The corner store indicator

Joshua M. Bernstein

Author and journalist Joshua M. Bernstein lives in Brooklyn and writes about beer. He has written for The New York Times, Time Out New York and Wired, just to name a few. He’s also written two books about beer: “Brewed Awakening” and “The Complete Beer Course”. For Hopfenhelden he devoted some time to answering the question: how does one notice that craft beer has established itself as a big deal and become more than just a niche for geeks.

First, a confession: I also started with mainstream beer. I didn’t know any better. Nobody told me that there are better things out there. Not before I went to college in Ohio and there was a craft beer pub with its Thursday “The Power Hour”. We’re talking beer for one dollar. One dollar! Such a great deal that I went there all the time. Bit by bit I realized: Man, these beers are really good. This stout. That pale ale. And so on.

The craft beer movement in the United States consists of two waves. The first wave hit the states in the eighties and included breweries like Sierra Nevada and Samuel Adams. Their success came in slow but steady. After a while, the initial enthusiasm flattened and it didn’t revive until the end of the nineties. But this second wave had a problem: this time many were afraid to miss the boat and therefore jumped in too hastily. This meant a sudden and noticeable appearance of craft beer everywhere. And to be honest, a lot of these craft beers weren’t of particularly good quality. But the people that sold it knew good marketing.

The craft beer boom benefited from the Internet

Luck was on their side. At the same time, two further developments helped craft beer succeed. First, companies literally flooded the US-market with affordable home brewing equipment. Second, the Internet arrived. Suddenly homebrewers could connect and network, they could exchange information and learn from each other. Until then, the only chance to learn something about brewing was to read the few existing books or visit some homebrewer meetups.

Over the years, these fledgling homebrewers became really good brewers. The normal way: you start brewing beer by yourself, it is tasty, your friends tell you to sell it. At the turn of the century, these new brewers and their high quality beer joined those people with good marketing concepts, nice labels and cool logos. Together they changed the way people think about beer.

Of course, we have to admit, not everyone. Craft beer is only eight percent of the total beer market. But it widened the horizon of how versatile beer can to taste. (The foodie movement of recent years, how we have started to think about everything we consume, gave the final push).

To see how much craft beer has established itself you can simply go to any bodega in New York City. These are corner stores or small kiosks. They are everywhere. Little shops that are always open, where you buy gum, cigarettes or a quick sandwich on your way home. Up until a few years ago, the only beer you would find in these shops would probably be a can of Coors for 99 cents. Nowadays, go to any New York bodega and you will find an overwhelming selection of American craft beers. Stone, Sierra, everything. Usually, the bodega owners don’t have any clue about beer. They ask me: dude, why do you buy this beer or that beer? I usually answer: Because it’s good. He replies: OK. So it wasn’t the kiosks themselves that made craft beer available everywhere; it was their distributors. So it is to them that craft beer owes a big part of its success.

The craft beer bubble? No big deal.

By now, craft beer is so huge that some speak of a bubble. If you ask me, though, I don’t see it. Of course: there will be losers. Brewers will fail and breweries will close. But, I mean, if a restaurant has to close it’s business and you don’t hear anybody saying: “Oh my god, gastronomy will collapse, no one will ever go out for food.” If at some point one or two craft breweries crash and burn, it doesn’t mean the others will also collapse.

We’ve always liked to drink local beer in the USA. This isn’t a new trend; it’s more like a return to something that existed before. And it’s not only us: everyone, no matter where, likes to be social with a beer in their hand.

And that will never change.

Beer authors  Joshua M. Bernstein

Beer authors Joshua M. Bernstein (Photo: Joshua M. Bernstein)


More to read from Joshua M. Bernstein in his books