As we see explosive growth in the number of small-scale brewers, we can recognize some familiar changes in the craft beer market. There are obvious trends—the growth of hop-forward beers, barrel-aged beers, and acid ales, but perhaps the facet of brewing that will have the greatest impact on the industry moving is quality control.
Beer is a wonderfully unique product: it is an art form that people welcome into their lives on a daily basis. No other beverage in the world allows for such complexity, and through the use of a diverse set of ingredients, few other beverages allow the will of the artisan to shine through and touch the consumer. With that in mind, we must also consider the fact that beer is often a commodity, and the pecuniary nature of it is often too tempting to allow for continued investment in quality.
If we look at quality control as the statistical measure of the artist’s ability to communicate, the current investment-based small brewer is not positioned to effectively share ideas with the consumer, due to the degradation of quality control metrics.
This isn’t a new phenomenon in the industry: it seems to be a cycle that has existed since the industrialization of beer. The increased flow of information regarding individual brands has greatly shortened the period, however, and we are in a growth cycle where more people are entering the market as investors as opposed to brewers. This places short-term monetary gain above long-term quality control principles that are so necessary for the health of a brand and the expression of the will of the brewer.
This is a period where brewers should utilize the growth of the craft segment to increase controls on their own products, and so differentiate themselves from the remainder of the market. Those who use this boom cycle to improve their quality control systems will be positioned to grow over the medium- and long-term, while those who go for the cheap buck will be relegated to obscurity or failure.
Bill Heinrich ’07 is the head brewer at Big Grove Brewery and Public House in Solon, Iowa.