Quality, or the lack thereof.
Sure, the craft beer industry has averaged double-digit growth for the past decade as it continues to gain market share from the big boys like Anheuser-Busch and Miller Coors. And yes, new breweries seem to be sprouting up everywhere and printing money like it’s easy as they try to quench consumers’ thirst for their suds.
But not to be lost in all of the accolades is the concern that bad batches of beer could turn potential new fans of the industry off to trying craft beer in the future more than just about any other threat.
“While the top end of craft beer quality continues to improve, there are some quality cracks with some of the newer brewers,” Gatza said told the roughly 9,000 in attendance at the Boulder-based Brewers Association’s annual Craft Brewers Conference, held this year at Denver’s Colorado Convention Center. “Many people in this room have spent a lot of time and dedicated a good portion of their lives to building this community that we have today. So seriously, don’t (mess) it up.”
Gatza’s challenge was just one of a handful aimed at craft brewers Wednesday, with Gov. John Hickenlooper and renowned author Michael Pollan offering their own.
Gatza’s message wasn’t so much to berate new brewers or suggest that their recipes are inherently bad. In fact, he lauded the innovation that comes from having an open industry that tries to keep its barriers to entry low. But he said a major focus has to be on quality control.
Many craft brewers, he said, were home brewers who got into the industry because their friends and family told them their beers were great and they should “go pro.” Many of those same people try to go into business on a small scale with a shoestring budget, meaning things like quality control get overlooked.
Gatza said the association is trying hard to educate brewers and encourage them to invest in lab services to ensure that off flavors or bad bacteria aren’t skunking their beers.
“A lot of these newer brewers are not putting out beer quality that reflects well on the whole craft beer community,” Gatza said. “What we’re trying to do is get them to take a step back and get a little more science behind the art that’s going on. … It’s a concern of our members and that makes it a concern of ours.”
The challenges from Hickenlooper and Pollan both came the perspective of what such a thriving and growing industry like craft brewing could do for the greater good of society.
Pollan, author of several books about food and culture, including “The Omnivore’s Dilemma,´ said craft brewing has been a major contributor to the food movement that has emphasized rebuilding local economies and building community while creating a closer connection to one’s food. Craft brewing after all, he said, sprang onto our culture the idea that small does not mean irrelevant and that people would pay more for quality products with a good story behind them.
“In many ways you were here first,” Pollan said.
But he also urged brewers not to rest on their laurels. The biggest gains in the food movement, he said, have been centered around fresh produce and ethically raised livestock. But the lion’s share of agriculture in the country is grain, a key ingredient in beer.
Too often, he said, craft beer’s distinctive product is made with barley and hops from “half a world away” grown with lots of chemical fertilizers and pesticides.
“The farming behind beer is not yet as special as the brewing, and it should be,” Pollan said. “It’s thrilling to me to watch some of you start to focus on this part of the process. … If craft brewing stands for anything, it is about standing up to and forthrightly challenging monocultures.”
Hickenlooper had his own call to action for brewers.
The Colorado democrat, who co-founded Denver’s Wynkoop Brewing Co. in the 1980s, noted that he is the first governor since Sam Adams in 1793 who was a brewer.
“That’s pathetic,” he said, drawing chuckles from the crowd. “More of you should get involved in the civics of your communities because it matters.”
Hickenlooper said brewers have some important virtues – like valuing customers, collaborating despite being competitive, and a willingness to experiment – that could serve government well.
“Brewers understand certain things that Washington and politics needs,” Hickenlooper said. “If we had more of you in government, this country would be a better place.”