The craft beer industry is not the big happy family it used to be. It's more like the Boltons -- it's got serious problems. But unlike America's favorite murderous family, most of craft beer's fighting takes place out of the public eye. But it's happening, as now there are over 4,000 breweries competing to quench your thirst.
For an inside look at the industry -- warts and all -- we spoke to a craft beer insider; someone who's worked in the industry for six years and currently works in marketing for a well-known brewery. She spilled the pellets on everything from wages to sexism to the mysteries of brewing. In an effort to keep her anonymous, we distorted some identifying factors. You know, so she can keep her job.
The craft beer bubble is in danger of bursting
"We thought 2015 was a rough year, but we've talked to a ton of breweries -- bigger and smaller -- who say it's rough right now. Breweries like Sierra Nevada and New Belgium. Sales are at best stagnant. We were in a boom, and that's why people were trying to open breweries. Now you have a huge bubble that's close to bursting -- from the top and the bottom. You're going to have big guys get more aggressive, to put it nicely."
Friends are becoming rivals
"There are breweries much bigger than us that don't have as much growth as we do. As wonderful as it is to go to festivals and see other breweries, there's that feeling of, 'Oh God, we're not a big, happy, loving family anymore. We're competitors.' At some point it's coming down to us or them. That's the shitty reality of it."
Haste makes waste… and skunky beer
"Some breweries package on a small scale, and their beers will have diacetyl and off-flavors because they do mobile canning -- they haven't invested in infrastructure and quality assurance. They don't have labs to test to make sure that if there's an infection, they can track it. They just want to get it out there, and the result is that there's a lot of shit on shelves. It doesn't do the craft industry a favor to have someone try a certain style and say, 'Ugh, I don't like that at all.' They might never drink that style again because a single beer was infected."
Brewers themselves seldom reap the profits
"Brewers are some of the lowest-paid workers in craft beer. That's the disgusting truth. It's not fair, but breweries can get away with it. I think there are certain personalities driven to brewing. They're passionate. It's an art and a science -- there's a technical aspect to it. I think certain personalities are OK with that lifestyle and the pay that comes along with it."
Most people working in the industry aren't getting paid, either
"People on my team have salaries in the low $30,000 range, and that kills me because they're talented and work hard. You couldn't just hire a bum off the street to do their jobs, and they make more than our brewers. That's how bad it is. It's not just us.
"The craft beer industry notoriously pays shit. It still astonishes me when I hear what some people get paid. That's because our margins are so tight. Then you look at spirits -- their margins are insane. At a dive bar, a whiskey & soda is $6-$7. Think of how much profit that one bottle pays the distillery. Your glass is halfway filled with soda water! The margins are incredible for the bar, the distributor, and the distillery."
Working in craft beer isn't a cakewalk
"I love my job and the industry. But it's not as glamorous as people think. When people ask me to hook them up with a job, I think, 'You wouldn't cut it.' You have to be passionate and put up with a lot of bullshit, and the industry's competitive right now. As much as there's this warm, fuzzy craft beer thing where everyone's supporting one another, everyone's also struggling for the viability of their business. I don't think it's long before you see more breweries fail than open.
"There are a lot of people begging for jobs as brewers -- when I worked at my last brewery, if someone wanted to brew, they were told, 'Come in and brew for free a couple of times, and sweep the floors.' Just to prove that you were willing to do anything. Then you might be considered."
It's tough to stay an independent brewer in the era of consolidation
"It's not like we haven't been approached, but we're not selling. Our distributors are starting to get bought up. When macrobrewers have control of the distributors, then suddenly they're incentivizing bars and stores to buy brands other than ours. It's so fucked up what's happening on the back end. The average consumer has no idea."
Brewing is still a man's world… but things are changing
"At my old brewery, I felt undervalued. The head brewer didn't respect me -- at first he wanted to flirt with me. The sales reps' assumptions were, 'You're not a rough-looking dude who's been in this for 10 years. Where's your beard? You know nothing.' I'm proud of myself, because I earned respect by the time I left.
"I was asked, 'How do I know you're not going to have your period and not show up?' It's insane that that was allowed to be said in the workplace. I've definitely cried. I've come home and called my dad when I was trying to fight through the sexism. I'd say, 'I'm better than this. I deserve better than this.'
"It's better where I am now -- there are plenty of female employees. The percentage of women in the industry is growing, and we support each other. There are organizations for women in craft beer, but I don't want to be overly focused on the fact that I'm a woman working in beer. I'm a person in beer who does a good job. But it's nice to know there are other women out there showing everyone there's a place for us in the industry."
Breweries don't worry about beer snobs
"Craft beer nerds aren't loyal to a specific brewery. While we want the people who care about beer to love our stuff, we'd never go out of our way to cater to the crazy desires of extreme beer nerds; they're not the average beer consumer. Odds are, no matter what we do, if they're not primed to think that they have to love our beer right now, then they're still going to not be 100% satisfied with it. We're more about finding the balance of doing what the brewers and brand reps want, and having beers people want to sit in the taproom and drink. That's not always the $500 10-year barrel-aged bottle."
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