My trip to Atlanta for the 1998 National Craft-Brewers Conference and Trade Show has left vivid impressions etched permanently in my memory, perhaps as much for the foibles of weather and travel as for the content of the event. Air travel delays due to thunderstorms and tornados during our in-bound flight to Atlanta, plus a spectacular thunderstorm and more tornados the last night of the event, definitely had their impact. In comparison, the conference and trade show was quiet and calm, like the eye of a hurricane with tempests on either side. No ground-shaking revelations, no paradigm shifts, no transcendent visions.
Attendance figures were down by about 18% from last year, marking the first year that attendance has ever declined. And although conference sessions were well-attended with high-
caliber speakers and a group of serious, sophisticated craft brewers, the relative quietness in the trade show hall raised questions of slow-downs and the future of the industry. But for me, the questions were quickly answered.
For the second year in a row, we surveyed brewers attending the conference. Once again, an overwhelming percentage of brewers reported that their businesses were growing, that their production levels were increasing and their physical operations were expanding. So why the quiet amid all the storms in Atlanta?
One factor to consider is the maturing of the craft brewing industry. Although the raw numbers were down, the "quality" of attendees was up. Certainly the brewers attending the technical sessions have seemed more professional, more knowledgeable, and better trained every year. Exhibitors reported doing good business -- some said more business -- despite the small numbers present. Less fanfare and hoop-la; more business.
Another factor, related to maturity, may simply be that there is no great new revelation. We have a tendency to look at ourselves as craft brewers (or home brewers), as if that were the important thing, as if specialty brewing imparted some kind of inherent status.
In fact, the important thing is the substance of our avocation -- high-quality beer. Exceptional beer. Beer you can't find anywhere else. In the end, it's the quality of our product that sets us apart and gives meaning to our work. The Holy Grail is merely the excellent pint sitting before us.
Brewing economist and numbers guru Robert Weinberg has noted the huge potential for the craft brewing industry, with market share potentially doubling over present levels. But his data imply that the market will not be for microbrews, per se, but rather for the "second tier" of beer (the first tier being the dominant American light lager). According to this scenario, consumers will be more concerned with the quality of the beer than with the identity of the brewer.
If true, this view offers both good news and warning signs for the craft brewing industry. On the positive side, competing on the basis of product quality is ultimately more advantageous than competing on image or other intangibles. When you encourage people to focus on image you lose any edge you might otherwise have with the product. Anyone can hire a good marketing company or PR firm to spin an image.
As for product quality, it certainly weighs in our favor at the moment, but therein flies the red flag -- the megabreweries are fully capable of brewing a good, classic beer. Fortunately, we can take some small comfort in the fact that those with means and position nevertheless often fail to achieve greatness, and they will probably never brew the adventuresome or challenging beers typical among craft breweries.
The current dynamics in the craft brewing market work to the benefit of the consumer. Competition will impel production of better and better beers. In most cases, economies of scale will tip in favor of the megabreweries, but product quality and distinctiveness will tip in favor of smaller breweries. Either way, no one will be able to get by with mediocre beer -- without, of course, a damn good marketing department.
Perhaps the greatest lesson for the craft brewing industry is, "Focus on the beer, not on yourself." This back-to-basics mindset is what we need to fill the void that remains after the hype and enthusiasm give way to everyday reality.
So I tip my glass to you, fellow travelers in the path of better beer -- home brewers and craft brewers alike. Let us never stray far from our origins in the quest for absolutely stellar beer. That is both our source and our goal.