Quality threatens to derail craft beer industry growth

By Rick Armon
Beacon Journal staff writer

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Zachary Bastin, the director at the Hoppin' Frog Brewery sits with a selection of their beers Tuesday in Akron. Hoppin' Frog is one of the best breweries in the world and they don't have an issue with quality. Many small craft breweries today, however, are not producing quality beer and those bad beers are giving the overall industry a bad name. (Karen Schiely/Akron Beacon Journal)

Craft brewers have been celebrating explosive growth for years. But many say they’re worried about a new threat to the continued success for their industry — bad beer.

Some small craft breweries opening today aren’t producing quality beer, and those stinkers are giving the overall industry a black eye, they say.

“It’s a big issue,” Brewers Association Director Paul Gatza said at the recent Craft Brewers Conference in Colorado. “We hate to see this segment being brought down with people having bad experiences in their glass when they’re trying craft beer.

“They’re maybe less likely to try something new in the future if they are having a bad experience from the last brewery they tried.”

Craft beer now controls 7.8 percent of the overall beer market. But the association has put forth an aggressive goal of claiming a 20 percent share by 2020.

Nationwide, there are at least 1,898 breweries in the planning stage. By the end of March, there also were 2,866 breweries in operation — up about 100 from just the end of last year.

There are about 100 in Ohio, which is about double the number from just three years ago.

With the craft beer industry growing so rapidly, it’s expected that there will be a few duds out there.

But some established craft brewers are becoming irritated at new players who don’t take quality seriously enough. Some of the new beer is flat-out flawed.

“A lot of people start in this industry as homebrewers who are told by their friends that they’re making good beer and you should go pro,” Gatza said. “A lot of them do and they try to do it on a shoestring.”

When their beer comes out, friends and family again praise it. But people who know beer know differently and, Gatza said, “a lot of these newer brewers are not putting out quality that reflects well on the whole craft community.”

The Boulder, Colo.-based trade association is encouraging the new brewers to invest in their beer and the science behind it, including sending their beer out to be tested.

Great Lakes Brewing Co. co-founder Pat Conway has seen the ups and downs of the industry. His Cleveland brewery, which celebrated its 25th anniversary last year, has always taken quality seriously.

Great Lakes has a “Drink by” date on its bottles to let drinkers know it’s fresh. It also employs workers to go out in the field and buy back any beer that doesn’t meet its high standards.

“Just like in the ’90s, there was a flurry of openings and many of those bad beers went to the wayside,” Conway said. “The market pruned itself and got rid of the weaker performers, as well it should have. Some were good but many were bad. Some were good and then were bad, which means inconsistent.”

Fred Karm, the owner and award-winning brewer at Hoppin’ Frog Brewery in Akron, said some people don’t realize how difficult it is to make a quality tasting beer. His brewery has consistently been ranked as one of the top 100 in the world by RateBeer.com.

“Anybody can make a batch of beer but to make it taste proper takes some learning and finesse,” Karm said.

Of course, there are great breweries opening that are adding to the cultural scene, Gatza said. He cited Sun King in Indianapolis, Cigar City in Tampa and Surly in Minneapolis as examples.

“There’s a recognition that to remain vibrant and new and good and to challenge the rest of us, this should be an open community,” Gatza said when asked about whether the association doesn’t want the growth to occur so fast.

Not everyone thinks there is a problem.

“In a nutshell, a bad beer or brewery is its own worst enemy, and I think the BA and craft breweries’ concerns are much ado about nothing, and slightly snobbish the way I see it,” said Mike Krajewski, a member of the Society of Akron Area Zymurgists, a homebrewing club.

Beer drinkers may have been turned off 15 or 20 years ago, but today “people just chalk up a bad experience to that brewery, not necessarily the industry as a whole.”

Fellow club member Joe Powell agreed.

“Craft brew drinkers are more likely to try any and every beer that they have not seen before, once,” he said. “But, these one-time buyers may be forever dissuaded from drinking a certain brewery if they have had a bad experience with one of their brews.”

The free market ultimately will decide which breweries survive, he said.

Rick Armon can be reached at 330-996-3569 or rarmon@thebeaconjournal.com. Read his beer blog at www.ohio.com/beer. Follow him on Twitter at @armonrickABJ.

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