By Timothy Dillon
Photo courtesy of Hop Talk.
The craft of beer making goes back more that 6,000 years and scientists are even considering the theory that this intoxicating beverage was responsible for the rise of organized civilizations. It even served as a safe alternative to drinking water in medieval times during plague. Beer holds a pivotal place in humanity’s history and in recent years, we have seen a spike in smaller breweries producing more specialized types of beers.
While America only ranks 13th in terms of beer consumption annually (with an average 81.6 liters of beer per person per year) the US also has more breweries than any other country in the world. This is undoubtedly due to the number of microbrews, gastropubs, and smaller brewing companies that litter the nation. Which brings us to craft beers. And what exactly is a craft beer?
According to CraftBeer.com, craft beer is small, independent, and traditional. This means they cannot produce more than 6 million barrels of beer a year, no more that 25 percent of the company can be owned by a large corporation or person outside of the brewery, and the beer itself must meet the recipe standards set out by the Brewers Association.
In theory, this makes for smaller productions from breweries who pay more attention to detail focused on making the flavor of their beer stand out from the rest. Considering there were 2,347 craft breweries operating in 2012, up from 1,977 in 2011, making a beer stand out amongst the rest is a pretty important part for this booming industry that contributes over 410 million gallons of beer each year.
Each year there are numerous craft beer festivals held in cities across the country, making time for beer enthusiasts to come together to share in delicious sampling and get to know some of the faces behind the bubbles and suds. New York City natives are fortunate in that the city hosts at least four Craft Beer Festivals a year, one for each season.
The Winter Harvest NYC Craft Beer Festival.
As a beer fan I tend to enjoy the distinct tastes of craft brews. That said, I have not tried all the beers this country has to offer. I took it upon myself to attend the Winter Harvest NYC Craft Beer Festival back in December 2012. The event was supposed to be held in November, but in the wake of Hurricane Sandy, was rescheduled and moved to Basketball City just on the East River. The massive arena was more than capable of hosting the 75 breweries and was complete with dumping stations for unwanted leftovers, snack bars with savory food pairings and more than 2000 beer drinkers stumbling from station to station getting 3 oz. pours that quickly add up. And yes, it smelled like beer. A lot of beer.
Each pouring station had varying amounts of each companies paraphernalia, some complementary, some for a price. Needless to say, I opted only for the free gifts and of course the free samples. In favor of pacing myself, I took the time to speak with some of the pourers who I quickly discovered were not all representatives of the beer they were pouring.
Cristina Stoll is 22 years old and this was her third time volunteering to pour at an NYC Craft Beer Festival.
“It’s a really good deal. You show up early and help set up, get to sample some of the beer you are going to be pouring so you know what you’re talking about and then after everyone leaves, you get to go around and have your fill of what is left at each station without the crowd,” Stoll explains.
Stoll was one of over a hundred volunteers who had come for the free beer. All it took, she said, was a little patience.
“Sometimes a station will run out. It just happens sometimes. Some beers are more popular than others,” says Stoll.
Not wanting to be left wanting, I quickly moved on to other tasting tables and to speak with some of the breweries representatives.
Susan Greene is a representative of Allagash Brewing Co. and she was pouring one of their classics, the Allagash Dubbel, done in a traditional Belgian Dubbel style, with vibrant red and amber hues and solid medium body. I tend to prefer beers with a slightly higher alcohol content and at 7 percent this malty brew was just about perfect for me, especially since I’m not a big fan of hops.
Timothy Dillon and Susan Greene at the Winter Harvest NYC Craft Beer Festival.
“This is my favorite part of the job,” Greene says, helping me to a second portion of Dubbel. “You get to see what the competition is up to but it’s fun. Beer is just a fun industry to work in and there is a beer out there for everyone.”
For me, there was more than just one beer I found myself fond of. I tasted a coffee stout that tasted more like coffee than a beer. The ales I managed to taste ranged from being light and sweet to sharp and floral: some almost tasted like an evergreen tree, the hops were so pronounced.
As my time there came to a close I had easily sampled more than 30 craft beers and made several trips to the long lined porto-potties outside the arena to relieve my overwhelmed bladder. The near torso sized salty pretzels helped me in keeping a somewhat sober disposition, but with more than two and half liters of beer in me, I ended up having to walk my bike back to Brooklyn.
The Sud Ceiling
It would appear at face value that the craft beer industry is booming, and to a certain extent it is. The growth of the past few years is undeniable. From 2006, the industry has seen a 2 percent bump in terms of volume share and has had steady growth in job creation, adding almost 5,000 jobs from 2011 to 2012. Yet with only 6.5 percent of the market, breweries have been experimenting with some new ways to market their beer, and not all of them have been successful.
Several craft beer companies such as Dogfish Head have turned to producing larger formats of their beers. You may have seen them at your liquor store or supermarket: a large 750 milliliter artisan bottle, corked, and top wrapped in wire and possibly foil too. Difficulties soon arise when you consider things like the ounce for ounce price from these large formats and normal sized bottles. Generally speaking, these larger formats are more expensive than buying a six pack, which can have a little less than three times the beer in them.
Beyond the price tag, which is reason enough to ignore these larger bottles, there is also the issue of trying to consume that much beer while it is still good and cold, unless you are sharing it with others. And forget about putting the cork back in, this is a carbonated beverage, so like champagne, the cork expands after opening and there’s just no getting back in.
Time will tell if these new breeds of breweries are financially profitable, but one trend that is truly endangering the craft beer industry, are the megabrewers trying to take a piece of the craft brew action. The big three names in beer are still Anheuser-Busch, MillerCoors, and Pabst Brewing Co .
Keeping in mind that with only a little over 6 percent of the market, more than 93 percent falls to these larger brewers and of course to import beers, which are not considered to be craft beers. Trying to take a bigger piece of the market share is difficult for a couple reasons, the first of which being companies like Anheuser Busch’s Bud Shock Top “imitation craft” beer or Coors Blue Moon Belgian ale that dip into the craft beer market since they are not immediately associated with these companies.
In fact, these companies have made a hobby of buying up smaller brews like Goose Island, Leinenkugel, and Henry Weinhard. This masquerade is meant to try and keep the majority of the beer market in the hands of the big beer comapnies, in the hopes you will ignore the brewers behind the curtain.
What’s worse, Anheuser Busch even owns some distributors and the other large beer companies also hold significant sway over what makes it to the store shelves. This, combined with craft breweries having a ceiling of how much they can produce each year and still be considered a microbrew, it is an uphill battle to try and gain more of the market share.
After leaving the NYC Winter Harvest Craft Beer Festival, my notes more closely resembled a shopping list. Sure, I have had my fair share of Budweiser (and Bud Light for drinking games) but I never found myself being wowed by them. These larger lagers and mass produced ales never turned my head like some of the brews I had tasted that evening. What’s more, with only having tasted 30 or so, I still was missing out on five times as many beers that were being featured.
In a market that has so much variety, the only advice I can offer, is to be open minded and keep mixing it up. Variety is the spice of life and in beer there is certainly more to the market than just Miller, Coors, and Bud, no matter how many super bowl commercials they throw at you.