In the nineties, during the first half of my craft beer and spirits career, we had to withstand questions and statements that trivialized our craft, or treated it like a novelty. “Do you think you’ll make it?” or “When somebody asks for it, we’ll put it on.” Worse yet, “When is this fad going to be over?” and “Isn’t the market kind of saturated?”
As microbreweries around the country survived our way into success, we also drove significant change in the marketplace. The tiny scraps of retail space we were originally limited to, slowly grew into high traffic features that drove concepts and attracted desirable customers.
Over that time, we brewed a wide variety of styles, creating diversity of flavor the market hadn’t seen for a century. Soon enough, distilleries were making spirits following the same principles of creating dynamic flavors using mindfully sourced ingredients, and hand crafted techniques.
We helped thousands of people sample these flavors at festivals, tastings and dinners. We showed how versatile beer is with food; teaching, tasting and collaborating with restaurants and chefs — hosting countless beer dinners. Well crafted, classic cocktails weren’t far behind, and soon enough spirits dinners were part of the mix as well.
People had more choices than ever before between style, flavor and producer. Specialty/craft retail concepts went from barely viable, to profitable and attractive. Soon enough, our products, and styles were not only available at the chain retail settings that once excluded them, but they were a driving force.
As my beard grew more grey, our market had changed, and the term micro migrated to craft — the questions changed. “What happened?” and “How did you do it?” Our adventure once deemed playful and risky, now it seemed like a good bet. “How can I get a brewery in my town?” and “How do I get a job?” became the questions of the second act. Of course, the inevitable chorus of, “Isn’t the market kind of saturated?” came around for a reprise.
My own worldview changed right along with the marketplace. After attending my first beer dinner in 1995, I realized there was a whole new world in front of me. I was passionate about cooking, and creating flavor as well as helping create remarkable beer experiences for people. It seemed too good to be true, but I dove in head first and learned everything I could. I collaborated with chefs, experimented, and eventually published, Beervangelist’s Guide to the Galaxy, a book on the art of pairing and cooking with beer and food.
Following the book, my public speaking increased, and both the questions and my answers changed again. My experience and collaborations had helped me see a bigger picture. This isn’t a beer story. This isn’t a spirits or wine story. It’s bigger than beverage and even bigger than food and drink.
How and why did all of these start-ups find such a vibrant and vocal audience? Why was the commercial response so strong that it created unprecedented change in the retail and consumer space, despite facing opposition from Samson-like, aggressive giants? Was our beer that good, our salesmanship so slick?
My experience with beer and food, showed me that if you panned back to see the bigger picture, the consumer was recovering from a huge loss of connection. In the name of convenience and technological advancement, the industrialization of food and drink had stripped the marketplace of connection, choice and quality. Few in my generation had witnessed the days when we knew our butcher, baker and brewer, but when the connection was revived or restored, we responded emotionally and abundantly to what we hadn’t realized we missed.
As I explored this broader desire for connection, I realized that this movement we’ve been part of is so much more than a sales trend. The food and drink world I’ve worked in has been resilient and dynamic because our craft represents this larger cultural shift; the restoration of connection and quality between makers and consumers – of all things.
This Spring, I traversed our country by train with my collaborator and photographer, Kyle Bice, to write the book, This Craft Nation. We set out to learn more about the broader craft renaissance, and share our discoveries through story. We explored this bewildering display of creativity and perseverance by interviewing more than fifty independent makers and craftspeople of all kinds; big and small — old and young. We want to answer the age-old questions, “What happened, why is it important and what now?”
I was moved by the process, and I decided it was time to immerse myself in this work; dedicating myself to the project, and sharing the ideals of the craft lifestyle. This fall, I stepped down from my active, day to day role at New Holland to focus on This Craft Nation, as well as independent consulting on the craft ideals, and developing a retreat and education center on Red Horse Ranch as well as a non-profit association advocating for a healthy and transparent community for independent makers and the consumers that love them.
We have more choice than ever, but the health of our marketplace will always face challenges. While the questions may have changed over the years, one answer has remained clear and consistent – we are not saturated. I believe there is always room for quality. Small and independent makers represent a small, but vocal minority of the marketplace, yet are the lifeblood to quality, authenticity, heritage and creativity.
At ThisCraftNation.com and via @ThisCraftNation, we’re releasing photo galleries, essays and podcast episodes, so you can follow our process and story. This Craft Nation, the book should be out sometime in 2018.
I am thrilled to be back at this tremendous show, which I’ve been a part of since the beginning and presented at more times than I can remember. Experiencing flavors and conversation is a great way to learn, and there are so many talented presenters providing sampling, education and pairings throughout the weekend, you are bound to expand your horizons in some unexpected way. It’s also a tremendous opportunity to talk to makers and the countless professionals who will share their stories and their passion, a window into the very wide world of flavor and craftsmanship.
New Holland Brewing has a remarkable and longstanding presence here at the International Wine, Beer and Food Show, and are offering samples this year at four different stations, including a beer table, spirits table, their cocktail workshop stage, and their full-blown pairing station by The Knickerbocker. I’ll be working with The Knickerbocker all weekend, presenting a four-course menu paired with the trifecta of beer, spirits and wine. Check out the program to save your seats, and get ready to have a flavor adventure.
In the words of Dr. Gonzo himself, Hunter S. Thompson, “Buy the ticket, take the ride.”
Fred Bueltmann: a.k.a. “The Beervangelist,” is an author and independent consultant on company culture and ideals of the craft marketplace and the connected lifestyle. He has more than two decades of experience as an executive in the beverage industry serving both New Holland Brewing Company and Bell’s Brewing Company.
Bueltmann is past president of the Michigan Brewers Guild and recipient of their prestigious Tom Burns Award, recognizing the pioneering spirit of the “Great Beer State.” A nationally recognized expert on pairing beer and food, Fred’s book, The Beervangelist’s Guide to the Galaxy was recognized as an Indie Book Award finalist. Fred is a prolific writer and speaker, including topics such as “The Community of Collaboration” at TedX Macatawa in 2015. He recently traversed the United States by train to research his next book on the cultural shifts of the craft renaissance while documenting the process in his podcast, “This Craft Nation.”