Opinion: Why Craft Beer Is Dying

Photo by Tj Turner

Simon Nielsen is the head brewer at Central Waters Brewing Company in Amherst, Wisconsin. He has worked in the craft beer industry for six years. The opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the author. 

As I write this, I am sitting at the counter of a coffee shop in my hometown of Appleton, Wisconsin. There are four cans of fruited hazy IPA and pastry stouts available, and a tap line of God knows what. I would describe them as styles that are chasing trends in the current craft beer market. However, I am also fairly often described as, among other things, a pessimist.

I am a 32-year-old craft brewer. I have spent most of my career at Central Waters Brewing Company in Amherst, Wisconsin. Most of my time there has been spent as their head brewer. I shouldn’t feel like the “old guy” in the industry yet, but I do. As consumers are leaving flagship brands in the dust and instead clamoring for whatever the latest styles are, I am finding brewers like myself growing exhausted by the pace of releases and constant need to push boundaries, seemingly just for the sake of doing so.

So how did we get here?

If we rewind the tape on how the craft beer revolution began, images of a young Ken Grossman building Sierra Nevada from the ground up in 1980 spring to mind, as well as those of pioneers like Fritz Maytag (Anchor Brewing Company), Jack Mcauliffe (New Albion Brewing Company), and “The Beerhunter” Michael Jackson. These early brewers and writers built a movement by producing and writing about beer styles that had generally fallen by the wayside, including stouts, porters, and pale ales.

Later, breweries such as Dogfish Head would begin to take these styles to another level by experimenting with the addition of culinary ingredients or brewing techniques that were novel to beer. Dogfish Head, established in 1995, produced beers that were far outside of what was considered normal at the time—beers loaded with ingredients like maple syrup, raisins, beet sugar, pumpkin, and anything else you could wrap your head around. Their production brewery lost money for years and had to pull in resources from their restaurant just to stay open. They had a vision, though—a belief in a truth that they wanted to express—and they believed it would translate. Eventually, it did, and they are now producing nearly 300,000 barrels of beer a year and merged with Boston Beer Company this spring.

So what exactly is the difference between the innovation this industry was built upon and what we are witnessing today? On the surface, I will admit, there does not appear to be much of one. The beers sitting in front of me today seem almost like the next logical progression. However, once you look beneath the surface, I believe the differences become much more obvious.

Today’s consumers have more choices in beers and brands than ever before. With roughly 7,000 breweries in the U.S. and more on the way, consumers are becoming buried beneath options. That isn’t a bad thing, necessarily, unless the majority of those options are becoming increasingly similar to one another.

To me, that—the loss of originality—is what is killing the heart of our movement. Where have the artists gone? Where have the brewers with something to say gone? I understand that the liquor store shelves are lined with a plethora of overly hopped, juicy, hazy, fruity beers, but why? Is it because we are all suddenly extremely passionate about this one style, or is it because we are all desperate to have an offering in that hot new style category?

To me, that — the loss of originality — is what is killing the heart of our movement. Where have the artists gone? Where have the brewers with something to say gone?

– Simon Nielsen, head brewer at Central Waters Brewing Company

I can tell you from being embedded deep inside this industry that many brewers are scrambling to pack ingredients and haze into beers often to appease their consumers, not because those are the beers we are reaching for at the end of a brew day. It is not what many of us are passionate about. Sorry—someone had to rip that band-aid off. Might as well be me.

While I have heard people blame millennials, who allegedly can’t drink the same beer twice, for this current culture, I would argue that the real problem lies with us, the brewers. Many of us are actively chasing trends in an effort to gain or maintain our market share and stay relevant, and that is inherently unprofitable. When a company, no matter the industry, spends time and resources trying to catch a wave that has already peaked, it is riding that wave on its way back down. When a company spends that same time developing its own unique offerings, however, it creates its own wave that it can ride in its entirety. It is a risk to go with your own unproven creation; it may not resonate with people. It is far easier to go with what seems to be working in the market, but in the long term, that decision carries with it the risk of slowly killing what it is we have all fought together to build.

So, we have a couple of options. We can stop blaming the market and the consumer. Brewers, we can be bold and create. Remember why it is you took out that loan for brewing school, worked two jobs to make ends meet, and chased your dreams; it was because you had a vision. Owners, allow your brewers to take your brand in directions that may break away from IPAs and pastry stouts. When we decide to focus on what caused craft beer to be so special to us in the first place, we will maintain the integrity of what made our movement so special and differentiated us all those years ago when the first craft brewers began their breweries. When we attempt to control our market share by chasing what we think consumers want, we lose our identity and our individuality and are no longer artists. We may as well peel off that “independent” craft beer seal from our labels and sell the brewery to AB InBev. That is the equivocation of the second option.

After all, what was that word that we used to describe the difference between all of the large beer brands for years? Oh, yeah: Sameness.