Influencers and elder statesmen
In the intervening decades, craft beer has become ubiquitous, growing to more than 7,000 taprooms nationwide. IPAs, ESBs, and porters are commonplace. Barrel-aging is huge. Sours are everywhere. Haze is king.
And yet despite the growth of the industry they helped jolt into life, the standouts who got their start in 1988 haven't rested on their laurels. Sure, oftentimes people pass them up for the hot new thing -- Deschutes actually announced layoffs of 10% of its workforce recently. Still, the class of '88 breweries continue to wield tremendous influence. As they did when they launched ESBs and IPAs on an unsuspecting public that didn't know any better, they still serve as relative early adopters to trends, introducing masses to new styles, just like they did when everyone was concentrated on drinking what Spuds MacKenzie and bikini-clad women were slinging. They're still doing their part to change a game they helped invigorate as legacy breweries that still have the capacity to surprise.
Lovers of history, as evidenced by their beer names and neighborhood preservation, the Conways have done their best to preserve Great Lakes’ future, announcing an ESOP in the spring and a plan for expansion in another part of Cleveland, further cementing itself in the fiber of the North Coast's ever-expanding beer scene.
“With the expansion, we’ll get into more brewing and canning, but we’ll have a taproom that celebrates the river and downtown Cleveland,” Conway said. “Breweries used to be a special part of the Cleveland fabric, just like newspapers, sports, and politics.”
As Great Lakes has continued to weave itself into the fabric of Cleveland, and the Midwest, Brooklyn has made massive strides in changing the public’s relationship with beer. In 1994, Garrett Oliver joined as brewmaster. Few have done more to help people fully enjoy and understand beer -- especially in its relationship with food -- in the past 24 years. Beer dinners, now as common as tap takeovers, were an anomaly before Oliver made matching food and beer as normalized as wine pairings.
Goose Island, another food-and-beer pioneer, has grown beyond the Midwest into worldwide distribution with AB InBev, but Hall said that growth also means more variety for everybody. While some staunch craft beer enthusiasts felt betrayed by his decision to sell the brewery, Hall believes beer should be drunk for quality, and the industry will never be dominated by one brand as it had been for the second half of the 20th century.
“No one will ever have 50% of the market again,” Hall said. “There’s no way they can dominate like they used to.”
Now with nearly 7,000 breweries in the US, AB InBev has no choice but to pay attention to the craft industry that big beer (and small-town bankers) dismissed long ago. The industry has changed innumerably since 1988, but not all for the better. The beer world got bigger, and as it did it got less personal.
“I used to know everybody nationally, now I don’t even know all the brewers in Bend,” Fish said. “We’ve gone through cycles of people who got in that didn’t care about it. It’s more impersonal than it was. It’s hard, no one is entitled to a consumer or a place in the market, but I think in a lot of cases, good work isn’t always being rewarded.”
Fish wasn’t necessarily talking about Deschutes and its brethren, but the older legacy craft brewers have lost a step to some of the breweries that have stormed into the industry with new beer styles and, at times, unexplainable hype.
Still, some view the elder statesmen label is a badge of honor.
“Now that we’re officially your dad’s beer, I look at that list [of ’88 breweries] and these are people who have really done yeoman’s work: they’ve all made really great beer, taken care of their staff and communities, and all forged different paths,” Fish said. “We’ve innovated and created... for more than three decades in this environment. Early on the enemy was ambivalence to beer. Today, the enemy is ambivalence to hyperextension of variety.
“It’s gotten different, not easier.”