No more free passes: Not every new craft brewery is good and we need to admit it

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We need to talk about an elephant in the room: newly-opened craft breweries putting out subpar beer.

You only get one first impression. While I have sympathy for brewers finding themselves grossly behind schedule and wildly over-budget, that situation is faced by basically every new brewery. Rushing to put your test batches on tap just to get cash flow might help in the short term, but hurts over time. Patrons shouldn’t drink what should’ve been dumped.

Think about it like a new restaurant. Sure, you expect service hiccups from new personnel, but if the chicken you ordered arrives medium-rare, how much benefit of the doubt are you doling out?

Before anyone gets defensive, this isn’t aimed at any one brewery in particular. It’s just something I’ve noticed over nearly a decade of working in Charlotte’s craft beer scene.

Honestly, the list of Charlotte breweries hitting a homerun on their first at-bat could probably be counted on one hand. And the list of outfits striking out is equally as short.

Take the well-worn cautionary tale of Heist Brewery. When it first opened, the beers didn’t leave the most pleasant taste in the mouths of their patrons. Now, after a personnel change, the brewery is at the forefront of the Queen City craft scene. If everyone had permanently ruled them out on day one, we’d miss out on Cataclysm and Citraquench’l.

We’re in a Golden Age of craft beer: 5,234 outfits were operating nationwide in 2016, more than ever before. Considering the U.S. had just 42 breweries in 1978, having this wealth of options in such short order is staggering.

Beer Institute and TTB

But each new brewery opening means more competition, and less initial room for error. The grace period a new brewery might’ve once received continues to diminish.

Scaling up recipes up from half-barrel homebrews to 15-barrel production batches takes a lot more than simple multiplication. It’s hard. Initial batches don’t have to be medal-worthy and recipes don’t need to be set in stone, but pouring quality (or even simply passable) product for a grand opening shouldn’t be an impossible task.

Are patrons simply willing to give new breweries a “pass” because they’re hungry for new places to imbibe? Perhaps having a subpar brewery next door is better than no brewery next door. Why are new breweries granted a grace period unlike any other manufacturing industry?

I’m not saying established breweries aren’t capable of their own misfires, but here’s a chief difference: they’re established. They have the benefit of history on their side, and their customers’ preconceived notion of what to expect.

It’s easy to get wrapped up in the personal nature of craft beer. Your local brewery isn’t some faceless multinational operation; part of craft beer’s appeal is the opportunity for supporters to directly interact with owners and brewers. Bad batches shouldn’t be met with merciless cruelty, but sparing someone’s feelings instead of simply providing honest feedback isn’t helping anyone.

Ultimately, having an educated populace only goes so far. The onus should be on brewers to ensure their products are presented as intended, free of off-flavors or defects. Sure, dumping a bad batch isn’t cheap, but what’s the long-term cost of a damaged reputation?

If opening at your full capability isn’t an option, if you’re already grossly over budget and cannot afford to sink thousands on to-be-trashed test batches, then what? Simply put: get better quickly, or kindly get out of the way.

If you’re capable of making quality beer from day one, I fully believe you should. If you’re not, please consider postponing that first day for as long as it takes to get things right.

57 COMMENTS

  1. Great piece. Someone had to say it. Also, I fully feel that the craft beer bubble is about to burst. Just way too over-saturated. The graph in your piece points to that. Whatever goes up must come down. The market just won’t be able to support all these businesses.

    • There were over 2k breweries in the 1880s when only 60 million people lived in the US, I think we can support way more than ~2700 breweries with 330 million people…. It’s just taking market share from the Macro brewers and putting money into the pockets of local business owners. I think that’s a trend people can and should support.

    • That’s not how economics works. Saturation is actually a good thing because it means resources can be better distributed. For instance, Chicago has 144 breweries with only one failure in the last three years.

      This idea that there’s a craft beer “bubble” is moronic. Crazy very had been around for now half a century. There’s no bubble.

  2. Just curious as to which brewers are putting out the subpar beer here. I understand C5 doesn’t want to stick its neck out too far, or hurt anyone’s feelings. But if you’re going to make grand statements about beer that should not be served, then you owe it to your readers to name names. I’ll use your restaurant analogy: If a restaurant writer has a problem with food at new restaurants, chances are that writer will be specific about which restaurants or nobody will take it seriously.

  3. Good lord what is this trash? This article says NOTHING. Name names or get out. Also, your beer snobbery is showing. I love great beer, too. But a very large number of brewery-goers couldn’t care less how good the beer is….or even KNOW how good the beer is. You and I both know that Heist was crap. But look at the earliest reviews on Yelp…..people said the beer was great! If you have a great location, a great setup, a great vibe…..it doesn’t really matter if your beer is below average (on a beer snob’s scale). Sycamore and Legion (yes, I’ll name names) didn’t have the best beer to start. Average at best. But both have been monster hit breweries from the jump…..and the beer has improved to where it’s now (mostly) excellent at both.

  4. Thank you! I find many of the Charlotte area breweries produce similar tasting beers. While there are some good breweries in town now, the overall quality pales (no pun intended) to what is being done up the mountain in Asheville. I think the collective beer palate of the Charlotte area is willing to accept mediocrity for the sake of saying that they like “craft beer”.

  5. Really glad someone finally said it! Everyone has different palates and opinions, but there are quite a few subpar breweries in Charlotte. I assume the free market will eventually take care of it, but I appreciate someone saying they’re not all good.

  6. If you’re going to say new breweries are putting out bad beer, name one. The article is baseless without any evidence to substantiate your claim. How about “no more free passes” on stories that are purely the opinion of one writer who appears to harbor a grudge? Maybe Charlotte Agenda has an opening for another blogger…

  7. My take on the article is that just because it’s a craft brewery it doesn’t mean that the beers are automatically of good taste and quality. Been to the craft brewer in the town of Waxhaw twice and have come away with the same feeling, not worth the trip and price. To each his/her own.

  8. Upon a thread by another commenter; why even post/print such an article unless you have the courage to call out the “pretenders?” Is this another generational example of “we’ll give everyone a trophy so no one feels bad?” If so then why should we consumers even bother to read your publication? The reality is that just as in restaurant reviews the consumer, who has limited funds and therefore cannot afford to go to every restaurant, often reads the opinions of “experts” to decide beforehand which establishment to try. If you are not willing to do so then pass the baton of reviewing the craft breweries to someone else or a different publication.

  9. Wish you had at least named the places that prompted this article besides the lazy reference to Heist. I am going to assume you are talking about Resident Culture in Plaza Midwood since it’s the place pictured in the article. Great place but meh beer. Have been several times and last weekend our entire party struggled to find anything we actually enjoyed, so we ended up leaving.

  10. I am so ready for this “brewery” phase to be over. Its so boring. Charlotte needs better ideas than “Hey uhh, we could go to xyz brewery?”

    They’re a trend. A trend that needs to be done.

  11. The wonderful thing about our world is that we all have different tastes and a great number of places and types of beer from which to choose. While I appreciate your sharing your opinion that there are subpar beers out there, the market will dictate which breweries are successful and which are not. Beauty is in the eye (and the taste buds) of the beholder.

  12. Thanks. I made a comment on a brewery in my area on a local craft beer group. They all flipped out on me. All I said is today I think something was wrong with your beer. Was at this brewery to different times and felt the grains still in the draft. I could feel cringing in my teeth, reminded me of getting Beach sand in beer.

    • Yeah, winning a medal for a German style beer at a competition held in Germany is the sign of bad product. A beer doesn’t have to be 110 IBU to be good.

  13. Resident Culture in Plaza Midwood has some work to do. The space is awesome, but 9 varieties of the same swilly IPA isn’t going to keep the place full.

  14. The strong breweries who produce good beer will survive. Those who do not produce a good beer will fall by the wayside. In some cities, such as Indianapolis, this is already happening. Two of the most popular breweries have decided to stay small and serve the growler market, Broad Ripple Brewpub (the original craft brewer in Indianapolis) and Black Acre. Others are thinking big such as Sun King, Flat 12, and Triton. Then there is Indianapolis’ version of Catawba, Uphill Brewing from Bloomington, Indiana, which has a tasting room in Indy. Those breweries who get cutesy with there beer will go away. Those who stick with more traditional brews will be mainstays of the scene. My favorites in Charlotte? Three Spirits, Catawba, and NoDa. OMB is good for events.

  15. Best beer in Charlotte is served at Wooden Robot, Bird Song and Legion. High Branch in Concord is amazing, and wish we didn’t live so far away.

  16. Love seeing OMB mentioned as bad beer in these comments, by people who probably have “go to Oktoberfest in Munich” on their bucket lists, who would fall all over themselves over what is essentially OMB’s beer, just because they’re in Germany. OMB makes fantastic German beer – you just don’t like German beer.

    Also, I support the author in not naming names. If I were a brand new brewery, the last thing I’d want is my business getting blasted by a publication with over a hundred thousand local readers. That could easily sink them, instead of giving them a chance to get better at what they do. The author isn’t wrong – there are a few subpar breweries here in Charlotte, but ultimately we, as patrons, will decide who succeeds and who doesn’t.

    • Thank you for saying this. OMB makes technically perfect beer. Just because it isn’t the newest hazy double IPA doesn’t mean it’s bad beer. For what their beer is, it’s amazing.

  17. Horrible article….what a wasted read. Is this just a cheap shot at Resident Culture? I mean the “new” breweries are Bold Missy, Hyde, and Resident Culture. Come on, Jonathan, tell us which one of those stood you up for an interview and made you pout like this. It is hilarious, though, that in the comments we have people calling Three Spirits good and OMB bad. I don’t like OMB’s beer, but if you don’t understand that it is nearly perfect, you know nothing about beer. Anyway, Jonathan, I don’t know anybody giving new breweries a “free pass” except you! Like this entire article, for instance.

  18. I have a friend of mine and his girlfriend works in the local craft beer industry and I made a similar comment the other day to her and she was very offended. I was simply stating my opinion that the local craft beer “bubble” is bound to burst soon with so many mediocre beers being produced locally. I frankly don’t like trying a lot of these new breweries anymore because I’ve been disappointed a lot lately.

  19. Weak as piss shot at Resident Culture. I’ve been drinking Charlotte craft beer since the beginning and if we’d taken this attitude towards two of the now larger, original breweries in Charlotte they wouldn’t be around for us all to now enjoy. It’s up to the market to decide who does and who does not create good beer and soon enough that will begin to occur.

  20. Hilarious that so many folks are saying OMB, literally the ONLY world class brewery in town (not just me saying that, they’ve won the international awards to prove it), makes the worst beer in town. I’m no OMB fan boy by any means, but I respect and understand what they’re doing. No, they don’t make “hazy bro” IPA’s and the latest flavor of the week blah, blah, blah… beers, but what they do is make world class traditional German beers and they’re damn good at it. The folks bashing OMB while naming some of the others as “the best,” well, no offense, but you don’t know a d_mn thing about beer. We should stop giving free passes on opinions of bros who decided a year ago that they like craft beer, now they’ve grown their beards and have become master cicerones just because they camp out for the latest bottle/can of ‘enter the newest fad beer here’:_________.

  21. On a related note (since many responders on here clearly are very familiar with the local craft beer market) – does anyone have a recommendation on a true west coast style IPA brewed in NC (outside of Sierra Nevada or New Belgium). I like beers like Stone that are very bitter and hoppy. In my experience NC IPAs are more malty and I have a hard time finding one that compares to Stone, Laguintas, Titan (Great Divide), etc. Sorry to go off topic but would appreciate any recommendations as I would like to support the local brewers but also am not going to drink average (or below IMHO) IPAs.

  22. I doubt most of the commenters here have had Bold Missy beer. I have no affiliation with them, but their beer is, top to bottom, the best I’ve had from Charlotte and I’ve tried all but a handfull. Check them out.

  23. It’s time to talk about the elephant in the room… and yet not talk about the elephant in the room.

    What irritates me is there are so many people who confuse quality with beer they like. It’s like believe that in order for their opinion to be valid, they must pass subjective judgement on the beer. There are plenty of beers that I don’t personally like, but are well executed versions of the style. Personally, I don’t like Saisons or many Belgian beers, the phenols in the aroma and flavor don’t appeal to my palate. As a beer judge, I can discern that the beer is done to style, and done well, I just don’t care for the style.

    Light lagers, the dominant style for decades, are falling out of favor as more and more craft beer lovers go for Pale ales and IPAs, or anything hoppy. There are a lot of people, new to craft beer, who judge breweries by their IPA offerings and not for other styles they bring to the table. It’s the only reason I can think of for why someone would call out OMB for having “crappy beer” when their quality is the best in Charlotte. They make WORLD class examples of their styles and have the medals to prove it. Face it haters, you just don’t like their style of beer and that’s fine, just don’t knock the quality of it.

    There are PRIME examples of Charlotte breweries that had quality issues and did not address them, South End Brewing and Four Friends. They had quality issues and didn’t address them and now they’re gone. Heist, as mentioned in the article, addressed their issues and now they’re expanding. Also mentioned in the comments, Unknown Brewing initially contracted their brewing in order to get a quick start… it was bad. Brad Shell knew it and fixed it and they have been making quality beers since. Make a quality product and people will buy it.

    There are a few breweries (mostly planned) that suffer from poor business models: Dukbone in planning for 5 years (now apparently dead), Avenge Brewing (in planning and seems to have ‘shuttered’) and Lake Norman brewing – these and other nano-breweries struggle to make enough cash to make the jump from .5 or 1 bbl batches to 15 bbl or more. Ass-Clown, which seems to exist by Matt Glidden’s sheer will and inventive recipes, is an exception to the “nano-nosedive” rule.

    Oh, and the “Asheville is better” whiners need to get over themselves. We’re talking about Charlotte, let’s stay on topic shall we?

  24. Up here in Virginia, the breweries are popping up each month. I have tried most of them in the Roanoke area and one, Flying Mouse, had only one beer I found drinkable. The other beers were horrible, and after a taste or two, I stopped.
    But Chaos Mountain, Parkway, Soaring Ridge, and Big Lick make really, really good beer.

  25. Yeah you can’t say no more free passes then not name anyone. Different even analyze any specific issues expect to say, everyone occasionally makes beers not loved by me. Some get much better, others I give the benefit of the doubt, new business owners should go f*ck themselves. Trash. No free passes for Johnathan, won’t read another article by him.

  26. What a moronic, asinine, redundant piece of work. There is not one original idea in this entire piece. What did you think that opening a brewery would always guarantee success? As you said, it’s like a restaurant. The margins on a brewery are slim and you’re very likely to fail.

    No more free passes? F*ck I’ve been a cicerone for five years and I’ve never known of any “free passes.” I’ve never given a brewery a free pass. What exactly are you trying to say with your writing, if you’re getting to say anything at all.

    What’s worst about this if that copy like this makes people believe that there’s a “beer bubble.” These armchair economists seem to believe that the saturation of the craft beer space will somehow lead to a “burst” bubble. Because economics, right?

    No, wrong. Resource distribution theories say the exact opposite.

  27. Good piece. About time Charlotte Five stops being such a toady. Charlotte ‘craft beer’ business lacks quality AND quality control. Batches that come out bad – hey, let’s just add more hops because they can be so forgiving and call it a quadruple IPA, raise the alcohol level and call it high gravity, and offload it to the gullible public. So what if it tastes like grapefruit juice or creosote

  28. Most US craft beer is crap. Especially since most cling to IPA which is hog swill at best. Been drinking great beer since long before craft beer was even a thing… I drank, and still do, import beer. Belgians, Germans and even the UK beat out US beer still. If you don’t believe me, drink style against style, US vs imports. There are a few good US beers but they are few and not talking one per city good. And while I rant, Brewers need to stop succumbing to this hopheadedness in the US and don’t let the simple budded tastes of consumers dictate what they brew. IPAs suck. If you think that’s a good beer, you know nothing.

  29. I don’t live in Charlotte, but I have drank at nearly 100 breweries over the past two or three years. I have had some bad beers, but only once have I had a beer that was undrinkable. I love beer, but I’m not so much of a beer snob that I cannot recognize that there is a place for breweries that are working to get it right. There is an element of beer that is subjective. I know people who swear by certain breweries with great reputations, yet I find their beer to be uninspiring. What we beer snobs often forget, I believe, is that the average person visiting a brewery cannot tell the difference between a mediocre and a good beer. There there for the atmosphere, the camaraderie, and the feeling that they’re trying something interesting. As to the bubble, I believe that breweries in many localities will become like pubs in England. There will always be a place for a local brewery that can provide a nice place to sit down and have a pint.

  30. I believe what the writer is saying is that breweries should not put out beer they are not proud of just for the sake of selling beer. There are times when tge pressure crom a bank or a distributor may cloud their decision making and they put out a product they knew was inferior. He simply states this does more harm in the long run. I agree with him and think he is correct. I also agree that there is no need to name anyone who has done this in the past. Well written and well stated.

  31. As a traveling troubadour I have performed at many craft breweries in the Carolinas. I too am incredulous at the number that keep sprouting up. However, when I visit a place like AMB in Boone (not to perform there myself), and it’s just packed wall to wall with happy patrons, it doesn’t feel like the bubble’s going away. Which is good news for musicians.

  32. Hear hear!

    Bad beer and styles that you don’t like are two very different things. Guess what? I don’t like saisons, farm ales, and liquid-hops IPA’s. How do I address that? I don’t order those styles. That does not necessarily mean that the brewer is making bad versions of them.

    Back when they first opened, I was unimpressed with both Birdsong and Unknown. I felt that Birdsong’s Lazy Bird was too chocolatey (?) and too bitter for a brown ale, and Mexicali Stout was too thin. Maybe my tongue has gotten used to both of them, but I feel that Birdsong has tweaked both recipes to make Lazy Bird less bitter and Mexicali more fuller-bodied. At the same time, I did not like IPA’s; now I’m used to Higher Ground, Say It To My Face, and Paradise City. As a result of what I think is adaptation on both Birdsong’s part and my part, Birdsong is now my home-away-from-home.

    Similarly, I’ve noticed a very distinct change in Unknown’s recipes and QC/QA, and it’s been very much for the better.

  33. Headspace at Resident Culture and the P-Stone Pale ale were both really good. I’m a big fan of their beer and space, but I did hear that they were working on some new recipes. Either way, more breweries the better. If you don’t like them, don’t go.

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