The Challenge Ahead for Craft Beer

The Challenge Ahead for Craft Beer
A Blackhawks logo put together from 12-pack boxes! Source: Beer Boxing Designs.

This is the first time that I am taking part in ChicagoNow's monthly Blogapolooza 1-hour challenge. One hour, starting from 9 pm, to write a post on the just-announced topic:

"Write about a great challenge faced. By you. By someone else. By an entity. At any point in the past or in the future."

I seem to be, by definition, geeky. I was into many things beyond the mainstream of the time, but in retrospect I was actually ahead of the curve. In junior high I was heavily into comic books and Star Trek. I said to nobody in particular that that time, "one day, they'll make a new Batman movie. And a Star Trek movie. Won't they be cool?"

Okay, I was also collecting stamps. That never became cool.

So as an adult, sometime in the 1980's I got interested in beer beyond the usual 12 pack of Coors. It was at a Mensa regional gathering (that stamp collecting thing again) that members of the Chicago Beer Society put on a demonstration of homebrewing, and sampled around many of their fascinating beers that for the life of me I couldn't recall now.

Flash forward a few more years. New brewers are coming on to the market, like Sam Adams. When I moved to Chicago in 1987, it was just before Goose Island opened its first brewpub along the path of my commute.I didn't get to hit it that often, but on my third of fourth time, the server said, we just made a special beer for our 1,000th batch, a heavy stout aged in Bourbon barrels. Yes, I was one of the first to try Bourbon County Stout. And that's when I said "Oh. My. God! Beer. is. GREAT!"

Since then I never looked back. I began making my own beer, first in the long-gone Brew-on-premises Chicago BOP and Brewing Co. #9. I made an ale and a root beer to serve at my wedding in 1998. In 2001 I began making it myself at home.

And all this time, I saw the growth of what was being called the "craft beer" sector. And that's where the "challenges" appeared. A lot of the brewers that first started out in this business ended up falling by the wayside, like New Albion, the first small craft brewer in many years. While other regions, especially the Pacific northwest, seemed to be adding new breweries left and right, and as Michigan and Wisconsin followed suit, Illinois lagged behind. A lot of that was owing to archaic laws about distribution that favored the BudMillerCoors folks. Some from the sheer inertia of local regulations that made it hard to open a restaurant that >gasp< made it's own beer. And there was always the intertia of older beer drinkers (and younger) who would say things like "I don't like beer that's bitter." "The best beer is one that's ice-cold." and "Everyone knows Chicago's beer is Old Style."

But change came, maybe slower than at other places, but it caused the brewing scene here to grow like a snowball rolling downhill. Brewers banded together to lobby for need changes in laws and regulations, finding sympathetic lawmakers who saw no reason not to make changes. Established brewers found ways to secure funding for expansion as demand was heating up. There was a time when Three Floyds was a mere brewpub that had to have its retail Alpha King (and, bending to popular tastes, a light lager called Burnham Pilsner) contract brewed and bottled by Schell's in Minnesota. Goose Island used to fill its excess capacity by making private label beers for Trader Joe's. TJ's still carries the Chicago-themed Stockyards Oatmeal Stout, now made by Gordon Biersch.

There were more stumbles along the way. The Chicago landscape is littered with brewpubs that went under because of money problems, or they couldn't compete seriously as beer tastes got more complex: the revived Sieben brand, Prairie Rock, Guvnors Public House, Taylor Brewing, the Weinkeller, the original Baderbräu, and MT Barrels (well, you name a brewery like it's a comedy club, you get what you deserve). Even regional brewers like Michigan Brewing could find their doors padlocked after a few missed payments to the bank.

Then there is the push from the big names that suddenly see gold in pretending to be a craft brewer with pretend brands like Blue Moon and Shock Top. As Miller got its foot in the craft door by buying Leinenkugel and mass producing its least tasty Berry Weiss and Summer Shandy (Leinie's makes some pretty good all malt beers, believe me); so did Budweiser give up on remaking Michelob into a craft brand with actual styles, and buy out Goose Island. The buyout of American craft brands has crossed international lines, with Duvel Moortgat snapping up Kansas City's Boulevard, many years after it also bought Ommegang in upstate New York.

But even this buyout frenzy has an upside in seeding more new brewers. Many Anheuser-Busch executives took their buyouts and started breweries of their own; or bought out O'Fallon at a time when it needed cash. Former brewers and executive from Goose Island have been behind the startup of Virtue Cider, Off Color, and a couple others I won;t remember before the 10:00 deadline. Similarly brewers from the chain pubs like Rock Bottom have gone to make great beers as Haymarket, Solemn Oath, and other names. That's not even beginning to acknowledge the many other brewers in Chicago that have started up, or are preparing to open. I've been trying to keep of them all, but at over three dozen, it's still not complete.

Yes, there are challenges to come. At some point the supply of good beer will outstrip demand. Brewers are already looking over their shoulders at a possible craft beer "bubble." And some of these new guys will end up closing sooner or later. One of my homebrew clubs mailing lists was speculating over who had up a Craigslist listing for a "turnkey brewery;" we still haven't figured out how is selling out (or maybe just trying to get more capital.

Meantime, I'll be taking the train downtown, tomorrow, which will pass the brand new Lagunitas brewery by Western Avenue, the one that will have twice the brewing capacity of ewveryone else in Chicago combined. And I'll remember that these are interesting times for Chicago's craft beer lovers.

Filed under: Beer Business

Tags: #CNBlogapalooza

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    Mark McDermott

    Writer, trivia maven, fan of many things. I thought to learn all there is to know about beer as a way to stay interested in learning. It is my pleasure to bring Chicago's craft beer scene to you.

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