Sometimes I forget that there was life in the craft beer universe before the late 1990’s, when breweries like Stone, Dogfish Head and Russian River crawled out of the primordial wort. But there was, and after coming across a nice piece at AllAboutBeer.com written by “Beer Curmudgeon” Harry Schuhmacher, I realize that the “craft beer bubble” people like to talk about may have already popped, more than 15 years ago.
The article is look back at the 1994 Craft Brewer’s Conference. It was a young and eager Harry’s first time attending the CBC, and as he recounts the excited vibe of the conference, he also shares some jaw-dropping growth stats about the “microbrewery” industry from the mid-eighties to mid-nineties:
The exuberance and electricity in the air were palpable. Craft beer was hitting the national radar, and rags-to-riches stories abounded. Since 1985, the craft beer segment had not experienced less than 20 percent growth per year. In fact, for most of the years between 1985 and 1997, volume was up 40 to 60 percent, and in 1987 it was up more than 100 percent. These were heady numbers, and everybody from disenchanted Wall Street financiers to burned-out engineers to young get-rich-quick swashbucklers was looking longingly at our little industry.
Those are some crazy numbers, nothing like the steady 15 percent or so growth the industry has seen in recent years.
All those suitcases full of money being thrown around by the get-rich-quick folks can do some pretty significant damage, and that’s exactly what was to come:
What we didn’t know back in 1994 was that this euphoric craft beer bubble was about to burst. The 40 high-volume increases we had seen since 1985 were to turn into a 1 percent gain in 1997. The frenzy of new contract-brewed brands had hit a fever pitch, and people were shipping beer to distributors regardless of demand. Suddenly, beer of questionable taste and quality started backing up the supply chain until distributors and retailers said “no more.” Shipments were refused and a shakeout ensued. Strong brewers continued to grow, but others fell like flies.
I think the key to this last passage is “beer of questionable taste and quality started backing up the supply chain.” As beer geeks, we know that when the product goes bad, our happy little universe will likely begin to struggle.
This makes me think of what the mega-brewers are trying to do with Blue Moon, Shock Top, Batch 19, and all the other mass-produced craft beer lookalikes – exploit a trend with products of “questionable taste and quality.” Harry’s history lesson gives us a good reason to be wary of them.
He goes on to talk about his outlook on the industry and if we’re headed for a second bubble or not. It’s a really smart and funny read, and you should really check it out for yourself when you have a minute.
Here’s to hoping that history doesn’t repeat itself.