The Challenges of Innovation in Craft Beer

One of the most important characteristics of craft beer in comparison to the so-called ‘industrial lagers’ is variety and innovation. Craft beer is all about exploring the enormous and fascinating universe of beer to the joy and pleasure of the beer drinkers as well as to the craft brewers. One might go so far as to claim that variety and innovation is the raison d’etre of craft beer as such – at least if we disregard the political connotations of craft beer, so often dealt with by the undersigned in my editorials.

But as with almost all other things in life, it also goes for ‘variety and innovation’ in craft beer that the fundamental rule ‘Too much of good thing is bad!’ applies. To me, as I assume goes for very many other ‘stakeholders’ in craft brewing as well as for many somewhat confused and frustrated consumers, it seems that things have spun somewhat out of control. It appears that the race for the next new beer on the taps in the bars or on the shelves of the beer shops or supermarkets is only getting faster and faster with time, and particularly during the past couple of years it has been impossible to follow. Illustrated by the astronomical figure of more than 1,600 new beers launched on the Danish beer market last year, making even the Danish Beer Enthusiasts begin to consider and question if this is exclusively positive.

The confusion and frustration on behalf of the beer drinkers caused by this exorbitant flow of new beers onto the market is not just ‘FOMO’ (Fear Of Missing Out)-based, although no one – apart perhaps for the most insane RateBeer geeks chasing their 25- or 30,000th rating of a new beer – would ever dream of trying to taste 1,600 new beers within a year. The frustration is, understandably, bigger when beer drinkers return to the source for a beer they recently had and liked a lot, only to find that it is gone and replaced with the next new thing. 

Who’s driving this accelerating craze?  In order to answer this question, I’ve decided to hand over the word to a friend of mine. But a friend from a very different corner of craft beer universe than the ones I move in on a daily basis.

In honesty, my motivation for bringing up this topic in this particular editorial very much comes from reading a blog-post, IS CRAFT BEER BURNING OUT?, by Jeppe Jarnit-Bjergsø, the owner of Evil Twin Brewing Co., successful worldwide and one of the most hyped Danish craft breweries. Jeppe and The Evil Twin’s following is thus led by the RateBeer geeks and the very loud KOLs (key opinion leaders on social media), so the profound criticism – if not to use the word ‘rebellion’ straight out – from this corner deeply surprised me and consequently made a lasting impression. So, all the text in italics below is scissored from Jeppe’s recent posting.

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?

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 practice 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 which 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 criticize 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….

Brilliant observations and very well formulated, in my humble opinion, though all in all a very sinister and pessimistic analysis and vision for the future. Maybe Jeppe’s specific role in the craft beer world – living off the geeks and the hype more than many other of us – makes his thinking so gloomy, being trapped in the dilemma to the extreme. But we’re all as craft brewers, to a smaller or larger extent, ‘victims’ of the insane craving for new beers all the time. How do we react? Are we all doomed as craft beer burns out? Of course not – craft beer will not burn out any time soon, but the pendulum will swing back again as it always does. At some point the geeky, RateBeer-obsessed SoMe wizards who are setting the current tone will burn out and turn their passion to kamboucha or fermented cow dung, leaving the rest of us as brewers and beer drinkers to return to our love of fewer, well-perfected core beers and the odd seasonal, collaboration and one-off beer to spice life up a bit. I’m for one looking forward to that day… 

Please remember that we at the SBR always very strongly encourage you to comment on anything you wish to comment on in the magazine, but obviously particularly to the editorial. May I remind you that this request this time is more critical than ever! 

Please forward your comments to anders@kissmeyer.dk.

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