It's about the beer
Gina Miller and Bill Keeper
The COVID-19 crisis is proof, if you needed it, that the beerr industry does not exist in a vacuum.
Sometimes I feel that writing about beer has never been harder,or less relevant, as the world’s
financial fortunes, political crosswinds, and environmental health have as much say about the
industry’s future as we its devotees do. The pandemic and people's response to it have pushed
drinking habits away from bars and into the home, away from tap takeovers and festivals and
toward Instagram Lives and Zoom bottle shares. That means no business—however established is
immune. While it will take years to fully understand the gravity of the situation, but one thing’s for
certain—not all breweries or bars will live that long. Bill, as each day passes I get more worried.
Culture is the key word when it comes to examining the impact of COVID-19. The crisis has forced
the industry through several generations of maturation, and changes we didn’t expect to hit for
years have become the norm in a matter of weeks. How drinkers and businesses respond to these
changes will in turn set the course for decades.Even when pubs, taprooms, and restaurants open
again, people will likely stay away in droves for quite some time and that might translate to
thousands of brewery closures.
Bill, I understand that consumers today have bigger things to worry about than the craft credentials
of what they’re drinking but freshness, flavor, locality, independence should still count when they
buy beer. If a global recession bites, growth for even the most established breweries could be hard
to find—and sadly most of it is likely to come at the expense of other craft brewers. That will have a
knock-on effect across the industry, because when demand is stagnant or drops, so does the
appetite for innovation and investment.
Think back when this first started. In one of our columns we predicted that many breweries would
see rise in home consumption that would revive flagship brands and traditional styles. That’s yet to
happen. Consumers are playling it safe in a different way—sticking to the styles they love most,
and the breweries they know will deliver them time after time. So by throwing resources at the most
popular beers in their portfolios, many breweries are also narrowing their production; experimental
or expensive releases may then fall further to the wayside as the pandemic continues, and as the
financial reality gets tighter.
Craft beer is craft beer because of innovation and experimentation. If that stops it might not be craft
beer anymore. And that's got me worried.
That's it from me, chug-a-lug, Bill.....see you next time!
Hello Gina -
Enough worrying Gina. Most local brewery sales have been steady and some have even grown.
As I see it the downtime in taprooms and draft accounts have given brewers the opportunity to
adjust brewing schedules to allow for more time-intensive beers and innovation,
I get the feeling you're really worried that breweries will churn out less expensive beer to weather
the economic storm. That hasn't been the case. Your favorite beer style, Double IPA is still king.
During COVID-19. Americans were as insatiable for hop-forward beers as they were before this
pandemic, and it’s not changing. The sales numbers prove it.
I do however join you in being concerned about some things. For example, while counting the
number of breweries that never get past the dream stage is impossible, we can assume the total
of never-to-be businesses will add up to the hundreds, at least because of Corona. The effect of
that shift is going to domino down the supply line, hurting maltsters building new kilns, hop
growers planting new fields, fabricators relying on new builds and expansions, plus the
wholesalers and bottle shops that rely on new products to bring in the same customers time after
time. A stagnation among craft breweries is also a stagnation for the wider industry and all of its
affiliated businesses. Also consider that as people increasingly buy online, work and drink from
home, building and increasing a beer related business is exponentially harder.
I know we both are disappointed our favorite beer festivals were canceled but there's more to that
than just our unhappiness. The lack of events has forced breweries to find new spaces in which
to communicate with both trade and consumers. Ol all the things accelerated by COVID-19, video
conferencing has been among the most noticeable since that's where many breweries turned.
You only have to look at the 220% jump in Zoom’s share price to understand the scale of social
change. Although breweries have been quick to adapt it's not the same. For me festivals are
about more than having fun or brewery reputation-building. Where is the innovation going to
come from when brewers, hop growers, yeast suppliers, and maltsters can’t meet to discuss and
I might be crazy to make another prediction but when this is over I see a longer-term accessibility
to craft beer if—and it’s a big if— those draconian distribution laws that date all the way back to
Prohibition could be torn up. Breweries in three-tier states should be able to sell to any store or to
more isolated towns via the mail. That simple change would help foster a greater breadth in craft
beer consumers, as hard-to-find beer reaches new distribution channels and spaces.
Right now I am only drinking beer I buy by going to a brewery myself or,if I'm out somewhere, I
only order beer made at a local brewery or at least an independent one. Anyone who wants to
not only protect local breweries but help craft in general should do just that and do it now.
Here's looking at you, Gina