The End of Craft Beer

The taps under the Arch

The Brewers Association (the trade organization representing small, independent, and traditional breweries) recently announced that craft brewers made 24.6 million barrels of beer in 2016 and achieved a 12.3% share of the American beer production market. This is mindboggling, if one considers that in 2000, their market share was less than 3%.[1] Craft brewers have not just dominated all new markets for beer over the past decade—they have owned InBev and their global corporate peers.

Beyond the metrics of the marketplace, craft beer has helped change how we live by establishing itself as a leading voice in the artisanal food and drink movement. The proliferation of restaurants, food trucks, and farmers’ markets testify to this movement’s substantial roots, capable now of throwing up shoots not just in wealthy enclaves but in everyday environs. You may judge craft beer’s coming of age by America’s groceries (perhaps our most stubbornly conservative institution, not including universities) where the beer aisle’s once comfortable choice of Miller-Budweiser-Coors, or some foreign stuff, has been transformed into a rainbow of primary colors and pop art.

But now we have reached the end of craft beer. Its years of economic dominance appear to be coming to a close. But to put it in terms of its own aesthetic arc (for taste in beer is, after all, a matter of discernment and beauty)[2], the movement has peaked, likely peaked some time ago, and is now running out of places to go. It may no longer be capable of meaningful change—of giving us something new. The last, definitive statement of brewing as an art and a science may well have been made this last year, in Hapeville, Georgia, by Arches Brewing.

Hapeville’s main drag

Hapeville is an old southern railroad town, and looks much like any other southern railroad town. The train tracks cut east-west, lined by square, one-story brick buildings that once stored wares and sold dry goods. The city’s center is the old Train Depot. The modest neighborhoods that peel off of Hapeville’s railroad tracks house no more than 7,000 residents, and were largely created as homes for the workers at Hapeville’s old Ford automobile plant, long since shuttered.

Hapeville’s city government has shown some vision of late, courting large corporations (Porsche relocated its North American headquarters to the town) and actively recruiting small businesses. The city revamped its downtown strip, beautifying sidewalks, and adding a plaza-like square and pedestrian mall where they host a monthly art crawl and regular art and music programs at the old Train Depot.

But hustling the charm of this little railroad town just south of Atlanta is not easy.  Hapeville is hopelessly distant from the core of Atlanta’s intown revival, whether it be the hipster scene of the East Atlanta Village or the insufferable gentrification of Inman Park. Hapeville’s two immediate neighbors, College Park and East Point, are largely cites of the working poor. True, they boast several up-and-coming neighborhoods and a scrappy bunch of near-broke artists, but they all lack the cash-rich yuppies and gym-sculpted bodies to support serious, monied revival. But there’s honesty in that, and Hapeville is better for it.

Arches Brewing, with its understated devotion to honesty in form and function, fits in such an environment. The “arches” refer to that foundation of western architecture, the Roman arch. Arches’ five owners are each a “pillar” in the brewery’s symbol, and each expended no small amount of sweat to build the place. Any one of them will proudly tell you on the tour that their tasting room and brewing floor once housed an old Napa Auto Parts Store, as if this were as romantic as repurposing a Belgian monastery. Nor are the owners shy about the salvage operation it took to put the brewery together. They collected much of their brewing equipment piecemeal and second hand. The refrigeration unit was a discard from a laboratory, rescued very nearly from a trip to the landfill.

The tasting room’s hardwood finish has a similar story. Greg Mickle, one of the five owners, found it quite by luck. Greg, a wiry man with a graying goatee and a pleasant (if mercurial) demeanor, spotted a friend at the end of the workday delivering patio furniture to the neighboring S&S Firepit shop. Greg invited him over to the brewery (not yet operational) for a beer, and asked if he knew where to find any cheap hardwood. His friend said no, but that he could sniff around. He placed a classified advertisement in his hometown newspaper in Anisten, Alabama. Someone called with an offer—you can have the salvage wood from an 1890 cotton mill, recently shuttered, if you come and get it. So they hitched up a trailer and drove to Alabama. It took two trips to bring it all back. Greg shrugged when he recalled the story. “It was a bonding experience.”

Repurposing space and materials is nothing new for startups. Neither is leveraging the labor of owners and their friends and family, as Arches did. But the owners did not just look for salvage or freebies—they also looked for quality and value.

Two engineers initially approached Arches with an offer—let us build you a control panel for your operation, for free. It made sense for the engineers. This was a market they were trying to enter, and Arches seemed a reasonable place to test out such a panel. For the brewers, this was a potential coup. A proper control panel would allow them to run a lean operation and to provide stricter controls in the brewing process. And no brewery the size of Arches could hope to have a panel that sophisticated, let alone for free.

But the brewers refused. They offered to buy the panel instead. “We wouldn’t have gotten the service we needed if it was free,” it was explained to me. “You get on the wrong list if you get something for free.” Besides, the brewers all realized that the panel would only work long term if it was expandable, and the engineers weren’t offering that. So, said Arches, make it expandable and provide service, and we’ll buy it. Still, the panel was expensive. The engineers worked every angle with their bosses to discount the panel so Arches could afford it, and Arches bought it.

Such bootstrap ingenuity makes for a good story, and craft breweries need good stories. It is an uncomfortable truth that consumers of craft beer (as well as wine and five-dollar-bunches of radishes) tend to fetishize the personal connection they have with a product. This has translated into slick marketing by breweries that sell their narrative (always “our story”) almost more than the beer they make. Arches has a story, but the brewery’s website is curiously spare in this regard. You get the basics, but little else. They have been, I suppose, too busy making beer.

What is actually significant about Arches’ operation is that they have opened a brewery without debt, but one that can expand. Arches has not operated on the more typical business model of raising capital for expensive brewing equipment based on projected earnings. There are no investors with ownership shares or SBA loans secured by the owners’ personal property. Arches’ brewers have, in short, achieved a practical kind of market independence. As one owner trenchantly put it, “we grow when we want to grow.” There is little pressure on the brewery to make what the consumer wants, to cut costs, or to expand production. And that is rare in the world of commercial craft beer.

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Arches does not make an IPA. Their signature beer is their “Unseasonal Lager,” produced year round. The brewery also produces two other unseasonals—a Belgian Blonde and a Pale Ale. The remainder of their portfolio cycles recipes that match the seasons—Hefeweizen in the Spring, a German Pilsner and a Vienna Lager in the summer, a Scotch Ale and Festbier in the Fall, a Milk Porter and Baltic Porter in the winter. And so on.

Most of the brews bear the names of their styles and little else. The Vienna Lager is simply Vienna Lager; the German Pilsner is German Pilsner. This bucks the trend. Craft breweries, desperate to distinguish their beer from the next craft brewery, can be prone to name wars. How else can one explain “You’ll Shoot Your Rye Out” (Gravity BrewWorks, Arkansas), “Darkstar Imperial Stout” (Bottle Logic, California), “Deathbot Wit” (Iron Bird Brewing Co., Colorado), or my personal favorite, “Putin on the RIS” (Thr3e Punks Ale, California). Arches’s popular Russian Imperial Stout, by contrast, bears the title “Aged Imperial Stout.”

“We think of our beer more like wine,” explained Ryan Fogelgren, the tall, cheerful redhead and Arches’ owner who handles sales. “It’s all about the style, not about some name that we all came up with some night when we were drunk.” Since that conversation, however, some of Arches beers acquired clever names, like the “Equilibrium Pale Ale” or the “Mystic Bock” or “Five Week Sail” for the Baltic Porter. “Yeah, well,” Ryan told me when I cornered him about it. “We decided that names could actually help identify the styles and their links to the historical recipes.”

Arches’ focus on producing reasonably pure Old World styles does not distinguish it from the many hundreds of craft breweries across the United States that do the same, many of whom do it quite well. But Arches’ innovation is simple and profound, and it’s in the water.

Jamey Adams, Arches’ brewmaster, is a Texan of medium build, trim, with slightly wavy chestnut hair, sharp nose, and a curiously intense personality leavened by a southern drawl. His college degree is in chemistry, and his day job is forensic scientist. He came to a startling realization about the importance of water when he was a homebrewer, after years of unsuccessfully attempting to craft a Russian Imperial Stout. “It always came out astringent,” he explained. “That’s not an aspect of the style. It competed unfavorably with the cocoa and malt.” No fiddling with the grain bill or the hops schedule and no additive seemed to fix the problem. Then he altered the water.

It was a revelation. Jamey and his homebrewing companions began investigating the mineral and salt content of their water. As Jeff Dake, the owner in charge of tasting (and also a forensic scientist), put it, “we were using water wrong. Atlanta water is mostly rainwater. It’s like a blank slate. In order to produce the styles we wanted, we had to add the right salts.”

Professional breweries, craft or otherwise, all adjust the salts and minerals in their water. So do many serious homebrewers. Water is beer’s main ingredient, and it is water that does the work of leaching the sugars from the malt during the mashing process. No brewer worth their salt (sorry) would ignore their water. But Arches took this investigation a step further. They alter the mineral composition of the water that goes into their recipes so that they reflect the beer’s region of origin. Vienna Lager features water altered to match water in Vienna, the Pilsner has a Czech water profile, the Belgian an Antwerp profile.

Sometimes the most profound realizations are simple. In this case, it was History. Since time immemorial, brewers have used the water close at hand, and they have built recipes around local water. Waters from different regions have different mineral compositions, so it should not surprise us that the Viennese use a different recipe than the Bavarians for their lagers. Nor should it surprise us that the recipes cannot simply be swapped out without considering the water. If you want to recreate Old World styles in the New World, you have to adjust your water to do so.

It is not easy for breweries to adjust their water for each recipe. There are hazards in large-scale production to using so many different water profiles, particularly if one is concerned about consistency. There are also structural challenges to maintaining the chemical composition of water through both the mashing and the sparging process. Simply put, when one adds the salts is quite important. Add to this the problem of reusing the water used to cool the mash and preserving the integrity of the hot liquor tank as a blank vessel and you have substantial logistical issues. The degree to which other breweries, big or craft, attend to such details is difficult to discern. Big breweries treat all such matters as trade secrets and the craft brewers I have spoken with evinced varying degrees of commitment.

Craft beer drinkers tend to treat styles as a measuring stick, comparing one brewery’s pale ale to another’s, regardless of where the breweries operate. After all, everyone is sourcing their grain and hops from faraway places and likely even the same places. This has, in the recent food and drink renaissance, been the dividing line between beer and wine. Wine grapes need precise growing conditions and absorb mineral content (local water) directly into their bodies. Because there is a limited amount of time that one can have between harvest and the crush, the best wines are made either on site or close to the harvest. The result is what wine lovers refer to as terroir—the distinctive taste that local soil, local climate, local water, and local winemaking traditions deliver to wine. And this is quite real.[3] There is a reason why the Chardonnays and Pinot Noirs of Burgundy’s Côte de Beaune taste substantially different from the same grapes planted along the Russian River Valley in Sonoma County, California.

Beer does not seem so rooted in place. Everyone, after all, produces an IPA, and the measure is not its localness but rather its hopping schedule. Thus the Iron Bird Brewing Co. of Colorado Springs’s Propaganda IPA stakes its claim to originality by adding Amarillo, Zythos, Chinook, Centennial, Columbus, and Horizon hops to its brew, while 3 Punk Ales of Los Angeles offers up the” 2 grains, 1 hop” Pale Ale.[4] Granted, there is a movement to source local ingredients (witness the Prickly Pear Wheat by Borderland Brewing Company in Tucson, Arizona). But Arches has already jumped this curve. They have brought the terroir of Old World styles to Hapeville, Georgia.

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alcoholic republic cover
A classic text

Beer is deeply intertwined with American history, much more so than its snooty cousin wine and more nobly than its angry brother grog. Beer, after all, arrived on the first ships carrying Europeans to North America. The Puritans were America’s first homebrewers, with 50% of households in the Massachusetts Bay colony producing beer.[5] The Founders certainly partook. Much of the heavy lifting at the Constitutional Convention took place in the inns and taverns after the delegates quit Independence Hall. As America matured into a republican empire in the decades before the Civil War, immigrant Germans brought their brewing traditions to cities from east to west, from New York to Milwaukee to Saint Louis to Sonoma County.

It was these immigrants who founded the first big breweries in the latter half of the nineteenth century—firms that would not merely dominate the cities they inhabited, but also ship their beer across the country. The breweries have names that still ring legendary—Pabst, Anheuser-Busch, Schlitz—and they produced beer on a scale not yet seen in North America. In 1863, 1.7 million barrels of beer were produced in America. Some thirty years later, the industry pumped out 33.6 million barrels. During this same period, the number of producers of beer actually fell by almost half. The little producers were felled the big boys, led by the German one-two punch of Pabst in Milwaukee and Anheuser-Busch in St. Louis.[6]

These captains of industry were the true forerunners of craft brewers. Their beer beat out locals not because it was cheaper (bottles of Pabst were actually more expensive than local beer) but because it was better and more consistent. This was not just because the immigrant brewers cared deeply about their beer (they did), but also because expensive technological advances like heat pasteurization and artificial refrigeration reduced spoilage. Big advertising budgets also kept costs up, but they created brand identification and consumer loyalty in the age of the industrial revolution—when quality was proudly associated with the assembly line.

repeal the 18th amendment

Prohibition (1920-1933) interrupted the progress of the American brewing industry. A little known fact: it also halted the rise of small local brewers, who had been growing at a faster rate than the national breweries since 1895 and had steadily been cutting into the big boys’ profits.[7] Prohibition was hardest on them because they did not have the capital reserves to weather the hard times or switch production to non-alcoholic goods. By the time Prohibition ended, the field had winnowed and the giants were poised to conquer it.

Conquer it they did. The second half of the twentieth century witnessed a formidable concentration of the brewing industry. There were 421 mass-producing beer companies in 1947, but only 24 in 2000, three of which—Anheuseur-Bush, Miller, and Coors—accounted for nearly 89% of U.S. beer production.[8] The consolidation of the post-World War II market bore little resemblance to that of the late nineteenth century. The brewers of the industrial revolution had proudly touted their quality and consistency. The postwar breweries, by contrast, shifted to selling lifestyle. Technological advances, once a driver of quality, now served to cut production costs. Small firms had to discount their beer just to compete, leading to price wars that they were destined to lose.

To put it simply—the costs of entering the beer market were high, profit margins slim, and the chance of failure great. All economic signs from 1980 on should have pointed to futility for small breweries. Yet this was precisely when craft beer flourished. Just as the industry was consolidating at the top, diversity in production was increasing at the bottom. Eighteen microbreweries were producing beer in 1984. A decade later the number was 537. By 2016, it was over 3,000.[9]

There were structural reasons for the rise of craft beer. In 1977, Congress had reduced taxes on small brewers by lowering the excise to $7 per barrel from $9 for the first 60,000 barrels sold on any brewer producing fewer than 2 million barrels a year. Congress also decriminalized homebrewing in 1979.[10]  These twin incentives helped revolutionize the market at both ends. Just as small producers were given an incentive, consumers expanded their palate.

Rather than focus on the structural elements of capitalism, stop to consider the problem in aesthetic terms. The hegemony of the Big Three (Anheuser-Busch, Miller, Coors) was predicated on the ethos of Consumer Capitalism. The beer giants aimed for efficiency in production, cheaper inputs (like, you know, hops and malt), and then used marketing to explain to consumers, ever so tenderly, why they wanted an intoxicant as a lifestyle choice. This usually involved a parade of ex-football stars, half-naked models, and frat boys using the product in highly suggestive ways for 30 seconds at a time.

By contrast, the craft brewery movement was all about the beer. Microbreweries delighted in rare hops and expensive grains—and more of it per bottle. Their beers came in shades from rich gold to almond brown to night black. They smelled of citrus and passion fruit. Against homogenization, craft brewers substituted brash experimentation. Against corporate efficiency they banked on a more expensive product.

Greg Mickle checking the control panel

And many of them failed. The editor of New Brewer noted in 1984 that the “common denominator” among failures was that “the primary motivation” of the brewers was simply to brew good beer.[11] There were successes too, a few at least, and economists would say that they were exploiting a niche market (consumers with money in their pockets and a desire for high status goods). And they were—but this misses the point. Craft brewers did not make craft beer to fill a niche. Most were famously understudied in the mystery of the market. What they knew was how to brew beer.

There is another point. The consumers that stumbled upon craft brewers had to be educated in order to appreciate them. But once they were, they found themselves not only craving the quality and the variety, but also the individuality of craft brewers. Aficionados came to reject the ethos of Big Brewing, the same way that indie music fans refuse to buy Sony recording artists. As consumers, they rejected not just insipid mass-produced beers but the corporate manipulation of the market with expensive advertising campaigns. So powerful was this rejection that it killed beer marketing. Literally.[12]

Beer is not the only product to experience massive differentiation since 1980. In fact, it happened to a number of other consumer goods, from coffee makers to vacuum cleaners. In the dry terms favored by bloodless economists, consumers looked for producers to make the goods that most fit their wants and producers strove to fill those wants in an increasingly competitive marketplace where the consumer was king.[13] And so it was with beer. But in the soulful tango of brewer and drinker, something more magical than “consumer preferences” happened. Brewers made beer that was good rather than popular. Drinkers discovered tastes they didn’t know they had. Both made demands upon the other, the brewer refusing to cater to the market and the drinker demanding what the market did not provide.

The result was, admittedly, both beautiful and ugly. The exploration of styles (especially IPA) allowed for a spectrum that ran the gamut from pleasantly bitter to intolerable.[14] It produced something of an IPA arms race, with breweries crafting ever more daring styles with complex grain bills and exotic hopping schedules, yielding noses of grapefruit and hibiscus and raisin over malty flavors of ash and vanilla and tar. Experimentation became its own fetish. Breweries began directly adding extracts and spices to beers, whether to find a niche in the crowded market or scratch some personal itch. And so they continue, to this day, producing more and more extreme beer.

Arches does not fit this profile. They are more traditional than experimental, and their focus on lagers will likely strike many as surprising. The mortal enemy of craft beer, after all, was the megabrewery and its cheap lager. Whether in “light,” “dry,” “ice,” or “original” form, the big breweries produce a frothy, fizzy, yellow pap that excelled only in its mind-numbing consistency (no Bud EVER tastes different from another Bud[15]) and was useful only as a mildly efficient buzz-delivery system. Lager was a kind of dirty word, signifying blandness.

But lagers are, in many ways, a higher form of art. Lagering mellows beer. It is a refining process, one that strips away much of the instant gratification of the IPA’s hops profile and reveals deeper, more subtle characteristics. It is also the more challenging style to brew and brew well. The truth of the matter is that maltier and hoppier ales hide flaws. Lagers reward precision and skill. They also make the consumer work harder. Any refined product will necessarily require more exactness in taste. That can be a tough sell. But Arches is selling. It is selling, in part, because the proletarian market for craft beer has expanded so much.

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We have now reached the end of craft beer. Experimentation has run its course and we are now witness to a return to fundamentals. Arches, with its steadfast devotion to the simple elements (and to lagers), has seen the future. They are not the only brewery to have done so, and if I have made exaggerated claims for Arches’ importance, then so be it. We are not likely to see new craft breweries emerge that do anything different from what we have already seen them do. Enough said.

Craft brewers also face the dread of an uncertain economic future. However much we might consider brewing an art, we must remember that it is also a commercial enterprise. Breweries come with deep sunk costs and must navigate a thicket of national, state, and local regulations. Distribution is its own headache, especially in a crowded marketplace where industry giants can muscle out microbrewers. It is not hard to see the specter of corporate takeover haunting the craft beer world. Consider that craft breweries may have added 1.4 million barrels in production in 2016, but they also lost 1.2 million, mainly through acquisitions. Big Brewing wants its market share back. And it is armed with cash on hand.

But it was ever thus. No dynamic creative period lasts forever. No economic boom can be sustained indefinitely. We have no reason to suspect that craft beer is some kind of perpetual motion machine. And if craft beer has reached its creative and economic peak, this does not mean that our enjoyment is somehow the less for it. Quite the opposite. The question moving forward is whether craft brewers like Arches can, in the face of flattening demand and corporate hegemony, preserve their commitment to quality, locality, individuality.

They will depend on beer drinkers, who must maintain an exacting palate, a demand for the idiosyncratic, and a willingness to pay more for quality. If beer drinkers everywhere unite around such shared values, then craft beer will continue to be a provocation to experience, rather than just a matter for future historical curiosity.

H. Robert Baker is an associate professor of History at Georgia State University and the author of The Rescue of Joshua Glover: A Fugitive Slave, the Constitution, and the Coming of the Civil War (Ohio University Press, 2007) and Prigg v. Pennsylvania: Slavery, the Supreme Court, and the Ambivalent Constitution (University Press of Kansas, 2012).  His current research explores the influence of historical consciousness on constitutional thinking, as well as the nature of constitutional change over time.


N.B.: This post was edited to correct several errors of fact. Other errors of fact will, in fact, remain in the post.

[1] Victor J. Tremblay and Carol Horton Tremblay, The U.S. Brewing Industry: Data and Economic Analysis (Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press, 2005), 13. (The 12.3% market share in 2016 includes brewpubs and microbreweries, and is likely not entirely comparable with the numbers compiled by Tremblay and Tremblay—it may exaggerate the gains in market share. Regardless, even if craft beer’s market share has not quadrupled, it has at least tripled.)

[2] I have no wish to tangle with the experts of taste here. I refer to beer’s aesthetic arc in somewhat more holistic terms: an attention to craft and method, the larger availability of quality and range of options for the drinker, and the subsequent refinement and expansion of taste. This is NOT an attempt to refer to professional tasting or to debate whether the aesthetics of taste are rooted in phenomenological principles or otherwise. For an engaging discussion of that subject, I heartily recommend Tom Vanderbilt, You May Also Like: Taste in an Age of Endless Choice (New York: Knopf, 2016).

[3] For a lovely take on wine production and whether terroir really matters, see Mike Veseth, Wine Wars: The Curse of the Blue Nun, the Miracle of Two Buck Chuck, and the Revenge of the Terroirists (Rowman and Littlefield, 2012).

[4] Not an IPA, I know, but the most scaled down pale ale I could find, and all the better for contrast.

[5] James E. McWilliams, “Brewing Beer in Massachusetts Bay, 1640-1690,” New England Quarterly 71, no. 4 (1998): 543-69. Astute readers of history will note that not all Massachusetts Bay residents were puritans, so my claim is exaggerated. But so what.

[6] Martin Stack, “Local and Regional Breweries in America’s Brewing Industry, 1865 to 1920,” The Business History Review 74, no. 3 (2000): 435–63, doi:10.2307/3116434.

[7] Ibid., 448–49.

[8] Tremblay and Tremblay, The U.S. Brewing Industry, 41, 60.

[9] This does not include brewpubs. And such numbers are not reliable without being precise about what is being measured (i.e., the size of breweries, entry and exit, etc.), and are largely meaningless unless accurately calibrated to the size of the industry as a whole, but I have set precision aside here for the general truth of the matter—there was an explosion in the number of microbreweries and even their market share after 1984 at precisely the same time that the top of the industry was consolidating into three firms.

[10] See Tremblay and Tremblay, The U.S. Brewing Industry, 118-19.

[11] New Brewer, May-June 1984, cited in Steve Hindy, The Craft Beer Revolution: How a Band of Microbrewers Is Transforming the World’s Favorite Drink, First edition (New York, NY: Palgrave Macmillan, 2014), 43.

[12] I’m not kidding. Eric K. Clemons, Guodong “Gordon” Gao, and Lorin M. Hitt, “When Online Reviews Meet Hyperdifferentiation: A Study of the Craft Beer Industry,” Journal of Management Information Systems 23, no. 2 (2006): 149–71. See also Rolf Färe et al., “Advertising Efficiency and the Choice of Media Mix: A Case of Beer,” International Journal of Industrial Organization 22, no. 4 (April 2004): 503–22, doi:10.1016/j.ijindorg.2003.10.002.

[13] Eric K. Clemons, “How Information Changes Consumer Behavior and How Consumer Behavior Determines Corporate Strategy,” Journal of Management Information Systems 25, no. 2 (2008): 13–40.

[14] The International Bittering Unit (IBU) provides an independent measure of bitterness. The American IPA can run from 40 IBUs to 120 IBUs, which is just about as much bitterness as the mouth can handle. By way of contrast, Budweiser runs about 7 IBUs.

[15] This does not mean that Budweiser (or any of the Big Three lagers) has not changed over time—everyone knows that Budweiser used to be a lager in the Old World style and that it has steadily moved towards a more watery, less bitter, flavor.