The Thirsty Beagle: Grading my 2016 predictions for Oklahoma craft beer

Friday, January 6, 2017

Grading my 2016 predictions for Oklahoma craft beer

A year ago -- almost to the day -- I posted my predictions for Oklahoma craft beer in 2016.

The headline for the blog post was "2016 promises to be a big year for Oklahoma beer."

Clearly, that was a good headline. So, now that we've got the past year in the rear-view mirror, how about we grade how I did on those predictions?

Prediction No. 1: Voters will approve a state question bringing alcohol reform.

"Everyone in the industry -- from macro to micro -- agrees that it's time for changes to our alcohol laws. (Well, everyone apparently except for the Retail Liquor Association of Oklahoma, which in 2015 argued for and against reform, seemingly switching positions depending on the tone of the latest public policy study released.) Of course the real trick of the matter is everyone agreeing on something else: What will the ballot language look like for the state question? A battle between Anheuser-Busch and the Beer Distributors of Oklahoma is already -- wait for it -- brewing on that point. (Sorry, couldn't resist.)"

The verdict: A+. Nailed that one on all counts.

Prediction No. 2: Oklahoma's craft brewers won't have to pick sides in the fight.

"Sort of. Both options -- aligning with either AB or BDO -- cause problems for craft brewers. If you pick the wrong side in the skirmish over distribution rules, you could end up compromising your small business if your side loses. So what will craft brewers do? We already know the answer -- they start up their own side. More than one brewer has told me over the years that a key to growing the influence of Oklahoma's craft brewers is simply having more craft brewers. A collaboration of seven or eight Oklahoma craft brewers wasn't even possible a few years ago, so it'll be interesting to see what influence they can ply at the state Capitol."

The verdict: B. I did miss out on predicting that craft brewers would actually end up on the opposite side of the liquor lobby, resulting in the unfortunate "bottom shelf" situation.

Prediction No. 3: Someone will sell out, someone will close up shop.

"Not to be a Debbie Downer here, but this is what happens in the craft beer business. It's what's happened since the first craft beer boom of the 1980s. In Oklahoma, we've been insulated to a degree from the volatility of the craft beer business because starting and operating a craft beer business in this state is extremely difficult. Those who have the fortitude to even get one off the ground are pretty dedicated and serious about what they're doing. Once things like point-of-production sales are on the up-and-up (and hopefully they will be as part of alcohol reform), there's no doubt that many fly-by-night and less serious operations will spring up. Plus, many more legitimately serious and talented brewers will get into the game. All of that will undoubtedly crowd the market and put pressure on the existing brewers. Most will come through just fine because the quality of what they're doing will win out, but don't be surprised if one or more brewers bows out of the game as the dynamics of Oklahoma's beer landscape change."

The verdict: C+. While Mustang founder Tim Schoelen sold off majority ownership of his brewery, there was actually a lot less downward volatility in the market than I predicted.

Prediction No. 4: Once the boom arrives, it'll really arrive.

"This may be more of a prediction for 2017 and beyond, but the passage of reform will send us down a path that I believe will boggle people's minds. I don't think it's unrealistic that by the end of 2020, Oklahoma would have between 30 and 40 brick-and-mortar breweries and/or true brewpubs. The state has a strong homebrew tradition -- some of the best beer I've tasted has been made by hobby brewers here in Oklahoma -- and I know the lure of making a career out of their hobby will make a lot more sense for a lot more people after reform."

The verdict: A. We've already seen several homebrewers announce pro plans, so this prediction seems to be on track.

Prediction No. 5: Get ready for corporate craft, too.

"We're already starting to see an influx of traveling, out-of-state beer festivals make their way into Oklahoma. Often they actually have very little local craft beer. And, organizers of such events typically try to get small, local brewers to donate the beer on the brewer's own dime. We should all resolve to choose first to patronize local events, where proceeds stay in the state, and that are supported by the local craft brewers."

The verdict: D. Not a lot of evidence in 2016 that corporate had a pervasive influence in Oklahoma craft beer, although Krebs Brewing did act more corporate than any other Oklahoma brewer had ever acted. Still, kinda missed on that one.

Prediction No. 6: Oklahoma craft beer will gain more of a foothold in Oklahoma's bar and restaurants.

"Raise your hand if you're tired of seeing Stella, Blue Moon, Bud Light and Sam Adams Seasonal on tap at every restaurant. I know I am. As people choose more and more to patronize places with a good, local beer selection, I think we'll see more businesses come on line. Heck, not too long ago, I had a Sierra Nevada Pale Ale at Thai Kitchen in downtown Oklahoma City. If Thai Kitchen can have Sierra Nevada Pale Ale, there's no reason every restaurant in the city can't resolve to do better."

The verdict: B. It seems most trendy, new restaurants that opened in 2016 opted to make local craft beer a focal point.

Prediction No.7: The consumer will win.

"Maybe I'm just a dreamer. Maybe I'm being overly optimistic. Hey, I realize that big business is all up in our plans for alcohol reform, and knowing that, if you were a betting man, you'd probably feel obligated to bet on big business. But there's just so much about reform that equates to instant wins for the consumer: Point-of-production sales (good for quality and tourism). Refrigerated strong beer (good for quality and convenience). Sunday sales (good for convenience). Being able to pick up strong beer like any other grocery item (great for convenience). Sure, the issue of distribution rules looms, and people will make counterarguments ranging from potential higher beer prices to public safety concerns. Regardless, I think what's clear is that from the perspective of the craft consumer, things are looking up in a way they haven't before. It'll be fascinating to see how 2016 plays out."

The verdict: A. I'm going with a high grade for this one -- seems like I accurately predicted several of the key themes of 2016, and I think it's clear that with point-of-production sales, the local craft beer consumer won in a big way.

So, that means grades of A+, B, C+, A, D, B and A. Probably a B+ average overall, give or take. Not too shabby.

And what about predictions for 2017? I'm going to ponder those over the weekend and post 'em up next week.

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