Think about all the controversies in the brewing industry these last couple years — the buy-outs, the sell-outs, the lawsuits and copyright infringement, the huge vertical growth and breathless reports from those daring enough to stand before the dread 'Beer Bubble' and gaze into its noisome maw. In the wake of every controversy, a chorus can be heard to ring out: "Running a brewery is still a business!" The lesson learned: just because beer may be our passion, a brewer's passion, a successful brewery cannot exist without making profit, and therefore, breweries can and should be expected to act like proper businesses from time to time.
It's true. Breweries are certainly businesses, and few of them would survive without taking actions that are vaguely business-like in nature and in favor of their general fiscal benefit. (I might point out that an art gallery is a business too, but delving into that comparison is probably a tangent for another time.)
Brewing is a business — and the slight irony, in my opinion, is that the real passionate brewers, the ones that truly excel at making beer and tout their crazy love for it in everything they do, don't generally seem to have much trouble keeping the doors open (once they get them open.) No, it's the breweries that appear to be nakedly, purely business-ventures that I think are doomed.
New York is becoming an intriguing microcosm of the brewing world at large, a regional slice of an industry ignited by a sudden excitable gust of fresh air. For those paying attention, it's going to be like watching a hundred years of evolution progress at hyper-speed. So many breweries have been announced in the last year that I am still finding newcomers in my general region that somehow popped onto the scene without me noticing.
Maybe it is just me — being a pretentious beer-snobby hipster or something or other — but it seems discouragingly easy to spot which breweries are driven by the love of investment (by people who see it as a smart, fun venture in a hot market), and those which are driven by the love of beer (by people who are willing to take on a huge amount of risk for something they believe in). And while that oft-touted advice absolutely holds true — breweries are a business, not a hobby — I would put money on the passion-driven breweries in NY surviving. Some of the others? I don't think they'll exist in ten years.
How can I, a random schmuck from the internet, even begin to gauge other people's passions? Who am I to guess how these business-owners feel deep down inside? I don't know; I would only argue that when you're truly passionate about something, you can generally spot someone else that shares your symptoms. (For example, I can tell within five minutes of meeting someone how deeply they appreciate bears.) Positioning a gimmicky brand name above your beer — or making your beer itself seem like a gimmick — is a good way to raise my eyebrows.
Or, the example that inspired this whole rant. The other day I was leafing through a regional magazine of the sort that commonly sits in coffee-shops throughout the Hudson Valley. The very first thing, inside cover, full-page, was a vibrant advertisement for a local brewery. I recognized the location of the brewery but had no idea that any breweries existed there. So, the ad was a success — of course I am going to check this place out.
I head to Facebook, which confirmed that the brewery was brand new. No hours are listed. There is an "About" blurb with some marketing buzzwords about bringing good beer to the area and so-forth; the usual. "Ales and lagers." Okay. Well then. Nothing in the description that couldn't apply to almost any brewery in the country. Back on the feed, the brewery has posted links to some news articles about their development. Clicked on a couple, which said that the brewery was slated to open in summer 2013. Well, the magazine in which I had seen the advertisement was the winter 2013/2014 edition, so seemingly the place should be open by now, I reason, or else they would have given some kind of update alerting people to a major delay. Based on the various comments on the page asking general questions, it's weirdly hard to tell.
I click over to their website. There is nothing there but an unclickable image, their logo again. Not so much as an address. Huh.
One of the news articles includes some quotes from the guys opening the place. There are a couple of partners. None of them mentions any sort of background in brewing or awareness of beer outside of enjoying it, and realizing the area was lacking a brewery. One imagines they must have hired a brewer to work the equipment, but nothing is said of that. Beer is alluded to as an abstract concept, but never in detail. Now, it is absolutely possible to open a brewery without being the brewmaster yourself. In fact, there can be strong advantages to this scenario. But even in these situations, most people involved gush passion for beer, or at least spurt passion and defer to those who gush the rest of the time. One can tell if a brewery has a reason for being, because generally, the people who worked so hard to open the damn place will mention it. I understand that delays happen, contractors screw up your construction timeline, permits don't go through, and Facebooks get neglected. But if in all that time you can't be bothered to mention a single vague inkling of the beer you'll be offering, what's going to inspire someone to try it?
Unless what you're selling is simply: "a brewery." In which case: it'll have beer, it'll deliver alcohol to your body, who gives a shit? What are you, some kind of beer snob?
Now, this unnamed brewery in question might turn out to be one of the good guys, in the end. I don't know. Admittedly, the complete lack of any information or context makes it too hard to tell... which is of course the problem. Maybe something went horribly amiss during construction and they've been too busy to update their website with a beer list, or mention their hours. Maybe they placed that ad in the magazine months and months in advance, and after their brewery sank into a swamp, no one bothered to cancel it. It is entirely possible that their beer is, or will be, excellent. I would love to try it, but with all these warning signs, would you be willing to drive a few hours to find out? Well, not me, since I can't even tell whether the brewery is open.
I do think that there is a Beer Bubble. A number of breweries will not make it in the coming years. But I wonder who's going to miss the ones that go down first.