Will craft beer survive these growing pains?

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In case you hadn’t noticed, the novelty is wearing off. Craft beer is growing up and facing real, grownup issues. As a Taster Tray subscriber, you probably already know that. Making beer is still decidedly cooler than making computer software or electronic widgets, but yeah… (heavy sigh) we’re growing up. Time to leave childish things behind. Or not.

Craft beer and unions. Oil and water, or hamburger and fries?

Once upon a time, working at a craft brewery was a reward in itself. Many folks sought jobs at breweries just because, well, it was pretty cool to say you worked at a brewery. To a degree, that's still true. However, with 9,456 breweries operating across the country, brewery work is just a job like any other job. Increasingly, employees at breweries are treating it as such. Rightly so. You can't pay your bills with the admiration of friends who love the beer you produce. Brewery bosses can't expect to offer sub-market wages just because workers get a free 12-pack of beer with each extra-thin paycheck. The industry is coming to terms with this reality.

That said, this week the Washington Beer Blog broke the story that workers at Anheuser-Busch's Elysian Brewing recently voted to unionize, joining the Teamsters Local 117. An anonymous source at the Seattle-based brewery said that folks were generally happy with the benefits package, but were less happy with compensation and career development opportunities. You can read the story here.

Earlier this year, workers at Creature Comforts Brewing in Athens, Georgia decided to unionize. Instead of joining a union, they formed their own independent union--Brewers Union of Georgia--looking to collectively bargain with the company over things like pay and workplace conditions. It's been months, and the newly formed union is still waiting for Creature Comforts to come to the table. Also, speaking of unions, remember that the union went to bat for workers at Anchor Brewing, putting pressure on Sapporo to allow Anchor's unionized workers to put together an employee-purchase plan.

It's still quite novel that craft beer and unions are mentioned in the same breath. Will unionization at craft breweries become more common? Time will tell. It's just another piece of the ever-shifting landscape of craft beer.

Optimism on the horizon

The Brewers Association recently conducted a midyear survey to take a snapshot of the craft beer industry and the craft beer market. This is in addition to the organization's annual survey, which it conducts at year's end. Admittedly, the midyear survey reflects the situation from a smaller pool of respondents, but it's still meaningful. Not necessarily rosy news, but not dismal either. If you're interested in things like sales trends and growth rates, it's worth your time to check out the report.

Putting a face on the oft-quoted Bart Watson.

The big takeaway, according to the Brewers Association, the midyear survey shows some optimism. The number of brewery openings continues to outpace closing, which is not what the BA expected. The BA expected things to level out this year, with openings and closing on pace with each other. The total brewery number is now 9,456, by the way. The report noted, "In this maturing market, explosive growth from years past has tapered out, but openings continue to slightly outpace closings, and brewers are finding success in niches where they can succeed."

“Optimism is on the horizon as the midyear survey shows hope for better trends in the future. Collectively, craft still needs new ideas and new strategies to move beyond our current normal, which is a slow-growth environment. Craft demand isn’t going anywhere, and there is plenty of opportunity for growth within new channels, occasions, and customers.”

Bart Watson, chief economist at the Brewers Association.

Everyone is still trying to determine exactly what is the new normal. As Watson points out, the new normal is where opportunity lies. The Taster Tray, like all of you, is trying to figure it out too. When we do, you'll be the first to know. If you have any thoughts, we'd love to hear them. Email us or use the feedback option below.

Wholesaler consolidation continues

Just this morning, we learned that seven of California's beer distributors have formed an alliance and created a statewide network of suppliers under one banner: California Beverage Solution. The new entity includes six independent Anheuser-Busch distributors as well as the largest craft-focused distributors in the country: Advance Beverage Company, Donaghy Sales, Heimark Distributing, Markstein Sales Company, Matagrano Beverage, Pacific Beverage, and Stone Distributing.

The stated reason for the new alliance is to compete with the even larger, interstate distributors. You can read more about this on Brewbound (paywalled). We'll digest the news and share whatever is interesting in a future edition of The Taster Tray.

This week's Taster Tray was composed by Kendall Jones.