I’ve been thinking about the questions that I posed in Part One for several years, but about a week ago, I was jolted into a public expression of my puzzlement.
I’d been invited to speak to a class at a nearby university, and the visit mostly consisted of me answering smart questions posed by smart people who’d recently read my book about beer. One student asked me where I thought the brewing industry would be in 40 years. [Again, as I noted in Part One, this isn’t about beer; I’m just using beer as my entry point to a larger issue.]
I gave my standard historian’s answer: Given the nature of capitalist economies, I replied, in 40 years there will probably be fewer breweries than there are now. The logic of capitalism indicates that a handful of brewers will grow in size and clout. The industry will “centralize,” meaning that instead of 1,500 beermakers, there will be a few hundred. (Put another way: the past thirty years in American brewing history have been the anomaly; an exception to the general rule of industrial consolidation.) (*1)
In 2050, brewing will look more like, say, 1950 or 1970 (when there were just a few hundred beermakers) than it will look like 2009, when there are almost 1500 breweries.
That’s my historian’s prediction based on what I know about the past and present.
A few minutes later, someone asked another, related, question. (I can’t remember now what it was and it doesn’t matter.) In the process of answering that question, I said that in fifty years we might have several thousand beermakers, and all of us would enjoy access to a “local brewer” and we’d all be riding our bicycles to the local brewpub to have a beer.
Which, someone instantly pointed out, contradicted what I’d said five minutes earlier. (I was so pleased that they’d noticed the contradiction!) Yup, I said, that’s right. I’m contradicting myself because I’m not sure which answer is the “right” one. More next time.
*1: I ruminated at length on the future of brewing in a multi-part series that I posted last summer. You can read those entries here.