If this week’s Great American Beer Festival — with its 800 breweries and 4,000 beers pouring — is a snapshot of the nation’s current craft beer industry, it’s a muddled image.
A confluence of market forces is leading brewers to chase new trends and take risks that diminish the focus on quality and consistency that helped build the industry’s collective brand.
More and more, it fuels concerns that craft beer is unapproachable, confusing and not always tasty. It’s easy to see why that’s the case. This year at GABF, more than ever before, you need a dictionary to translate the descriptions of the beer. A pastry stout? A milkshake IPA? A tiki sour?
All demonstrate the innovation and creativity that make craft beer so novel and fun, but not all meet quality standards. This gets to a blunt reality: Not all the beer at GABF is good. And it contributes to an identity crisis for the industry.
Katie Nierling, the beer buyer for Parry’s Pizzeria and Bar, sipped a classic pilsner at a GABF kickoff party earlier this week and put it succinctly. “Quit putting the kitchen sink in your beer,” she said. “I just want beer again.”
She’s not alone. Colorado brewers are rebranding their best beers and reporting a renewed interest in legacy styles like the pale, blond and brown ales that served as the foundation for craft beer’s rise. A social media trend called #FlagshipFriday to promote classic beers also is getting attention.
“As much as beer lovers love to try new beers … I think they find themselves going back to a beer they love,” said Kevin DeLange, the co-owner of Dry Dock Brewing in Aurora. The brewery’s perpetual No. 1 seller is Apricot Blonde, a light, fruited beer. “One thing is consistency: You know what you’re getting. Every time you’re buying a beer you’ve never had, or a flavor you’ve never had, you’re taking a risk.”
The importance of quality-made beer is hard to underestimate. One bad craft beer can chase a consumer to other brands, whether it’s Coors or Budweiser. And this is what worries Chuck Skypeck, the technical brewing projects manager at the Brewers Association, the craft beer industry’s trade group based in Boulder.
“I think craft beer is, in essence, a brand,” said Skypeck, who opened Tennessee’s first brewpub in 1992. “It’s really unique in that sense, in that it’s developed a shared identity as a brand, and it’s important for the long-term health of the brand … to emphasize quality.”
A back to basics approach to elevate the craft
For years, the Brewers Association has emphasized quality and worked with breweries to establish best practices, but it remains a challenge. “Quality is extremely important. That’s why we have a lot of focus on it for our members so they can continuously strive to make their beer more consistent,” Skypeck said.
He added one more important caveat: Just because you don’t like a beer doesn’t make it bad. And likewise, not all beers need to conform to a particular style guideline. But quality means using quality ingredients and proper brewing and serving techniques to prevent off-flavors like green apple, cardboard or buttered popcorn, which are unacceptable in most styles.
To help push the industry forward, the Brewers Association is deploying a new strategy to get consumers “to help promote quality beer” at bars and breweries. For the first time, the opening night session Thursday included an educational seminar for consumers about “how to send back a beer at the bar.”
“Consumers deserve to have the beer taste like the brewer wanted it to taste,” Skypeck said. “We’ve really started to feel like it’s worth it to us to do more consumer outreach.”
The small and independent brewers that fit the Brewers Association’s definition account for 13% of the market share. In 2019, the market grew 4%, down from the double-digit boom years at the start of the decade. Colorado now counts nearly 400 breweries, according to the association, which ranks it second in the nation to California.
Brewers focus on taste and testing before it arrives in the glass
In this crowded marketplace, Aaron Baker at Oskar Blues Brewery said quality is easily becoming the differentiator. “What’s becoming clear now is craft beer drinkers are more and more educated in the beers they want to drink and they know what a good beer is,” he said.
“I also think that for a long time the movement in craft beer was all about local — what’s around the corner from you. I still think that’s really important … but local doesn’t trump quality. People still want the best beer that they can get.”
To hit their marks, brewers are adding more testing to check each batch of beer. The largest breweries in Colorado employ brewing scientists who work labs and analyze different aspects of the beer and yeast. Their size also allows them to emphasize the research and development of a beer over time. But in smaller breweries, testing is less ingrained and experimental batches often make it to the draft lines, regardless of whether they’re ready for consumers.
“We have a lab and tasting panel which ensures that the beers are continually brewed to a very high standard, and to ensure consistency,” said Brian Dunn, the founder of Great Divide Brewing in Denver. “There can be some slight variation between batches, but it is almost always so small that it’s hard to perceive.”
The quality control program at Oskar Blues “changed drastically” in recent years, Baker said. Six years ago when he joined the company, he said the brewery staff would casually gather daily at 11 a.m. to taste beer at every step of the process and make notes.
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Now with three brewing facilities across the country, the testing is conducted blind and staff log their tasting notes into a tracking program on their cellphones that is collected in a database. “It’s just way more legit science going on, rather than a couple guys saying this Dale’s tastes like that Dale’s,” he said referencing the brewery’s flagship pale ale.
The flagship brews that breweries use to build their reputations are tougher to sell to promiscuous drinkers looking for the latest, greatest beer. And they are harder to make because they need to taste the same batch after batch. But brewers are happy to see even a small resurgence in their core brands.
“Flagships are definitely more important as you go into new and trendy styles,” said DeLange at Dry Dock. “Flagships are the horse that pulls our cart. It allows us to do all the other things we do because we have those consistent sales.”