Craft Beer’s No Good, Very Bad Year

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In mid-December, the Brewers Association published a look back at the craft brewing industry’s past 12 months. “Cheers to a great year in beer,” declared the accompanying press release.

Come again?

If 2021 was great for America’s craft breweries, I can only imagine what bad looks like. Look, I get why the BA opted to take a glass-half-full approach to recapping the year that was. After all, it’s not like the trade association that represents 9,000-plus American craft breweries can, or even should, admit that 2021 was absolutely brutal and felt like a cultural and potentially economic inflection point for a business that half a decade ago seemed poised to conquer the world. Such a grim acknowledgment would be unbefitting of the industry’s preeminent institutional booster, and depressing to boot.

Tough work, but somebody’s gotta do it.

I’ve been covering the beer business for about a decade, and craft brewing was the source of nearly boundless optimism when I first got on the beat. New brewery openings and volumes were charting start-up-esque hockey-stick growth. From niche forums to mainstream media, it was completely normal to describe the industry as a “movement,” and books with titles like “The Audacity of Hops” and “The Craft Beer Revolution” hit shelves. Enthusiasts and industry insiders alike were credulously repeating the old “99 percent asshole free” canard, and the BA itself was projecting the segment at 20 percent market share of the entire U.S. beer business by 2020.

Less tangibly, but absolutely vital to remember: In the first half of the last decade, craft beer was cool. Millennials (who were then tone-setting drinkers in their early 20s) wanted to drink it, but they also wanted to be known for being into it by their friends, in-laws, and bosses. It was (or at least seemed) anti-corporate, countercultural, and progressive. Craft beer had a brand, in other words, and it was on the rise.

These were heady days — frothy, as it were — that could never last, and didn’t. And while the craft brewing industry and the culture derived from it were both foundering as the Teens came to a close and the pandemic made everything a whole lot worse in 2020, it wasn’t until 2021 that the wheels really began to come off the way I (and others, it wasn’t just me) suspected they eventually might, leaving us with arguably the worst year craft beer has ever seen.

The Industry’s Long-Delayed #MeToo Moment

For most of the country, #MeToo is ancient history, buried beneath four years of Trump blunders and pandemic decay. The women-led social movement arrived late to the craft brewing industry, but arrive it did in 2021. The year kicked off with a sexual harassment scandal at Kansas City’s Boulevard Brewing Company in January. It led to the eventual ouster of five employees total, including two executives at Duvel Moortgat USA, which had acquired the firm in 2013. On International Women’s Day 2021, BrewDog USA terminated four LGBTQ+ employees from its Indianapolis taproom, with the boss in charge of the firings telling the workers that they were getting axed to engineer a “change in culture.”

With vaccines on the horizon and talk of hot vax summer building by late spring, the industry might have been able to write off those incidents as isolated. But Brienne Allan had other ideas. Using her Instagram account (@ratmagnet), the Massachusetts brewer began posting anonymized accounts of women’s experiences in working in the craft brewing industry. The stories poured forth, ranging from upsetting if not illegal to inhumanly grotesque, and demonstrating beyond any reasonable doubt that craft brewing was an industry filled with assholes just like any other — or maybe even more so. I don’t have a final tally on the number of people who got fired or resigned in disgrace as a result of the @ratmagnet reckoning, because what Allan set in motion won’t be over for a long time.

Maybe it never will be. Consider the Mikkeller saga. Thanks in no small part to the dogged reporting by Good Beer Hunting’s Kate Bernot and activism from organizations like Brave Noise (Allan’s post-Notch project) and Women of the Bevolution, many craft breweries pulled out of Mikkeller’s Celebration Craft Beer festival in October over credible allegations of discrimination and sexual harassment at the Danish brewery’s Copenhagen and San Diego locations. Indiana’s Three Floyd’s exited its collaborative project with Mikkeller in November for the same reason.

The optimist in me says that these outcomes — the resignations, the firings, the rejected invitations — are proof that the craft beer business is capable of change. The pessimist in me says that it’s incapable of leading that change, which gives just one more lie to its once-compelling progressive sheen. Your mileage may vary, but no honest dealer with even a passing awareness of the industry’s treatment of women and nonbinary workers would call 2021 a winner.

Sales, supply chains struggle as seltzer, spirits come on strong

I’ve argued here at VinePair and elsewhere that for any movement to succeed at improving the craft brewing industry’s work conditions, it must be led not by the BA or well-meaning bosses, but by the workers themselves. There are many reasons for this, but one big one: The American drinking public is never going to care as much about brewery employees’ safety, equity, and happiness as those employees will.

This is why I was dubious of calls to boycott this or that craft brewing transgressor over the course of the past seven months. To make a meaningful dent in a firm’s sales would require a level of discipline that Americans are incapable of marshaling without the infrastructure and leadership of motivated organizers — and that’s assuming those drinkers have both heard about the transgression and are sufficiently upset by it to take action.

But even in the absence of coherent consumer action against bad craft breweries, the segment’s sales have struggled to bounce back to their pre-pandemic marks anyway. As Jess Infante reported at BrewBound in early December, the BA’s chief economist, Bart Watson, is projecting 7 percent growth for craft beer this year and just 5 percent next year as pandemic disruptions continue to bear out. Both figures are better than 2020 (when growth was down 9 percent), but worse than 2019, when the segment grew by 10 percent.

What gives? Man, so much stuff. At-the-brewery sales are up, but draft is still down. The pandemic shifted everything off-premise, where bigger breweries (some of which, like New Belgium, the BA excludes from its figures due to corporate ownership) get better placements than smaller ones, and hard seltzer continued to steal shelf space from both. Those “supply chain issues” you keep hearing about haven’t helped. Throughout 2021, shortages, disruptions, and price hikes on everything from cardboard and aluminum, to berries and barley, to freaking delivery vans have put the squeeze on small producers, hamstringing their ability to hold retail space, carving up their margins, and in some cases, forcing core beers into temporary discontinuation.

Scarier still: 2021 was the year craft beer got outflanked on the innovation front by deep-pocketed commodity players in flavored malt beverages (FMBs) and ready-to-drink cocktails (RTDs). That’s bad news for an industry that once seduced the American drinking public with the thesis that the big boys were incapable of coming up with new, high-quality drinks. What’s worse, all these blurring lines have reanimated the conversation about tax equivalency, a federally regulated firebreak that has long sheltered the beer business from direct competition with full-proof spirits. Why should tequila-soda makers have to pay $0.15 for each 12-ounce can sold when breweries selling functionally identical malt-based ranch waters remit Uncle Sam just $0.05? Hell, for that matter, why can’t supermarkets (in most states) sell the former, when they’re free and clear to sell the latter? These questions got much harder to answer in 2021, which doesn’t augur well for the majority of craft brewers that have neither the scale, distribution clout, nor innovation pipeline to compete head-to-head with Team Liquor.

It’s true that equivalency and parity may never happen — federal tax code and state booze laws are two notorious regulatory quagmires. But consolidation in the middle tier already is happening. In 2021, the number of beer wholesalers is at its lowest since 1980, which means more beer gets to market via fewer, more powerful distributors. Craft breweries in states that prohibit or limit self-distribution already have a tough time getting the attention from wholesalers that they need to succeed at retail. Barring some unexpected antitrust action resulting from the Biden administration’s scrutiny, there’s little relief on this horizon. Not great, Bob!

The bloom is off the gose

In November 2014, The New Yorker ran a cover that took aim at craft brewing’s stereotypical, deeply millennial precociousness. Roughly seven years later on “Saturday Night Live,” resident Zoomers Please Don’t Destroy aired a digital short sending up the overwhelming number of hard seltzers that hit the market in 2021. For people who monitor both the beer business and the broader American zeitgeist closely, considering the two moments in time is illuminating. Craft brewing was once culturally relevant enough to anchor the nation’s premier intellectual magazine; this year, hard seltzer was culturally relevant enough to rate precious broadcast minutes from America’s comedy show of record.

(You could argue that Bill Burr’s October 2020 spot about Sam Adams “Jack O’ Pumpkin” ale was craft beer’s SNL moment, but a] you’d be wrong, as Boston was clearly the butt of that joke; and b] my broader point still stands.)

For a time, craft beer had something approaching mainstream cachet, and that time has passed. I admit, this is a feeling more than a fact. But man, 2021 made me feel it. It was the year that craft beer became irrevocably cheugy.

Cheugy? Yes, cheugy: “It’s not quite ‘basic,’ which can describe someone who is a conformist or perhaps generic in their tastes, and it’s not quite ‘uncool,’” wrote journalist Taylor Lorenz this past May, trying to define the TikTok slang for New York Times readers. The term, she explained, “can be used, broadly, to describe someone who is out of date or trying too hard.”

It’s apropos that cheugy hit the mainstream this year, given how well it describes the uncanny staleness of the current craft beer moment. “The vibes are off,” as the kids would say. Maybe that’s due to the pandemic — given what I know about both the coronavirus and my fellow Americans, it’s hard to imagine having fun at a beer festival again. Or because genuine artisanal curiosity has given way to pathetic, derivative products and lazy intellectual property theft. Or perhaps the loss of decades-old institutions that once marched in craft beer’s valorous anti-corporate crusade, like Bell’s Brewery and Denver’s Falling Rock Tap House (acquired by a corporation and shuttered, respectively) has cemented for me the long-held conviction that craft brewing is just a business like any other. (The culture of business is nothing if not cheugy, after all.) It’s probably all that stuff, and more.

While I was writing this, a friend sent me a holiday beer label that the brewery had deliberately covered with Easter egg illustrations of sex toys designed to look like snowflakes. I’m not going to name the company, because its goal is publicity. But it’s the embodiment of the corny, try-hard cringe that increasingly defines craft brewing’s dominant online culture. To be clear, this type of thing — the sex toy labels, the spaghetti adjuncts, the exploding kettle sours that people clamor for like crypto bros after hacky NFT “art” — is completely removed from the thousands of wholesome craft beer experiences I’ve had in my life. I’m guessing most of you would say the same. But more people have social media than have ever been to a taproom, and if 2021 taught us anything, it’s that online informs offline as much, if not more, than the other way around. How many potential customers decide they’d rather not be “into” craft beer IRL because of how hackneyed and insipid it looks on the internet? Culture is powerful stuff, and craft beer’s didn’t do it any favors this year, online or off.

“Surely some revelation is at hand”

On the subject of embarrassing culture, mine is best described as “aging English major.” So it stands to reason that as I was writing this story, I kept coming back to a snippet of verse. “Things fall apart; the center cannot hold,” wrote the Irish poet William Butler Yeats in 1919’s “The Second Coming.”

If you’ll indulge me: I think 2021 was the year that the center could no longer hold on the American craft beer experiment. Things fell apart. Downtrodden and fed-up workers spoke out, shattering the industry’s long-held moral veneer. Everything got harder for small brewers as foes old and new closed in. The culture got corny — or maybe it had been for awhile, and 2021 was just the year the lights came on at the party, revealing the sad scene therein. Whatever it was, I wouldn’t call it “great.”

What does 2022 hold? “Surely some revelation is at hand,” promised Yeats, but the hell if I can make it out. For what it’s worth, I doubt any of this means full-flavored beer is going anywhere, at least not in the short term. People — me included — still love beer! And the lion’s share of America’s craft brewers are creative and resilient as hell; I have neither the interest nor the appetite to bet against them. Beyond that, I’ll leave the forecasting to the experts (many of whom will probably be emailing me shortly to tell me all the reasons I’m stupid and wrong).

All I can say for sure is that I hope next year is kinder to craft beer than the last. It’s possible! After all, things that fall apart can be put back together again, maybe even better than before. I may be a glass-half-empty kind of guy, but I’d still rather have something to drink than nothing at all.

The article Craft Beer’s No Good, Very Bad Year appeared first on VinePair.