Craft beer has become a phenomenon in recent years and in fact yours truly here at Wafflesatnoon has become a sort of recent craft beer fan convert, hopping comfortably on the bandwagon. The more I’ve learned about craft beer, the more fascinating it becomes… And the more questions I have. So I decided to seek answers from those who originally showed me the craft beer light, namely the beer fanatics at Cosmo’s Beer Blog. We asked Mike, one of the contributors, to sit down and clarify a few questions about the hobby for us.
Waffles: Why do you think craft beer has suddenly become such a phenomenon? Or has the rise in popularity been as sudden as it seems?
Mike: I think the surge of interest in craft beer has been coming for a long time. The beer market has been dominated by the same macro-brewing companies since the end of prohibition, and these brewing companies have all been putting out similar versions of the same few beer styles, so it seems inevitable that consumers would eventually desire a greater variety and quality of beer. This consumer desire for a greater variety and quality of beer has been slowly growing over the last three decades, but the rise in popularity seems exponential in the last several years.
Waffles: What is it about craft beer that first lured you in?
Mike: There were several things that I found initially appealing about craft beer. Mainly, I was attracted to the strong diversity of flavors and aromas that are generally absent from macro brews. More diverse styles of beer was also a factor.
Waffles: Have you encountered any unexpected down sides to the hobby?
Mike: Yes, buying craft beer can be somewhat expensive, but I really do not mind spending some money if the product is high quality. Another down side is the possibility of drinking to excess, which can be easy when you are drinking 10-12% beers where the alcohol content is well concealed. Ultimately, I think the benefits outweigh the disadvantages, though. Craft beer is a lot of fun… especially when you start attending beer festivals and trading with other members of the community.
Waffles: There is a concern that a rise in popularity may lead to market saturation – that there will be too many choices. At what point will hobbyists feel that the craft beer market has reached a point of saturation, and how might that change things if or when it does?
Mike: I would like to think that the market itself would prevent this from happening. Judging from the amount of used brewing equipment being sold, many breweries are going out of business as we speak. More successful breweries will either continue to service their local communities, or receive wider distribution. On the hobbyist level, craft beer drinkers seem to be different than macro drinkers in that they have less loyalty to one particular brand of beer, and are more open to experimenting with different brands and styles in their search for new favorites. In these situations, a large variety of available choices is necessary. Here in Indianapolis, quite a lot of craft beer is available, yet I always want access to more, and end up trading for beers that are not distributed here. As you can see, I do not think we are anywhere near saturation at this point. In fact, saturation might even make the hobby more enjoyable for a period.
Waffles: As craft beer becomes more mainstream, do you think there will be a resistance by some of the elitists to keep it from becoming too trendy or commercialized?
Mike: These kinds of sentiments have already been expressed by some members of craft beer communities like Beeradvocate. Part of the current concern is that seasonal beers with limited distribution are becoming increasingly difficult to obtain because of the growing interest in craft beer. I have seen this happening in my area over the last year. Limited seasonal brews that used to remain on the shelves for several months are now sold out within days. As you can imagine, this has caused some resentment from people who are not able to buy the beers that they have enjoyed in the past, so there is an element of thinking that already views the craft beer phenomenon as becoming trendy.
Waffles: Are there any flavors you’ve dreamed up that you have yet to see on the market?
Mike: Occasionally, I will get an idea for a new beer while having a meal. I should probably start writing those ideas down, as I cannot specifically recall any of them right now. There is quite a bit of imaginative brewing taking place right now, though. Brewers are flavoring beer with fruit, coffee, chocolate, vanilla beans, bourbon, honey, bacon, etc… Some of it can be kind of hit or miss. Sometimes a combination that does not sound that good ends up working well, while some combinations that seem like they should work well are disappointing.
Waffles: As macro breweries buy up smaller facilities, do you think it will be increasingly difficult for small start-up breweries to compete?
Mike: This is not really my area of expertise, so it is hard to say, but I will say that the the macro breweries essentially dominated the beer market for decades after prohibition, yet smaller breweries were still able to flourish. Therefore, it seems unlikely that they could monopolize the market at this point. It seems to me that the macro breweries opened up a window of opportunity for smaller breweries by flooding the market with mediocre beer of only a few styles. This window is still open, and continues to open wider as more people become interested, and as a result, the number of smaller breweries continues to grow. On the other hand, as craft beer continues to become more popular, I think you will see the macro breweries attempting to regain lost ground in the beer market. In my opinion, this may take the form of buying up even more craft breweries or issuing new products that address changing consumer interests.
Waffles: I understand that you also are a home brewing hobbyist. Has that affected your palate and your appreciation of certain types of beers or ingredients?
Mike: Yes, being able to taste and smell the various raw ingredients has definitely improved my palate and helped me to understand how they contribute to the overall flavor and aroma of certain beers and beer styles. For example, chewing on a few husks of roasted barley can really give one an idea of how it contributes a coffee flavor to certain beer styles. The same goes for handling various hop and yeast strains and the flavors/aroma that they impart.
Waffles: What are some of your most sought-after beers at the moment?
Mike: I think this depends somewhat on which beers are distributed to your area, and to a lesser extent, what beer circles you run with. The top 100 popular beers on Beeradvocate.com features a user ranked list of some of the most popular craft beers across the country at any given time. Here in Indianapolis, some of the most sought-after craft beers are the limited seasonal releases by brewing companies like Founders, Bells, and Goose Island. These would include brews like Founders Canadian Breakfast Stout, Founders Kentucky Breakfast Stout, Bells Hopslam, and Goose Island Bourbon County Brand Stout.
Waffles: Do you have any crazy stories related to craft beer?
Mike: Well, I guess that depends on how you define “crazy”. If you think “crazy” is driving four hours to another state on whim for a rare beer run, or if you think seeing dozens of people passed out all over an industrial park lawn at noon during a beer festival is “crazy”, then I suppose I have some crazy stories related to craft beer. Sadly, for a craft beer geek such as myself, these kinds of occurrences have become fairly normal.
Waffles: Where do you see the craft beer hobby five years from now?
Mike: It is really hard to say, and I do not really like to speculate on such things, but my intuition is that interest in craft beer will continue to grow over the next five years. Since it has been growing exponentially, and people continue to become exposed and accustomed to it, I find it difficult to think that such a hobby would cease to grow or level off yet. I also expect that more people will become interested in attending beer festivals and limited distribution seasonal releases will become even harder to obtain.
It will be interesting to see where the craft beer hobby goes, and whether its new-found trendiness will hurt or damage the hobby. Thanks again to Mike from Cosmo’s Beer Blog for taking the time out to answer a few questions. Be sure to visit their blog for some interesting stories and other craft beer resources.