Tag Archives: Dogfish Head Brewery

The Death of “Middle Craft” Beer

American craft brewing legend Dogfish Head Brewery, the mad geniuses from Delaware, sold to Boston Beer, the parent company that brews Sam Adams Boston Lager among many other beers.  Neither brewery should be considered a micro-brewery, but neither is a macro-brewery.  They both exist in some kind of middle ground.  Being in that middle ground may mean death or consolidation going forward.

Apparently, the top 50 craft brewers are having trouble with many posting severe year-over-year declines.  These are the craft brewers that I would define as “middle craft.”  The challenge for these breweries is giving you the beer drinker a reason to try them over, say, a handful of hyper local breweries that may only sell products from their own taproom or a few commercial accounts.

In the past—okay, the 1990s—middle craft was the place to be as beer drinkers sought out different beers and the quality control at a lot of craft breweries was just bad.  I cannot tell you how many small breweries were making beer that would make most semi-skilled home brewers spit out their stout.  You sought out a New Belgium Fat Tire or Boulevard Wheat because those were well made beers from breweries you trusted.  You knew you were not going to waste $8 on a six pack.  Heck, you might even pick up something a little unusual from the same brewery when you were in the mood for a change.

That dynamic is long gone.  Award winning breweries are scattered across this nation.  Between Cedar Rapids and Iowa City I can patronize a half dozen breweries putting out good and sometimes great beer.  Those same breweries have won medals at prestigious beer festivals and have reputations well beyond the borders of the state.  Expanding my field of view to the entire state opens up a whole host of small, innovative, and well regarded breweries making all sorts of different beers.  If you do not believe me just spend a minute perusing the tap list at the Iowa Taproom in Des Moines.

All things being equal, why would I buy a New Belgium Citradelic over a Lion Bridge Brewing Tag?  Or, why would I buy a Dale’s Pale Ale over a Big Grover Brewery Arms Race?  I like all four of the aforementioned beers.  I choose to buy the local products almost every time.

This is the reality for the beer business in 2019.

You Must Read—Ambitious Brew: The Story of American Beer

I think about beer a lot.  If you visit here with any frequency that will come as little surprise, but I am also somewhat academic in my love of beer.  Years of formal training as a historian have led me to dive into a topic’s historical underpinnings more so than the average bear.

9780156033596When I came across Maureen Ogle’s Ambitious Brew: The Story of American Beer I was excited because here was a historical text dealing exclusively with beer.  Other good books—Daniel Okrent’s excellent Last Call: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition and Andrew Barr’s Drink: A Social History of America in particular—deal with the larger issues of alcohol in American history, including beer, but fail to really focus on the golden liquid.

As it is a story about American beer it starts in the nineteenth century as German immigrants came to the U.S. and founded breweries.  The names are familiar right off the bat: Best, Pabst, and Busch.  The story of American beer is really about the titans of the industry for the first one hundred years or so.  These men and the breweries that bore their names were the shepherds of what constituted American beer into the 1970s.

It is amazing how precarious the situation was for many of these brewers as they grew from regional brands into the largest breweries in the world.  That is something to think about for a moment.  American beer before the craft beer renaissance was much maligned by every other beer culture in the world for producing pale swill that barely qualified as beer.  Yet, it was American companies who were pushing the boundaries of technology and technique more than anyone else to expand beer’s reach.  Granted, the pushing of boundaries was all about domination of markets.

Ogle is exhaustive in her look at the rise of the major brewers through the 1950s, but the book falls somewhat short in describing the rise of the craft beer movement starting in the 1970s.  It is nice to see Jack McAuliffe’s New Albion Brewing Company get credit for being one of the first to pioneer what meant to be a craft beer maker.  Other California craft brewers Sierra Nevada and Anchor Brewing Company are also profiled while Jim Koch’s Boston Beer Company, the brewer of Samuel Adams, gets a lot of attention.

However, this felt like a Clif Notes or highlights version of the story of the craft beer movement in the U.S.  There is so much to the story of craft beer in the U.S. that to focus on a few of the well-known examples feels like a cop out.  Again, it is American brewers who are pushing the boundaries of what is possible when it comes to beer whether it’s the crazy genius of Sam Calagione at Dogfish Head Brewery or the fact that it seems like every street corner of the Front Range in Colorado is home to a new brewery.  Small purveyors are revitalizing what had been a moribund industry and, in any cases, revitalizing the communities in which they choose to operate.  This is no small part of the story about craft beer in the United States.  The small purveyors are really about being part of a place.  I like to think about it like terroir, the French concept of a “sense of place,” for beer which is not something you hear of very often.  However, these brewers are producing beers that define or are defined by the places in which they are made.  It’s a result of all the factors that go into a small brewer that is not possible when scaled to something like an AB-InBev or other macro-monstrosity.

What would be interesting would be an update on the book as the major U.S. breweries have entered into ownership or partnerships with foreign breweries, leaving the craft beer makers as the only “American” brewers left standing anymore.

Regardless of my quibbles with the book’s treatment of the recent craft beer movement there is much to recommend Ambitious Brew.  To understand how we got to this moment in time, it is necessary to understand how American beer came to be.