Jim Koch’s recent New York Times op-ed sparked numerous conversations at this week’s Craft Brewers Conference in Washington, D.C., leaving many people answering the question raised in the headline: “Is it last call for craft beer?” The answer: a resounding no.
“Once you start drinking great coffee, you don’t turn back to Maxwell House or Folgers,” Rhinegeist Brewing co-founder Bryant Goulding said during a panel discussion at Brewbound’s Brew Talks meetup, held on Tuesday evening at Penn Social.
Goulding, along with Dogfish Head Craft Brewery founder Sam Calagione and Firestone Walker co-founder David Walker, acknowledged before an audience of about 300 industry professionals that growth within the category was slowing, but that there were still opportunities for established and emerging brands alike.
“Shit’s getting real,” Calagione said. “Now is the time to rage against the machine.”
Walker described the last decade of growth within the craft segment as a “golden age,” due to the fertile customer base and access to market that had previously been squelched by August Busch’s iron grip on half of the wholesale market.
“People who don’t feel that missed what happened,” Walker said.
And despite headlines and sound bites that have some industry members concerned about a shakeout, the Brew Talks panelists agreed that it’s not all gloom and doom. Calagione called this year the “most enjoyable start to a year in a half decade” for his company, which has tripled its sales force and opened up several new markets. He credited those moves with helping Dogfish Head grow by 5.1 percent in its existing markets and 2.1 percent in new markets.
Rhinegeist, which launched in 2013 and has been one of craft’s fastest growing brands brands, now has more than 200 employees, Goulding said. Many of those employees — especially on the sales team — aren’t coming from the beer world, he added.
“Plug someone who loves beer in … and that passion turns to fuel,” he said.
Much of what’s fueling Finestone Walker’s growth lately is its popular 805 Blonde Ale, and Walker celebrated that brand’s growth as well as a beer distributors’ ability to push behind a product that is flying off store shelves.
“It’s phenomenal to watch them execute,” Walker said.
Meanwhile, Calagione stressed the importance of innovation. Some brewers are painting Picasos while others are creating Jackson Pollocks, he said, but “both are critical to our brands and differentiation in the marketplace.”
Watch the entire discussion in the video, above.