Craft beer is no longer cool; it’s the norm. In BC, or at least in Vancouver, you can’t go to a bar/restaurant without finding some sort of craft beer on tap, and pretty much everyone is down to grab a pint or a flight at one of the dozens of breweries around the city. While this seems like such a normal to-do now, it never used to be the case.
I started writing about BC craft beer back in 2013; at that time, I felt the need to write a column on where to find the best BC craft beer tap lists around the city. That article is all but obsolete now. While yes, there are some definitive places to find the best and brightest craft beer on tap (*cough* Alibi room), I’d have an easier time now writing about places you CAN’T find craft beer. That’s not to mention the number of craft beer events, festivals, brew tours, bloggers and self-professed experts that now permeate the city. When the craft beer culture is this prolific, we aren’t fighting a war against macro-beer anymore, that battle has long since past.
Now I’m not suggesting there isn’t any more room for growth within the industry; currently BC has over 150 breweries in the province, which doesn’t yet reach the levels of Oregon (230+) or even Ontario (180+). But what I am suggesting is that craft beer is no longer “cool” for the sake of being cool. Previously we had a ravenous craft beer following that would scoop up whatever we could get our hands on, but now we are overwhelmed with choice, and I predict it means a few significant changes for the industry moving forward.
There will be some casualties
Here’s the crazy thing about the craft beer explosion over the last five years, there have been little to no breweries closing up shop. That’s absurd by any standards; no one expects every restaurant to be wildly successful, and the same principal should apply to breweries.
There is no way this continues for long. There’s too much supply, too much consumer choice, for every single brewery to be successful. Admittedly, those breweries that got into the game during the early days of growth are well positioned to ride out consumer demand. They have already developed a following, found their niche, and can even experiment with little consequence. But for breweries coming into the scene, it’s going to be incredibly competitive, and just being “craft” isn’t going to cut it anymore.
Which leads me to….
Going niche to go big
Specialization will be key for breweries moving forward. Whether it’s Doan’s primarily focusing on rye, or Strange Fellows banking on sours and barrel-aging, or even Luppolo latching onto the Italian theme, brewers are going to have to stand out from the crowd through niche brewing. This has both positive and negative connotations.
From a positive stand-point, going niche means a brewer can target a specific drinker and is likely to retain that customer for the long haul. It also means they can focus on one particular brewing ‘style’, and become incredibly good at that style.
However, it also opens them up to an incredible amount of risk. Niche, by its very nature isn’t for everyone, and if your particular niche isn’t resonating, then chances are you’re going to find out fast and fail hard.
Succeed or fail, there’s also the possibility that….
Breweries start being bought out
Here’s another amazing aspect of BC’s craft beer scene, there’s been relatively no acquisitions. Craft breweries have managed to maintain control over their operations without interference from the likes of Anheuser-Busch or others. Now with craft beer chipping away more and more profits every year, do you actually think AB isn’t actively trying to recoup those loses by simply buying out some of the smaller fish?
This is inevitable. Craft beer is after all a business, and a natural progression of business is being acquired by a larger business to expand operations and brand awareness. The question is, whose going to crack first? Being bought by someone like AB is generally viewed with disdain from the craft beer community, but it doesn’t necessarily destroy credibility if done properly.
Right now there are only a handful of breweries that are larger enough to be consider a target. Vancouver Island Brewing was bought last year by a partner in Ontario’s Muskoka Brewing. Parallel 49, Central City, Howe Sound and Postmark are clear targets. Acquisitions are coming, let’s try not to judge them too hard until we see the end results.
BC becomes a beer destination
This is already starting to happen, but expect to see it grow even more. We’re earning a well-deserved reputation as a world class beer community. With the addition of breweries being located in some pristine and quite frankly, tourist-friendly areas, we’re going to see the beer-focused tourist industry grow substantially. Already feel like Vancouver Craft Beer Week has too many attendees? Get used to it, that’s just going to get worse as time goes on.
We have a chance to rival Oregon as a beer destination, all we need is that little nudge in the right direction.
So, yes the long fought craft beer revolution is most definitely over. We’ve grown out of those infant years and have entered into the awkward teen years where we will see some dramatic changes. Some will be good, some will be hard to swallow, but in the end we will come out of it a mature beer destination which ultimately benefits both brewers and drinkers alike.