Hop Take: American Craft Beer Thrives, Struggles at Home


4 minute Read

Hop Take: American Craft Beer Thrives, Struggles at Home

This week the Brewers Association released a report on the state of American craft beer abroad. According to the report, craft beer exports are on the rise, up 3.6 percent by volume in 2017. This totals 482,309 barrels of beer from small and independent U.S. brewers shipping overseas, a barrelage valued at a whopping $125.4 million.

Top growth markets include Asia Pacific (up 7.4 percent), Japan (up 2.6 percent), and Western Europe (up 1.3 percent). Canada led the charge, accounting for 51.3 percent of exports.

I see this happening, anecdotally, in my life at home: More and more, friends and fellow beer nerds overseas are posting pictures of American craft beers on their Instagram accounts.

Let the @hopcityleeds celebrations begin… 🍺

A post shared by sophie deacy (@sophiesdeacy) on

I’m pumped that my pal in Japan and my cool cousin in England get to taste beers from the States — especially if they’re beers I love, too! I’m excited they’re excited! Beer is a culture meant to be shared, and there is a beautiful, cross-cultural exchange taking place, sparking appreciation for, and inspiration from, American beer around the globe, perhaps for the first time ever.

But is it a good thing? Does the rest of the world need more American craft beer? As many of us in the U.S. are arguing that brewers should be focusing on all things local, exports strike me as a strange goal. To me, it seems counterintuitive that brewers are shipping their wares overseas at a time when U.S. beer sales are shrinking. Instead of focusing on Tokyo or Leeds, I wish brewers like Half Acre would launch a lab, invest in hop research, fund an incubator, or find other ways to better the craft beer business and make it more sustainable at home.

It’s also disappointing to me when I’m traveling afar and finding the same beer brands there that I can find in my own neighborhood. I’d rather see American craft brewers use their international footprint to foster global beer communities, not dominate far-flung markets.

In the long run, exposure and inspiration are good, but looking outward to drive popularity beyond our borders shouldn’t be brewers’ focus.

Green Flash and the Trouble With Over-Expansion

Speaking of the lack of sustainability in American craft beer, last Friday, just five days after announcing it would shutter its facility in Virginia Beach, Va., Green Flash Brewing dropped another bombshell: Cellar 3, its barrel-aging facility and taproom in Poway, Calif., is closing.

Green Flash made the announcement via Facebook post, citing “pressure due to the cost and complexity of running several retail operations.”

The San Diego-based brewery also pulled distribution from 42 states over the past year and laid off 76 employees. And yet: Green Flash still plans to open a new outpost in Lincoln, Neb. this month.

What the what? To understand Green Flash’s (grim) future, let’s consider its past. Green Flash is one of the OG craft brewers. It’s been around since 2002. Its West Coast IPA changed the game for hop heads, and the brand spread like wildfire across the U.S. (too soon?) for good reason: It was exciting, it was new, and it was delicious.

In fact, one of my earliest and fondest craft beer memories was a sloppy Green Flash bar crawl through Park Slope, Brooklyn — a neighborhood now dominated by a treasure trove of talented local brewers (Threes, Other Half, and Folksbier, to name a few). At the time, having Green Flash in town was very exciting.

The way I see it, Green Flash spread the love too quickly. Instead of focusing on local and regional markets, it expanded its distribution into almost every state, invested in a state-of-the-art facility on the East Coast without realizing thousands more local breweries would be commanding consumers’ attention there, and now, it continues to invest in off-site projects.

We’re seeing this now more and more, as the craft originators from the 1980s, ’90s, and early ’00s are folding under pressure in the marketplace (Smuttynose, for example). Big Beer is pushing on one side, and super-small beer is pushing on the other, making these brands less and less relevant, especially away from home.

We wish the best for Green Flash. Maybe Nebraska will welcome the California-born brewery with open arms. But if losing the away games in Virginia and Poway — and, you know, 42 other states — hasn’t taught it to slow down, we’re afraid it may be doomed.

Founders KBS Is Back, But Is it Still Relevant?

Founders Brewing’s nationally acclaimed Kentucky Breakfast Stout (KBS) hit the shelves in March. Its limited-edition release means it’s only available through April, which usually sends imperial stout lovers scrambling to find a bottle to sip and savor. But are they still doing that?

When it was initially released in 2002, KBS developed a cult following. It was named the best beer in the world, and it even launched its own, week-long celebration in its hometown, Grand Rapids, Mich.

But ever since Mahou-San Miguel purchased a 30 percent stake in Founders’ business, in 2014, the relevance of Founders KBS is in question. Is it still good? Is it still rare? Is it still a whale, bro? These questions and more plagued /r/beer this week, with users wondering if KBS is still special.

One redditor asks, “Did I just get lucky or does this one sit on the shelf now too?”

The answer is, it doesn’t really matter. The beer is now produced by a brewery partially owned by a global conglomerate. That makes it more available, and may have changed its production in terms of its recipe and scale. Sure. But what it comes down to is: Do you enjoy the beer or not?

Even some of the most vehement indie-supporting beer nerds make exceptions for old favorites — think of Goose Island Bourbon County Brand Stout. Call these brewers sellouts, or call their consumers supporters of corporate greed, but at the end of the day, the beer is beer. It’s a special beer, with a special history. And, it’s really damn tasty. I dare you to find another 12.3 percent ABV stout brewed with coffee and chocolate aged in bourbon barrels (in a cave, for a year, no less) that is so easy to drink and oh-so-smooth. I may not seek out a bottle or wait for a small pour of KBS at a bar — I don’t have to, nor do you — but if a bottle happens to land in my lap (it did), I’ll still smack my lips after a sip (I did).

Incidentally, Founders took over Goose Island’s Twitter account at press time on Wednesday due to the latter allegedly losing a bet. Coincidence? Or KBS BCBS collab?

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