No matter what the industry, the culmination of one year and the dawn of another will see an onslaught of articles and blog posts listing out end-of-year recaps from the past 12 months along with forecasts for the coming 365 days. And while the music industry perhaps possesses the largest number of such reviews, there has been a steadily rising tide of writers asserting their expertise covering food trends, fashion styles, consumer electronics, cars – pretty much any topic at all.
And then there’s craft beer.
With each new Untappd account established and BeerAdvocate review penned, the pool of hop-heads, sour-suckers and stout-seekers grows exponentially larger. The pool becomes an ocean when you factor in the number of craft breweries operating and in development in the United States, a figure which topped 3,000 by mid-2014. In the eyes – and taste buds – of the average craft beer festival attendee or loyal bottle shop shopper, the scene is a community, not an industry. It’s populated by friendly brewery tour guides, tap takeover and firkin events, gourmet beer-pairing dinners and Untappd badges.
But with 2015 just barely gaining steam, the “industry” side of craft beer is already showing its teeth, a potential harbinger for what could very well turn into a gritty year for craft beer.
Today, Beer Street Journal reported that Lagunitas Brewing has filed suit against Sierra Nevada over the label design of Sierra Nevada’s new Hop Hunter IPA, which is due for release later this month. Specifically, the suit cites the similarity of the type treatment in the letters IPA. (Excerpt shown above. Read the full complaint at Inside Scoop SF.)
[UPDATE: This morning, Lagunitas owner Tony Magee dropped the suit against Sierra Nevada.]
Also today, Main Street explained why breweries like Goose Island in Chicago; 10 Barrel Brewing in Bend, OR; Magic Hat in Burlington, VT; and Widmer Brothers in Portland, OR have been officially stripped of their “craft beer” classification by the Brewers Association. (Goose Island and 10 Barrel are owned entirely by Anheuser-Busch InBev, which also holds a 32.2% stake in Widmer Brothers – 7.2% more than the BA-allowed threshold at 25%. Magic Hat is owned by a conglomerate that produces more beer in Canada [Labatt] than it does in the U.S.)
January kicked off with Boston Magazine’s grim profile of craft beer pioneer and Samuel Adams owner Jim Koch, detailing Koch as an outsider to the very industry he helped establish:
“[T]he undisputed king of the craft-beer industry suddenly finds himself presiding over shifting and unsteady ground. Koch has spent the past three decades battling the corporate giants—Budweiser, Miller, and Coors—but now he faces what may prove his toughest fight yet: a multiple-front war with the brewers and the consumers who worship at the altar of craft beer’s next generation. As drinkers increasingly look beyond Sam Adams for their craft-beer fix, it’s hard not to wonder whether Koch…is about to get left behind.”
On January 5, NPR posted an article detailing the legal issues surrounding trademarks in naming breweries and beers alike. (One of the piece’s case studies? A July 2013 spat in which SweetWater Brewing Co. in Atlanta sued – wait for it – Lagunitas.)
Yesterday saw the announcement of a settlement promising refunds to anyone who has purchased Kirin beer between October 25, 2009 through December 17, 2014 (with a receipt, of course) due to Anheuser-Busch’s misleading consumers that the beer was actually brewed in Japan.
Now is it that brewery owners (and their investors) are getting greedy? Not exactly. As any Business 101 professor will tell you, you are only as strong as your brand, making it all the more important to maintain your trademark(s) and stand out in what’s growing more and more to be a crowded playing field.
It could be, however, that consumers are finally getting to look behind the curtain and see what could very well have been going on all along. Craft beer is a business, after all. There are bottom lines to be met, market share to claim, competition to beat.
I recently became friends with craft beer and whiskey writer Lew Bryson on Facebook following my recent profile and look at Bryson’s new comprehensive whiskey guide. Somehow, my newsfeed fed me a post from beer writer Jay R. Brooks today on which Lew had commented: “There’s a lot of bullshit out there, because the money’s getting real, and all that happy-friendly ‘what a great industry’ horseshit is falling apart. Let’s rip it open… [T]his is a business, and that’s how it’s going to be.”
It’s also worth noting that the craft industry is growing at an alarming rate. Central PA alone is home to nearly 50 breweries, with more expected to open in the coming months. The question becomes, when does over-saturation become a concern? In my chat with StoutsandStilettos.com founder and chief contributor Tierney Pomone back in July, we discussed not only the continued rise in boutique craft breweries, but also the potential backlash from the surge:
“Where it’s at right now, there are, almost every day, so many people that decide they are going to open a brewery. And most of them, I’m sorry to say, have no business doing it. We’re at a point now where there are a ton of breweries – and there’s nothing wrong with new breweries starting – but I cringe when I hear someone say, ‘Well I’ve been homebrewing for a little bit, so I’m going to start a brewery.’ It presents a quality-control thing. If someone’s first experience drinking craft beer is bad, they’re going to just go back to PBR. There’s a lot of people scared to tell someone their product needs improvement. And there’s a lot of brewers who refuse to hear that their product needs improvement.”
In just 13 days, the craft beer industry’s legal disputes have made more headlines than the pundits’ forecasts for more sour beers, session beers and limited releases. Could 2015 be the year that the craft industry gets too big for its britches? Implodes? Will the bubble burst and smaller breweries close?
It will be an interesting 352 days. And I don’t know about you, but I’ll be sipping on my favorite brews as it all unfolds.