IPAs so cloudy they look like radioactive pond water, double mocha-wocha choco-vanilla fudgy wudgy pastry stouts, DDH fruit smoothies (that’s Double Dry Hopped for the uninitiated) and salty goses that taste like gym instructor sweat. Is craft beer trying so hard these days it’s in danger of burning itself out?
When Jeppe Jarnit-Bjergsø, the owner of Evil Twin and one of the world’s most prolific craft beer creators got a little misty-eyed on Facebook recently when he wrote: “Man I miss the good old days where we didn’t have to put out 5 new beers every week to make the customers happy”, maybe it’s a sign we should all get off the hamster wheel for a moment and think about where craft beer is heading.
There was a time, not all that long ago, when a group of US brewers got together and vowed to reclaim beer from big business by making them with integrity and passion once again.
Thanks in large part to those early pioneers we are now able to sit around in craft beer bars App-drinking a seemingly endless deluge of quirky brews from around the world.
And that’s the problem. Because of their relentless drive to recreate beer craft brewers have inadvertently spawned a consumer culture where beer doesn’t necessarily need to be great anymore.
It just needs to be new.
As a craft brewery owner myself I’ve lost count of the number of bars I’ve rung up to ask how sales are going, to be told our beer had already sold out. Great, I say, and ask if they want to order more:
“Oh we won’t buy the same beer again. Our customers get bored easily these days. Have you got anything new?”
This insatiable need for new is robbing craft breweries of the time it takes to perfect their beers. Because the truth is that most of the world’s greatest beers didn’t taste that way after the first batch. Brewers would have spent months, and in some cases even years, tinkering and tweaking, raising a degree of temperature here, moving a hop addition another few minutes later in the boil there, in order to fine-tune and perfect their recipes. It’s what the craft in craft beer is really all about.
But now that craft is being compromised by the hashtag generation and some craft breweries are beginning to crack under the strain. For example, for many the practise of test brewing small batches of a new beer before upscaling to commercial brews has long been abandoned. There simply isn’t time anymore to wait 4 weeks to see if a beer recipe actually works. Just roll the dice and hope for the best.
Whereas once it was ok to have a lager, an APA, IPA and stout as your core range, with the occasional seasonal release to add a little drama, these days it’s not unusual for a brewery to have multiple versions of every style – many of which taste pretty much the same because they really are the same. Just add another kilo or two of dry hops and you get two beers from one. There’s simply no time left over these days to refine. It’s corner-cutting, sloppy but inevitable as brewers come under increasing pressure to conjure up something different every week.
So is anyone to blame? Is it the craft breweries themselves, who now wield social media with all the skill of a Kardashian to fan the hype flames of new releases (often in limited numbers to deliberately increase the buzz)? Is it the drinking App platforms who encourage the ‘more is better’ consumer culture by rewarding users with shiny badges for drinking around, or the bars that happily feed their habit?
Or is it us, you and me, the craft beer drinkers, for no longer feeling any sense of pride in drinking local, or having the patience to stick with a beer we like for a while just because we like it and not because drinking it gives us more likes and followers?
Maybe the problem is craft beer itself. Remember, craft beer started out as a journey of discovery, so perhaps it’s unreasonable to criticise craft beer drinkers now when they simply want to take in all the sights along the way.
Whoever’s to blame craft breweries are increasingly feeling the strain of keeping up with their customers. When week in and week out they are being forced to choose between brewing the best beer they can make or brewing the easiest beer they can sell something’s eventually got to give.
Unless maybe, somehow, we can all slow down a bit, smell the hops and enjoy being in the ‘beer and now’ once in a while….