Peak Scene

Craft beer and the price of mainstream popularity.

| March 13, 2014
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I first thought it might be true a few months ago, when I wandered into the Flying Pig Taphouse on Central Avenue out of lazy weekend half-curiosity and more than a bit of thirst. Cool, clean and modern, the place was nice enough, but it didn’t really feel like a brewpub. It didn’t feel… indie. It felt like a really, really well-done franchise.

I was sure it was true a couple of weeks ago, when we were working on The Drinking Issue. Somebody mentioned that there were more than 20 craft-brew places, either open or within months of it, in the Tampa Bay area alone. That couldn’t be right, could it?

Yep.

Last weekend’s unmitigated ass-hattery at Cigar City Brewing’s annual Hunahpu’s Day tradition (the last one, as it turns out) only confirms it:

We’ve reached Peak Craft Beer.

Craft beer isn’t “over,” of course. It won’t be for a few years yet. Locally, however, it’s in the process of breaking through to an audience exponentially wider than the one that initially nurtured it. Craft beer is the grunge, the t-shirts-over-dress-shirts, the sun-dried tomatoes, the superhero movies of the mid-20teens. Its original fanbase has already noticed the saturation; now, those aficionados have to put up with a seemingly endless period of mispronunciation and misinformation as everyone rushes to exploit the latest cool thing.

It’ll pass, and eventually the gifted, committed creators will once again be left to their niche. But it’ll never be the same; it never is, whether we’re talking trends in music or fashion or beer. A signal is received most strongly by those closest to the source, and the further a signal travels, the weaker it gets. It’s a simple of fact of physics, and just watching the way that signal degrades over time does something even to those who first responded to its initial, life-changingly strong impact.

Part of me is always excited when some underground DIY thing I appreciate experiences sudden, massive success. The people involved usually deserve it, and knowing that a few of the new fans might feel the way I felt when I first discovered it makes me feel good in a way that’s almost like patronage.

I’m also always a bit melancholy about it, too, though, because I know things have changed, and not all the results of that change are likely to be positive. An increased profile brings increased stress, increased costs, and increased responsibility. It also brings the knowledge that many if not most of the new fans will never respect it the way those first disciples did.

There’s always a price to be paid for trendy popularity. In the age of viral marketing and social engagement campaigns and “rapid pivotal scaling strategies,” many small businesses (or bands, or chefs, or what have you) don’t get a chance to ponder whether or not they’re willing to pay that price before it comes due.

Just ask Joey Redner. 

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