As craft beer continues to grow, the association for small, independent brewers is making a push to ensure quality-control problems don’t threaten the industry’s future.
They say one bad apple can spoil the bunch. The Brewers Association says a few bad brews could skunk the craft beer market.
At the Craft Brewers Conference in Denver this month, Brewers Association Director Paul Gatza celebrated the industry’s continued growth in his State of the Industry report—for example, 2013 saw 413 craft brewery openings, more than one per day—but he cautioned members that rapid growth could all go for naught without careful attention to quality control.
As the Northern Colorado Business Report noted last week, Gatza told the convention’s 9,000 attendees, “Many people in this room have spent a lot of time and dedicated a good portion of their lives to building this community that we have today. So, seriously, don’t [mess] it up.”
Quality is an issue that impacts the image and branding of everybody in the association. It’s not a matter of one company against another in a competitive sense.
Most associations include raising the quality of work across their industry as a key component of their mission, but Gatza explained to Associations Now that he has emphasized the issue in his annual report to Brewers Association members three years running now, because the industry has seen before what can happen. Craft beer experienced a boom and bust in the 1990s, when its popularity drew a lot of new brewers “trying to make a quick buck” but without the necessary passion or attention to quality.
“What was suffering was the quality of the product in the bottles, and our observation was it brought down the whole segment,” Gatza says. “People tried a few craft beers, didn’t have great experiences with them, and just wrote off the segment for a number of years, and it really set the industry back for a while.”
The association is hoping to avoid that outcome this time around, hence Gatza’s challenge to brewers. “My comments were pretty strong and pretty hard,” he says.
Not that problems with quality are widespread; rather, it simply demands constant vigilance, Gatza says. “Over 90 percent of the brewers out there are doing a great job, but there’s a small percentage that if people start having bad experiences with beer again they may write off the category.”
The Brewers Association serves small, independent brewers, which range from established, regional operations on the large side to local microbrew startups on the small side, many of whom are homebrew hobbyists who decide to “go pro.” Quality control can be a challenge for members that operate on shoestring budgets and are still learning the craft, meaning the association must address the issue equitably, supporting the industry as a whole without denigrating smaller brewers or discouraging their entry into the market, Gatza says.
“You can’t really pick winners and losers in your association—trade associations have legal obligations where they can’t do that—but there is a role for the association to defend the whole industry by pointing out some issues and some concerns that can be addressed and that can hopefully provide fertile landscape for brewers to grow,” he says.
To back up the message about quality with action, the association provides resources and education on quality control for members through various channels: in its magazine, The New Brewer, the instructional Draught Beer Quality Manual, twice-yearly webinars, discussions in its online member community, and an educational track on quality among sessions at the Craft Brewers Conference.
Gatza says the craft beer community has always enjoyed a spirit of collaboration and free flow of knowledge among brewers. He has seen some established brewers offer their labs to startups to examine their yeast and analyze their brews, “just to help them along,” he says. That’s reason to believe that the message about quality being a collective effort may be well received, and it’s a perspective that any association might take to promote quality in its industry.
“Quality is an issue that impacts the image and branding of everybody in the association. It’s not a matter of one company against another in a competitive sense,” Gatza says. “Quality is something that we learned in the 1990s can slow the growth of a whole industry. Even when there were still a lot of brewers making quality beers, they suffered because people were afraid to try products in the segment. So, there are some things where the association does have a role to defend their industry, even though it seems like the issue could be company by company.”