in the market and helping lead the critical conversation on the future of the category for sour, like we did at our open forum at CBC this week. All these people are ignoring the “you can’t do that” ethos of what’s become an old guard in craft beer, and doing it anyways.
There are 6,000 active TTB licenses in the U.S. right now, according to the BA. That means, in the next couple of years, we could see 1,000-2,000 more breweries. Instead of applause, that line got a collective groan from an audience of craft brewers. For those people, more breweries means more competition, or noise, depending on how you look at it, that they have to fight through every day to sell their beer. And the assumption seems to be that these new people are either getting in to it for the wrong reasons (money) or they’re young and dumb and they’re going to screw everything up with low quality beer.
That sounds like a form of midlife crisis to me. And fuck that.
When I hear 2,000 new breweries are on their way, I get excited about 2,000 new hands to shake and new ideas to hear. Because I know, as someone devoted to the future of this industry, that in that mix of 2,000 new breweries is a bunch of perspectives that are not like my own. There are models emerging from that evolutionary soup that we can’t predict or articulate yet. And there will be individuals that will brew with a purpose, albeit differently inspired and motivated than her predecessors, that will connect with audiences that we ignorantly dismiss at our own peril. And that’s what keeps the blood flowing for me. Bob Pease talked about how the real battle for market share is with spirits and wine, while beer share gradually declines overall. You think we’re going to reverse that flow with another IPA? I don’t. And I’m looking to those next 2,000 breweries to help us figure it out.
If you think, even secretly, that your success in craft beer had anything to do with how wide open the shelf was at the time you started, I sincerely hope you’re listening for a ticking clock. The people coming up behind you are entering the most diverse and competitive beer market in the history of beer in this country. And they’re not complaining about it. They’re shaping their ideas into sharper, more precise weapons. They’re finding smarter financial models they can sustain. They’re brewing for audiences that are perpetually turning 21 even as we get older and older. And when they look across the tap lineup at their neighborhood bar, they don’t see AB or MillerCoors. They see you.
“You look younger than the last time I saw you,” he said. And so does everyone around me that’s leaning into the future.
Beer is so much more than what's in the bottle for the men and women who make it and sell it. There are real livelihoods at stake, and they spend an inordinate amount of time thinking about the industry they serve. These are their forward-looking thoughts, and their critical thinking on what's happening now.See more Critical Drinking™ stories