The question was asked yet again, yesterday in the Food and Drink section of Free Times in an article by Gerald Jowers entitled "Is There Such a Thing as Too Much Craft Beer? Yes." Clearly, the title gives us the conclusion that the author came to, but what the author fails to do in the article is make us understand exactly how he came to that conclusion.
Recently, a few pundits have opined in various beer publications that the industry is heading for the same type of shakeout that occurred in the late 1990s. During that time, there was a quick spurt of growth in craft beer that ended in a collapse that was labeled a bursting of a bubble.
For generations, megabrewers have used effective and relentless advertising to increase the demand for their products and create brand loyalty, but craft brewers are financially unable to do this. Craft brewers by necessity rely on word of mouth and guerrilla marketing techniques such as festivals to reach potential customers — a slow process, indeed.
So will there be a shakeout? Unfortunately, I think so, because the number of craft brewers is increasing too quickly. The survivors will be the brewers (and their investors) who have the patience to tolerate slow growth and the capital to hold on during the lean times. Regrettably, these survivors may not be the best brewers. The most successful and widely distributed craft breweries today, such as Rogue, Brooklyn Brewing and Sierra Nevada, have been around for over 25 years. The new guys have a long road ahead of them.
Which brings me to the author's second point that I must dispute. Word-of-mouth - and those wacky "guerrilla marketing techniques" like festivals - have been an incredibly fast and effective "marketing strategy" within the craft beer community, particularly with the abundance of beer writers and bloggers that we have today. This is likely why, when a brewery produces a very good product, they find themselves having to expand within the first year. Meanwhile, for all of Budweiser's "effective and relentless advertising", their sales have been plummeting.
That's because it isn't about marketing - it's about quality. Only a very small percentage of beer drinkers are craft beer drinkers, though market research studies from last year indicate that more people would drink craft beer if they knew more about it. As people learn more about craft beer, the demand has huge potential for growth. Once growth in demand plateaus, then you can talk about a "bubble", but until then, don't waste my time. Sure, there may be a "shakeout" of some of the craft breweries that produce sub-par beer, but that's always the case, in any industry. And they should be shaken out, for the betterment of the industry as a whole.
...My concern is that many enthusiasts, while they do not have brand loyalty, tend to gravitate toward a particular style such as IPA and stay with it; the style becomes a comfort zone.