ChangeCurrent AffairsFamily/CommunicationLeadershipPeopleApril 25, 20162Watching Business Evolve: The Craft Beer Revolution

I spent the week­end par­tic­i­pat­ing in TAP NY — billed as both the largest craft beer fes­ti­val in New York State and the largest sin­gle-state craft beer fes­ti­val in the US. It was enor­mous­ly fun: I had the plea­sure of help­ing my hus­band Patrick dis­pense his Great Life beer to hun­dreds of jovial peo­ple over the course of the two days.  And — thrilling to us —  his 1875 Milk Stout won the Bronze Medal in the Hud­son Val­ley Stouts category.Screen Shot 2016-04-25 at 9.36.14 AM

I love being involved (periph­er­al­ly) in Patrick­’s brew­ery part­ly because he’s so pas­sion­ate about it, part­ly because brew­ing beer is intrin­si­cal­ly inter­est­ing (and I love find­ing out things), and part­ly because it’s so fas­ci­nat­ing watch­ing this busi­ness niche ‑craft brew­ing — explode.

On the TAP NY web­site, their own his­to­ry page describes the geo­met­ric curve that is craft brew­ing. They start­ed in 1998 at the Culi­nary insti­tute of Amer­i­ca in Hyde Park, NY with a hand­ful of brew­eries, styling them­selves the Hud­son Val­ley Craft Beer and Food Fes­ti­val. After just a few years they out­grew that site, moved to the Hunter Moun­tain Ski area, renamed the event TAP NY, and expand­ed to include all of NY state. Over the next few years, the fes­ti­val con­tin­ued to grow slow­ly, with about 25 brew­eries involved by 2007.  Then, in true geo­met­ric curve fash­ion, it real­ly began to ramp up: 40 brew­eries in 2010, over 60 in 2013, almost 90 in 2015, and 116 brew­eries attend­ing this past weekend.

When I was­n’t busy draw­ing 4‑oz tast­ing glass­es for the con­tin­u­al stream of folks who stopped by our booth, I wan­dered around and observed. In some ways, the craft beer cul­ture is like any new­ly vital busi­ness sec­tor, with lots of ear­ly entrants want­i­ng to get in on the action.  It’s anal­o­gous to the ear­ly 20th cen­tu­ry in autos, when there were lit­er­al­ly hun­dreds of car mak­ers in the US. Then the larg­er man­u­fac­tur­ers began to take over through supe­ri­or dis­tri­b­u­tion and economies of scale, and the small­er auto com­pa­nies began to go out of busi­ness or get bought up.  But beer has already been through that evo­lu­tion: in the late 19th cen­tu­ry, it’s esti­mat­ed there were over 4,000 most­ly small inde­pen­dent brew­eries oper­at­ing in the US.  Then brew­ing began to go through the same kind of con­sol­i­da­tion, helped along by pro­hi­bi­tion.  In 1935 there were only about 750 brew­eries in the US, and by 1980, there were only about 50 brew­ing com­pa­nies in the whole coun­try. And, as one beer writer in the 1980s com­ment­ed, “They are pale lager beers vague­ly of the pilsen­er style…They do not all taste exact­ly the same but the dif­fer­ences between them are often of minor con­se­quence.” Beer had become stan­dard­ized and com­mer­cial­ized: what could be made most effi­cient­ly and while appeal­ing to the largest num­ber of people.

Then, in the late 1980s, the tide start­ed to turn.  As peo­ple began to explore using local­ly grown and nat­u­ral­ly sourced foods, they also start­ed get inter­est­ed in the pos­si­bil­i­ty of drink­ing beer that was local­ly pro­duced, with stronger and more inter­est­ing fla­vors. Once the trend start­ed, it gained momen­tum every year, as evi­denced by the growth of TAP NY and dozens of sim­i­lar fes­ti­vals across the coun­try. In 1990 there were about 400 micro­brew­eries and brew­pubs in the US: in 2015, there were over 4000. We’ve now matched (and are on a path to exceed­ing) the high-water mark for Amer­i­can brew­eries set in 1873.

The big com­mer­cial brew­eries are still sell­ing most of the beer drunk in the US — but the craft beer share of sales is sig­nif­i­cant and grow­ing year­ly: one recent sta­tis­tic esti­mates that around 13% of the beer con­sumed in the US today is pro­duced in craft brew­eries (dou­bled from just a few years ago).

I’m fas­ci­nat­ed to see how this busi­ness of craft beer will con­tin­ue to evolve.  In one way, it’s a return to the way humans con­sumed beer hun­dreds of years ago, where every vil­lage had its own brew­er, often the own­er of the local tav­ern and his wife.  And in anoth­er, it’s com­plete­ly mod­ern: a man­i­fes­ta­tion of the free-lance, entre­pre­neur­ial, arti­sanal explo­sion of  the last decade, where more peo­ple want to work for them­selves and join togeth­er with small groups of like-mind­ed oth­ers to cre­ate prod­ucts and offer ser­vices about which they feel pas­sion­ate. One ele­ment of the craft beer explo­sion I find real­ly inter­est­ing: although still large­ly male, craft brew­ing seems not to be age-spe­cif­ic. As I wan­dered the booths this week­end, I not­ed some brew­ers in their 20s and some in their 60s — and every­thing in between. I also not­ed that near­ly every­one, brew­ers and sam­plers alike, seemed to be hav­ing a great time.

And I don’t think it was just the mel­low­ing effect of the beer itself: it’s fun to cre­ate things you love, it’s fun to con­nect with the peo­ple who make the things you con­sume, and it’s fun to con­sume things that are made with care and attention.

¡Viva la evolucion!


  • Duncan - Vetter

    April 29, 2016 at 7:16 am

    Inter­est­ing arti­cle and very infor­ma­tive. It’s inter­est­ing to see how some busi­ness­es work and evolve. There are so many inter­est­ing things one could learn from suc­cess­ful people.


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