Thursday, March 26, 2009

Beeronomics: Back to the Future?

The craft beer cognoscenti often talk about how the new craft beer movement in America is a return to the past where breweries were decidedly local (and perhaps reflected local tastes though most beers were pilsner style beers imported by german and eastern european immigrants).  I agree that the local brewery is a return to the past, but the localization of breweries in the late 19th and early 20th centuries was largely a consequence of the difficulty of transporting a bulky and heavy product.  The modernization of transport, especially post WWII, in my mind at least, was a major factor in the consolidation of brewing which was able to exploit economies of scale in all aspects of the industry.  But of course you loose something in the process: variety (such as it was).  

But this supposes that there was a lot of variety in local markets prior to the great consolidation.  I suspect not, for the very same reason that led to the creation of local breweries: transportation was costly.  On most local shelves in the US in the early 20th century, I suspect, was a choice of only a few locally produced beers. 

So really then, we are currently in an unprecedented era where we now have a dizzying array of beer choices available to us in our local stores.  I used to buy Rogue in Ithaca, NY, and in Portland I can find obscure Belgian beers, microbrews from all around the US, and tons of special brews.  What does it all mean?  Well, for one, we can identify regional tends in styles and flavors more readily and as producers try and distinguish themselves in a crowded marketplace the incentives are probably to try and produce more and more unique beers.  

Which is the point of this rumination: the rise in specialty brews (things like Deschutes' Dissident, Full Sail's Slipknot, etc.) is part and parcel of this newly crowded marketplace.  I think breweries are finding it ever more important to create some buzz and attention through the creation and marketing of these brews.  It is a wonderful trend for the beer enthusiasts, but is also a sign of an industry that is still evolving.  I think a lot about where it will all settle (e.g. how many breweries can the market sustain), but I suspect that this is an industry that will always have a lot of churn - many new breweries starting up and many old ones closing.  This is not necessarily a bad thing, it means lots of constantly changing variety.  Or perhaps the big brewers will successfully capture the market by introducing their own micro-style brews, it all remains to be seen and is pretty fascinating.  

Okay, so in the final analysis this post is pretty aimless, but this is what happens to someone shut in for over a week with sick kids.  Hopefully it makes a little sense.


Jeff Alworth said...

There were really three advances that allowed beer to escape the confines of very local distribution: rail transport (1830s), pasteurization and yeast sterilization (1860s-70s), refrigeration (1870). Bottling may have helped hasten all of this, too.

Much as you didn't know where your post was headed, I don't know where my comment is, either, but there you have it.

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