Date/time: 5 p.m. Monday
Panelists: Matt McGinnis, blogger for What Are You Drinking?; Josh Hare, owner of Hops & Grain Brewing; Caroline Wallace, blogger for Bitch Beer; and Chris Sheppard, blogger for Craft Taste
The gist: Just like any movement with fans and followers, craft beer has had its share of detractors within the industry, a vocal minority who like to tear down the porters, the sours, the hop-heavy IPAs that have redefined beer in the U.S. as much more than the light lagers originally dominating the market after Prohibition. It’s these naysayers, who find their voice on beer review sites like BeerAdvocate and, of course, on social media sites like Twitter and Facebook, that the panel largely explored — while also pointing out that the community surrounding craft beer is an extremely supportive group as a whole.
That people are talking about beer at all is progress, though. Beer used to be the catalyst of conversation, rather than the topic of it, but that’s changed a lot over the years in a generational shift that Hare said he’s seen take place in the years since he was growing up in West Texas with a friend whose father kept a constant supply of Coors Light in the fridge. “Beer was enjoyed as you talked about everything else,” he said.
But people have plenty to discuss now when it comes to their beer. McGinnis, the moderator, pointed out at the beginning of the panel that although only 44 breweries existed in the U.S. in 1980, there are now more than 3,000 today. It’s a veritable explosion that the panelists said have drawn a lot of the market share away from the macro brews. Those big beer companies are in turn firing back — buying up the smaller craft beer companies and spending millions on ad campaigns like Budweiser’s controversial Super Bowl commercial. The ad, which the panelists played during the hour-long presentation, sparked debate about how the craft beer industry is viewed: Is it really full of snobby elitists who sniff their pints of pumpkin peach ale and muse over the mouthfeel and finish of each beer?
The crowd: SXSW Interactive’s only panel about craft beer looked like a promising one right from the start. The interest in it grew so much, in fact, that SXSW organizers decided to move it to a bigger room in the Driskill Hotel. People had no trouble filling the extra seats.
McGinnis started the talk in a very unconventional way (but after all, how else would a room full of craft beer lovers begin talking about their favorite topic?). He had brought with him eight cans of Texas beer and asked for volunteers in the audience to come up to the front and shotgun the beers without making a mess all over the nice carpeted floor. That might have been the first shotgun in the Driskill Ballroom ever.
The takeaway: The ultimate thesis of the panel seemed to be that the craft beer community as a whole is supportive, but the few who are negative, who dissect every element of a beer and find something nit-picky and mean to say about it, are giving the rest a bad name.
Sheppard noted that people don’t tell Hare in person “that his beer sucks,” but because of the anonymity of online reviews, they’re unafraid to bash Hops & Grain (or any other brewery) online — and Hare reads through these reviews, the good and the bad, once a week. He said that although he used to get offended by the negative ones, he now sees legitimate complaints as an opportunity to improve his beer.
“It’s important to say negative things, rather than all positive all the time, because there are 3,000 of us and that’s not sustainable,” he said — adding later, in perhaps the most controversial (but well-argued) statement of the night, that he “can’t wait for the bubble to burst.”
He likened the current craft beer explosion to the dot-com boom in the 1990s that eventually became a bust. Breweries today are all riding the wave of high demand and becoming successful not just because most are producing good beer, but because they have a market for craft beer period. However, Hare said, “once the bubble bursts,” only the truly excellent breweries will survive.
In the meantime, he said it’s important to welcome anyone into the community. “You can’t have anything negative on your face when someone comes in(to the taproom) and says they’re a Miller Lite drinker, so what should they drink? Because they actually came to your taproom. They made that effort,” he said.