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Monday, December 30, 2013

The Year in Review

Note: post has been edited slightly for clarity.

Ecliptic, one of 500 new breweries in 2013.
What year is complete without a year-end review?  BuzzFeed has more or less made us all despise these things, but I've been doing year-end recaps since long before the ubiquity of click-baiting listicles, and by God, I plan to keep up the tradition.  (Completists may like to peruse the old posts from 2011, 2010a and 2010b, 2009, 2008a and 2008b, and 2007.)  So without further throat-clearing, let's get right to it.  Here were the trends and developments I thought were most interesting.


Good Trend: Lager's Triumphant Return
As recently as a few years ago, I was pretty sure no one on the West Coast was going to be able to give away lagers.  Full Sail got the ball rolling, but their line of lagers seemed more like a brewing cul-de-sac rather than a blazed new trail.  The presence of the LTD series and Sessions appeared to be the exceptions that proved the rule, not a new trend.  But by last year, signs of a lager renaissance were becoming insistent, and this year, lagers were everywhere.  Not only did lagers return--there was even a lager fest--but they were really good.  Standouts included Breakside's Float and Pilsner, the pilsners from the Commons and Upright (the latter an early trendsetter), Ninkasi's Bohemian Pils, and possibly my favorite, Hop Valley's Czech Your Head.


Bad Trend: Price Spiral
In the very competitive Portland market, the prices on standard beer has remained mostly flat for years.  We can thank Bill Night for his steady work in making those figures available.  (In 2009, a six-pack set you back $9.09 and now you have to pony up just $9.50.)  But in that four-year period, specialty releases have become a much bigger part of the brewing calculus, and prices on those beers has really spiked.  Beyond Beervana, where competition is lighter, prices have spiked even more.  You can see the effect of that at bottle shops, where fairly standard beers from other parts of the country are often ten bucks a bomber.  Specialty releases are even more expensive, and as Alan has pointed out a million times, this feels more like gouging than compensation for spendier processes like barrel aging.  (If Frank Boon will sell me a bottle of his Mariage Parfait for less than ten bucks, why should I be paying $20 for an American brett bomb?)


Good Trend: Cider Comes of Age
It's weird to talk about the emergence of a beverage that has been around longer than the country, but until 2013, cider was on no one's radar.  Mass market cider was at the end of cooler next to the alco-pops and good luck trying to find it on tap.  This year, cider finally seeped into our collective consciousness.  It's in nearly every restaurant or pub I visit, and nearly always in the form of an all-juice "craft" cider.  (I know this is different outside Portland, where if you see a cider, it's likely to be Angry Orchard.)  One of the breakthrough products was Two Towns Rhubarbarian--the first cider I heard people talking about and using as an example of what "good" cider could be.  It was such a good year for cider that it even started appearing at beer fests.


Ambiguous Trend: New Breweries
When historians look back on 2012-2013, they probably won't remember lagers or ciders so much as the explosion of new brewery openings.  This is a continuation of the trend that started last year, when more than 400 new breweries opened up (!) and continued on this year.  The numbers aren't in for 2013, but the Brewers Association thinks there might be as many as 500.  I am still unconvinced this is the sign of a catastrophic bubble, but there is at least one thing to worry about.  For the first time in a long time, production brewery openings are outpacing brewpub openings.  (The stats are slightly unclear--what would you call Ecliptic, which opened as a brewpub that bottles beer?)  There is plenty of room for craft beer growth, but supermarket shelves only have so much real estate.  Will there be a shakeout in the next five years?  With 900 breweries opening in two years, I guess we're running the experiment in real time.


Troubling Trend: Too Many Beers
The market within the craft beer segment has changed dramatically in the last five years.  Once breweries were able to build up a single brand or two build their brewery around it.  The explosion of choice has created a kind of manic ADHD scramble for the new, however, and now breweries regularly make dozens of different beers.  Breakside made a hundred, but even old stalwarts like Widmer Brothers and Deschutes made dozens.  I've mentioned feeling personally overwhelmed by the choice, but there's something more than personal preference at work here.  Selling to a promiscuous consumer base is touchy business, and godspeed to those breweries--particularly the bigger ones--who are trying to find what the public wants next.


Good Trend: Permanent Market Realignment
I don't think there's any doubt that the beer market is permanently altered.  Each year, the market for mass market lagers declines--sometimes precipitiously--and each year the craft beer segment expands.  At this point, China is the battleground for growth among the industrial giants.  Locally, their growth strategy involves getting some of that craft money.  Mass market lagers won't disappear, but they're headed for a long decline.  Meanwhile, the biggest of the little guys--Sierra Nevada, Lagunitas, New Belgium--are borrowing a page from the industrial playbook and opening new breweries.  This will further push hoppy ales into the mainstream, hastening the decline of the various lights and lites.  There is an equilibrium some decades in the future, and it includes a healthy share for all-barley ales. 


Ambiguous Trend: Changing Media
I'll go out on a bit of a navel-gazer.  This will be the first year I don't do the Satori Award.  It's partly due to the fact that the changes is brewing have made it obsolete--breweries don't really think in terms of permanency anymore.  But it's also because blogs themselves are no longer particularly relevant in the discussion of beer.  When I started this blog in 2006, there was a bit of utility in offering my reviews and opinions about beers.  It's amazing to think about, but Facebook didn't launch as a national site until that September, and Twitter didn't exist.  Social media as such was limited to things like blogs, which offered a chatty alternative to newspapers.  But in the few short years since then, everything has changed.  No one really looks to blogs to help them navigate niche worlds anymore.  Opinion is so ubiquitous we are instantly tired of it.  In an environment saturated with people oversharing, a blog looks like grandpa's old-timey Facebook page.

There are a lot of opportunities for bloggers to do new and interesting stuff.  But we need to rethink the blog.  Once, we were the BuzzFeeds offering our listicles as an alternative to newspapers.  It's quite possible the reverse is happening: now newspapers don't offer in-depth reporting anymore, so it may be up to citizen bloggers to do that.  I've always tried to do long-form blogging with actual reporting (such as I am able to do it), and this blog may morph ever more in that direction.  I only posted 210 times in 2013, the lowest number since 2006.  If I can break myself of old habits, I may try to do more of the long-form stuff.  We shall see.

Whatever 2014 brings, I hope it is fresh and tasty, just like my favorite beers.  Happy new year to you all--

17 comments:

Rich Isaacs said...

Not that it much matters, but I think you mean 259 times in 2012, not 2010. Or 210 times in 2013, not sure. Also, couldn't this have been because you were finishing your book and not a lack of interest in writing?

Also, very interesting year end review. Much more information than best beer and other ilk like that.

Pete Dunlop said...

I know your blogging was limited this year by other writing commitments. Same for me. It's fairly clear that what we might call short form blogging is moving to Twitter and Facebook. If you morph your blog into something that fits in those spaces, it will lose a lot in the translation. I honestly think there will continue to be a place for long-form blogging. In fact, blogs may soon be the only place real news will be found. The challenge is to be objective and produce relevant content. That is your future...and possibly mine.

Anonymous said...

TL; DR.

Kidding! Yeah, good work with this. I semi-agree with the Troubling Trend, but, at the same time, I really enjoy the non-stop variety (it's the spice of life, of course) that's consistently available. About as consistent as me knowing that I have my old reliables to go back to, if a new one doesn't fit my fancy.

Ultimately, my alternative Troubling Trend: Beer snobbery "between friends". I mean, seriously. There are good beers. Stop whining and thinking your tastes are better than mine. Happy New Year

Christopher Grzan said...

I agree with your comments on the changing role of the blog. And I also agree that long-form posts with actual reporting provide an opportunity for citizen bloggers to become a more valuable voice, and provide real insight instead of short-lived entertainment. But there's a massive difference between newspaper writers and citizen bloggers: compensation. I used to do actual reporting on my blog, with interviews and photos and formatting. But when a person is their own editor, it becomes a time-sensitive endeavor. Providing original reporting on a consistent basis was simply unsustainable without being paid for it.

Scott Cohen said...

I'm going to start a listicle on the 10 reasons Jeff should blog more (but I'll allow the author to decide between short and long form).

Kevin said...

"Specialty releases are even more expensive, and as Alan has pointed out a million times, this feels more like gouging than compensation for spendier processes like barrel aging."

I don't think that word means what you think it means. And, for what it's worth, Alan doesn't actually use it in the linked column. In fact, Alan's post makes it very clear that it isn't gouging. You can't gouge people for a luxury good surrounded by hundreds of other interchangable luxury goods at a variety of prices.

Jeff Alworth said...

Rich: thanks (it's 210 in 2013--I had garbled the whole thing).

Pete: a year ago, I was thinking blogging was dead. Now that the MSM has doubled down on click-baiting fluff, I see that I was exactly wrong. We really need more in depth stories--because if bloggers don't do them, they won't get done.

Anon: as we become more sophisticated drinkers, that one-upsmanship becomes harder to pull of. It's all revealed as opinion at a certain point.

Christopher: I hear you. I'm in a slightly better position than most bloggers, because I (fingers crossed!) seem to have a source of paid writing through books. That means I need to be doing research anyway, which lends itself to better blog posts. But you're right--the money is a barrier. (Which is why the MSM has abandoned it for cheap fluff.)

Scott: and I will Tweet a link to that listicle!

Jeff Alworth said...

Kevin: I think "gouging" accurately describes Alan's view of the current situation of beer pricing, but we can let him weigh in. I'm sticking with the word.

Alan said...

OK, I think this might be the question to ask the Buddhist beer nerd: can one gouge the fool? I think there is suckering going on but it seems like there are fools aplenty lining up to be sucker punched right in the kisser.

Elijah Farrell said...

Most certainly not Price Gouging.

Brad said...

The thing to remember is that pricing is driven by supply and demand, not cost of inputs or cost of labor. The breweries charge what the market will bear.

At my local supermarket, Firestone Double Jack is $8.99 for a bomber, while Lagunitas Hop Stoopid is $4.99. Are Firestone's costs double those of Lagunitas? I can't imagine so, because six-pack costs of Union Jack vs. Lagunitas IPA don't carry the same premium.

This is taken right out of the wine playbook. When you have a national or international market, and limited production capability for these beers, pricing has a lot more to do with how rare a beer is [and its reputation] than it has to do with how much it costs to make.

However, think of this: if you want these nano production breweries to succeed, they NEED this level of pricing stratification. There's a reason there's 8000+ wineries in North America. The reason is that the tiny little wineries aren't limited to the "value" price point. The market understands that you can buy a bottle of wine for $3 or you can buy a bottle of wine for $300. A $100 bottle of wine probably isn't 10 times better than a $10 bottle of wine, but some folks are willing to pay that difference for the $100 bottle nonetheless.

Ed said...

I've also had concerns about the Troubling Trend. It takes time to get the knack of making a particular beer style so when new breweries are bringing out dozens of different styles of beer I can't help but think that they're leaping from one thing to the next without really understanding what they're doing.

Alan said...

Manufactured scarcity is a form of price gouging. Don't be silly. It's like listening to marionettes denying the function of all those strings.

Kevin said...

But Alan, *there is no scarity*. There's a thousand different beers on the shelves of my local stores, at prices per serving ranging from 25 cents to 25 dollars. Are some of them overpriced? Hell yes. Are any of them price gouging? Absolutely not. Those words don't mean the same thing.

To be absolutely, pedantically clear: I agree with you that the pricing on a lot of beers doesn't "make sense". Some breweries are setting a higher margin (sometimes dramatically) than others. All I'm saying is, that's not price gouging. You can't price-gouge a luxury or non-essential good, and you aren't price-gouging when a substitute product at a lower price is sitting right next to yours on the shelf.

Jeff Alworth said...

Ed: good point. It's something we ought to talk about more often. Dumping a mediocre beer on the market and charging $15 a bottle just because it was bottle-aged and limited-run is scorn-worthy.

All: on the issue of "gouging," I think we have gotten into one of those bloggy, semantic comment disputes. "Price gouging" is a specific economic term and one I did not use. Intentionally. The more evocative "gouging" can be used to express the act of charging more than is warranted for a product, particularly one in short supply--like limited-run specialty beers. Is this a staple humans need to survive? No. Is it catastrophe-based profiteering? Obviously we're just being silly. Is it, colloquially speaking, gouging? Yes yes yes.

Oliver Gray said...

I think the days of blogs that do nothing but subjective taste and smell reviews are numbered. With BeerAdvocate and RateBeer (and to a lesser extent, Untappd) we're at traditional review critical mass. Unless said blog is incredibly well written, it's not adding anything new to the soup.

I'd love to see a rise in long-form, researched articles about beer culture. Or at least blogs that are entertaining. Social media is great for kicking the beer-can around and chatting about the topic du jour, but it's hard to get very deep into the minutiae of something complex in 140 characters.

Here's to hoping 2014 means more people writing about the sticky properties of beer as a social glue, and less people telling us for the millionth time what simcoe hops smell like.

Anonymous said...

Least we forget: http://wortblog.blogspot.com/2013/02/corporate-bullshit-stench-is-rising.html

-DW

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