Saturday, February 1, 2014

Signs Point to Continued Growth in the U.S. Beer Market -- and in Beer Writing

It was a very good year.

Note: The following is an entry in the Beer Bloggers Conference and National Beer Wholesalers Association’s “Best Beer Writing” contest. Apart from that, it is, in fact, the best beer writing. At least that you’ll read today.

The sign always gets me. You know it. The one that presently reads, “Your birthday must be on or before today’s date in 1993 to purchase alcoholic beverages.” The aging beer aficionado is sometimes tempted to measure his life by this sign. Not only was I born before 1993, but that was the very year I discovered what has come to be known, in the parlance of our times, as American craft beer.

My discovery was about as “American” as it gets. Twenty-two-year-old me stood in the convenience store aisle, looking to bring something unique to an Independence Day party. Two six-packs stood out. One was Samuel Adams Boston Lager, named after, the box informed me, a “brewer and patriot.” The other was Anchor Brewing’s Liberty Ale, which duh. I got one of each.

In retrospect, my choices were easy. Yes, even two decades ago, at the dawn of the modern craft beer boom, one often came across imported beers and an increasing number of niche brands. But now here we are in 2014, and the prospective beer buyer is faced with a bewildering cornucopia of specialty brews unimaginable only a generation ago, most of which are produced right here in the good old U.S. of A.

The numbers have grown impressively. According to the Boulder, Colorado-based Brewers Association, there were 2,722 commercial breweries operating in the United States at the end of 2013, more than at any time since 1870. (Nineteenth-century American drinkers were bad ass.) Another 1,700 are in the planning stages. In the Great Beer State of Michigan, where I reside, we currently have something like 120 breweries, and I say “something like” because the growth has been so rapid I can’t even keep track anymore.

Which is saying something, since for the past five years it’s been sort of my job. You see, I’m one of those curious creatures who has arisen right alongside America’s beer renaissance: the beer writer.

Not that I introduce myself as such, ever. Officially, to anyone who asks me at parties, I’m a freelancer. Even in our enlightened day and age, it’s often difficult to explain what a “beer writer” is and does. (Let’s be honest: I’m still figuring that out myself.) And, anyway, despite years of newspaper columns and a book behind me, beer writing still doesn’t constitute a full-time job, nor come anywhere near it.

But there’s no question that beer and the writers who love it have both come a long way in a relatively short span. In the not-so-distant past, all of official beer writerdom consisted of the late Michael Jackson, an Englishman, and Fred Eckhardt, some guy from Oregon. Standing on the shoulders of these pioneering giants are now hundreds of beer bloggers writing about their passion from every state in the union.

Sure, a lot of this writing can be unprofessional or even downright amateurish. In part, that’s due to the nature of the Internet, where anyone can publish anything immediately, grammar and spelling be damned. It’s also partly due just to the newness of it all. There’s no real template for the job.

But brewery owners, professional brewers, distributors, retailers, and dedicated beer lovers would be wrong to dismiss all of us “new wave” beer writers as merely amateurs and hacks. We may often lack a classical pedigree or a certain polish, but we are nonetheless a vital part of the modern beer ecosystem.

For example, in the years since I’ve been scribbling on the topic, I’ve lost count of the number of times complete strangers have come up to me, shaken my hand, and thanked me for letting them know about this beer or that event. And I know from my local bar and brewery friends that just having someone write about what they have going on makes a real difference. People are paying attention.

It’s no surprise that as new breweries and beer brands have proliferated, so have the available avenues for writing about them. Today people turn not only to local or regional blogs for beer news and views, but also to larger websites like and Glossy magazines like All About Beer, Draft, Imbibe, and Taps routinely publish lavish articles from beer writers. And books on the subject, including my own Ann Arbor Beer: A Hoppy History of Tree Town Brewing, continue to fill up store shelves. Opportunities for beer enlightenment are nearly as abundant as the number of brews themselves.

Some beer writers may do what they do for the occasional free pint or for no recompense whatsoever. Others of us may take the job a bit more seriously because we don’t have the luxury of doing our writing during down-time at the cube farm. Whatever the case, all signs point to continued growth in the U.S. beer market, with bloggers, reporters, opinion columnists, authors, and other writers playing a vital role.

After all, someone has to serve as beer matchmaker — organically helping steer new generations of drinkers toward the next brands, brewers, and retailers they may fall in love with — in this era of ever-increasing choice and consumer demand. Who ya gonna call?

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