Many tasting rooms are standing-room only these days. Bottle shops can’t keep beer on shelves. Breweries are brewing practically non-stop.
Yep, the craft beer craze just keeps getting crazier, especially right here in San Diego County, where there are now 72 brew houses in operation. Only two years ago, the number was less than half that. And with many more in the planning stages, San Diego could top the century mark by next year. The numbers are impressive and so is the beer. But the meteoric rise of craft beer has some people contemplating gravitational pull, meaning what goes up, must come down.
So is the craft beer boom heading toward a bust?
Leave it to Greg Koch, San Diego’s voluminous craft beer crusader, to put all this talk in context. “How many mass extinctions have we had in the history of our planet? I think five,” said the CEO and co-founder of Stone Brewing Co. “I think you can say that human existence isn’t permanent, let alone the rise of the current growth rate of craft beer. Yes, there’s a threshold, it’s between .01 percent and 99.999 percent. We know it’s somewhere.”
But where? And when?
“Everyone is scrambling for volume right now – adding equipment and tanks at a breakneck pace with no eye for a possible snarl ahead,” Koch continued. “And I’m not saying there is a snarl ahead. I am not predicting the future. But I do think there is going to be a bump in the road because there always is a bump in the road.”
Whatever obstacles the industry may face eventually, many brewers and fans believe this time it will be much different than the rise and fall of craft in the 1990s.
Charles Leask, a longtime craft beer enthusiast and tasting room regular in San Diego, said today’s beer consumers are more evolved than they were 15-20 years ago. And so are the brewers.
“Consumers are a lot more educated about beer,” said the Oceanside resident. “And if they’re not, at least they are willing to try and learn.”
As for the brewers, Leask sees a lot of camaraderie that he didn’t see before.
“There’s a lot of people here who are genuinely concerned and make a major effort to help other people in the business,” he said. “Everyone is helpful to each other instead of being competitors. Sure, there will be fallout, but I don’t think the bubble is going to burst again. If the beer is good and the tasting rooms treat people well, people will come back.”
Speaking of taste, that is much different nowadays too. And that commitment to quality is playing a huge role in the growing popularity of craft beer. While the law of averages dictates that not every brewery is going to produce award-winning beer, Koch argues that the percentage of mediocrity today is lower than it was in years past.
“(Low quality) drove the saturation point in a negative direction to a point of a crash,” he said. “Today, we’re willing to go somewhere and try something we don’t know and get surprised if the beer sucks. Our expectation is that it will be at least not bad and maybe even awesome.”
Paul Sangster, co-owner of Rip Current Brewing in San Marcos, is in his first year of operation and said he’s not concerned with volume at this point. For Rip Current, quality comes first.
“If we were to make only 500 barrels, but that beer was really good, I’d be happy with that,” he said.
Todd Davis, a commercial real estate agent who specializes in San Diego’s craft beer market, agrees that quality will go a long way in sustaining the popularity of craft.
“As long as breweries continue to make better beer, I don’t think saturation is going to be as big a problem as some people make it out to be,” said the Cardiff resident. “It’s great knowing you don’t have to drive a half-hour to find a good brewery.”
Added Sangster: “Look back at the days before Prohibition. It seemed every neighborhood had its own local brewery. I don’t think breweries, even in San Diego, have reached that number yet.”
So maybe all this talk about boom or bust isn’t necessary right now. Maybe the fans, the ultimate beneficiaries, just sit back and enjoy the ride for however long it lasts. If you ask Koch, he says absolutely not.
“If you want it to last longer, then being passive isn’t what you want to do,” he said. “Help in the navigation. Actively pay attention, lobby and support with intent, knowledge and education. And a lot of people are doing that. The consumer doesn’t have to take on that responsibility, but if they do, the industry will be better off because the industry will always be consumer-driven.”