Wednesday, April 4, 2018

Beer Bubble - Has it Busted?

Considering the recent events regarding San Diego’s Green Flash, the nerves of our beer community have been rattled. The casualties near me in Orange County aren’t particularly numerous, but they are noticeable. Those worthy of note are Alcatraz in 2013 and Valiant in 2017, both in the city of Orange and Evans Brewing Company’s taking over Bayhawk Ales out of Irvine by 2014. There is also the constant fear of when the next buy-out will happen.

Has the beer bubble busted? Is there a bubble at all? Perhaps, but perhaps not. That’s a tough question to ask a community of vocal and brash opinionated individuals. We may have our individual vested interest to answer one way or another. Whether you are in the industry or not, if you are reading this, odds are you love beer as much as I do and appreciate the people associated with it. We know brewery owners, brewers, beertenders, and reps by first names and are some of the best friends to have. We love brewers and their passion, there’s no question about that. Especially those that are approachable and are willing to at least shake your hand. In my eyes, they are the real celebrities of this industry. It’s understandable to fear that fast-approaching sharp object if we feel we’re part of the bubble.

So, the bubble has popped or it is at least approaching the needle, right? It depends how you look at it and who you ask (as is the case with almost any subject). I believe it's a complicated recipe of over-saturation, the rapid expansion of individual breweries, a dash of not enough education/quality control, boiling with vocal consumers, and with a sprinkle of poor business decisions.

Some breweries start off small and grow at a faster than the expansion of the universe. Ill-advised decisions might be the culprit in these cases. Others begin out of the gate with large, multi-million-dollar facilities yet don't produce a quality product to put their money where their beer is. Yet, they release it anyway. There is only so much shelf space, even at specialty bottle shops. The “big guys” already take so much space and bigger, independent breweries are doing the same exact thing. We’ve all know what happens when there is too much of a good thing. In other cases, breweries start off strong, large or small, only to have their beers slowly decline in quality and can’t get out of their funk (sometimes, literally!). This is also where some not-so-wise business decisions may take place.

All too often breweries release products with off-flavors and the average consumers have no idea they are consuming a flawed beer. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been disappointed by faulty beers with various defects. These include, but not limited to: Diacetyl (Buttery flavors, incomplete fermentation), Acetaldehyde (green apple flavor, incomplete fermentation),high amounts of Isoamyl Acetate (banana flavors, a sign of elevated fermentation temperatures),a variety of Phenols, and even some truly nasty stuff like Butyric Acid (a vomit-like aroma thought to be caused by a Clostridium bacterium infection in kettle sours or infections by anaerobic bacteria like Pediococcus), and Mercaptan/Autolysis (caused by ruptured yeast cells). This is not exclusive to the new ventures, either. I’ve experienced this at some well-established breweries, too. The problem lies when the tasting room staff, owner, and/or the brewer does not realize there’s an issue with the beer. Granted, most of the time the beer is pulled off and the problem is corrected at breweries where there is at least an understanding of brewing science (or they are actively learning about it, which is fine). In many of these instances, it is a simple case of inexperience and unawareness. Most brewers will embrace beer education and experience over time will improve their art skill.

We do indeed have amazing breweries with fantastic beers and worthy of their popularity and expansion. Most of these breweries have a few things in common: Knowledge in brewing science (even if it’s only applied science), good marketing, and provide tasty beer. Even breweries, and those labeled as a “blendery,” skillfully inoculate ales with bacteria and wild yeasts (sometimes experimenting with spontaneous fermentation) to produce unique products. We applauded their contributions to this amazing industry.

How I would like to see this playing out is with more inclusion of beer education, specifically with quality control. Both consumer and producer benefit from gaining knowledge, but the burden falls on the producer. Unfortunately, the consumer will choose what to buy with the information given to them and to meet their individual taste. However, if a brewery makes an effort to release quality beers the consumer will find even more value in what they are drinking and is more likely to be a repeat customer. On the flip-side, a knowledgeable consumer can identify flaws, praise exemplary samples of a style and appreciate esoteric offerings. I believe it’s a two-way street and a little goes a long way. If you are an experienced taster (and even those that aren’t), most have no issue pointing out mistakes or dislikes. But please don’t be afraid to put the snobbery aside to congratulate a brewer on a job well done on that Helles or a beertender on handing you the perfect pour of a Pale. This is part of the two-way street.

I see the beer industry as an entity that is evolving to meet market needs. Unfortunately, the market is so saturated that it has become more of a fluid than a bubble. You, the consumers, not only have way too many choices, but the quality is not always consistent or apparent. Yes, this is a problem with any industry, however here is where you come in. As mentioned above, you have the power to respectfully demand quality just as much as you tend to be vocal and opinionated about Hazy IPA’s and Pastry Stouts. If the brewery does not know their product is flawed or lacking flavor, they will keep producing it as is. The brewers will listen, trust me. At least the ones that take pride in making a quality product and respect the opinions of their patrons will listen (even if it’s only to take it into consideration). Respect is also a two-way street. Couple that with some solid business plans, steady and appropriate growth, and you have a good recipe for a hearty beer industry.

I don’t believe there’s a bubble. Consolidation, mergers, buy-outs, and the dreadful closing are part of this crazy game we call business. We are too strong of a culture to let mass-market consolidation happen again anytime soon. I believe that the industry is fine so long as we (the consumers): drink local, support local, respect your brewers, and support beer education (for consumer and producer alike!). And the brewers/owners/beertenders/reps: make good decisions, produce quality, and love what you do as much as we love you!

But, that is my opinion based on personal observation. What’s your take on this? Go to your local brewery and talk it over with your buds over some suds.


-Gilbert “Charlie” Perez, Certified Cicerone®