Publishers Weekly published a Q-and-A with me last week covering a range of historical and contemporary issues in American craft beer, including the question seemingly on everyone’s lips: Can craft beer keep growing at its current pace or is the industry in for a late-1990s-like shakeout?
What was the first craft beer you drank that opened your eyes to this style of brewing?
Like most craft beer consumers of my generation (born in 1977), my first tastes of American craft beer came from either Pete’s Wicked Ale or Samuel Adams Boston Lager (I’m not sure which one). These brands have served as what I call “gateway beers,” introducing millions to the possibilities beyond Bud and Miller. Pete’s was unfortunately discontinued by its new owner, Gambrinus, in 2011; Sam Adams, thankfully, remains as robust as ever.
Do you think craft brewing is here to stay? If so, how do you see the movement evolving?
I do, most definitely. I see the movement evolving in a key way that ensures its survival: more standard, session beers. That is, I see the movement as moving further away from an emphasis on bitterer, stronger beers, what some people call “extreme beers,” and toward milder ones that consumers can drink more of in single sittings (or sessions). In other words, more craft beer brands will likely become the regulars of choice for more consumers; and will cease to be such curiosities, even in markets where they’re still relatively new, like the Deep South.
Do you think we’ve reached critical mass in terms of the number of breweries the market can support?
This is a very interesting question. There are now roughly 2,300 breweries, including brewpubs (and not including contract-brewing companies), in the U.S., the most since the 1880s. There was a titanic shakeout in the late 1990s and early 2000s that saw nearly 200 craft-beer operations close, leaving about 400 by 2001. Crucially, that shakeout was due less to market demand, which was strong, than to the iffy quality of a lot of the beer.
This go-round, the beer is of, by and large, stellar quality (the U.S. has more modern small breweries than any other nation) and the market demand is even stronger, buoyed in no small part by social media, which wasn’t really around in the late 1990s. Moreover, I don’t want to say there is less competition among craft brewers, but there is certainly less ruthlessness, let’s say. The bigger operations are acutely aware that a rising tide lifts all boats. It’s not entirely clear that that ethos prevailed in the 1990s.
· Still Thirsty: PW Talks with Tom Acitelli [Publishers Weekly]