As craft beer matures and the bigger breweries begin to stabilize long time brewmasters are leaving their posts to start new adventures. Recently, Peter Bouckaert of New Belgium announced he would be leaving to help launch Purpose Brewing and Cellars. And of course there’s Mitch Steele, formerly of Stone, heading to Atlanta to start New Realm Brewing Company.
We asked the Fervent Few what they thought about a figurehead leaving the brewery they helped build and if it had an affect on how they felt about the brewery they left behind. Are you less likely to drink a brewery’s beer because key players are no longer involved? Are you as excited about their new ventures as you were about the old?
“The traditional standing in the beer world is for people to align with breweries, so I don't think it necessarily diminishes any allegiance. But it could be a hint of a future where the individual becomes more well known and therefore more followed in the drinking community.”
“I always get really excited about these events occurring. Wishful thinking says they’re moving on to do something more interesting while New Belgium rolls on with business as usual. Where I do get frustrated however, is that I know I’ll never see 99% of these bottles and their taproom only distribution.”
“I see it as a natural progression (not just in the beer world) to go from working for a huge brand to wanting to build something new. It's a different kind of excitement to build something out of nothing and with Steele and Bouckaert who spent a long time at Stone and New Belgium, they're probably looking for that spark.
And as long as the original brewery keeps doing what they're doing, I don't see it affecting how I view them. This sort of thing just gives me another place to visit or brewery to try when I'm in the area.”
One thing I have noticed being in the industry is that creative control is a huge incentive and motivator for brewers. A lot of the bigger brands allow brewers to perfect the technical side of brewing while delivering beers in alignment with that company's values/goals. Since brewing at the craft level is at its core a creative pursuit, brewers I speak with will often be working towards building their own brewery and developing their own expression. My prediction is beer follows the music industry with the growth coming predominately from the long tail of the market. Which is great for the drinker willing to hunt down all these new small breweries!
All of the original guys that are leaving big companies spent the majority of the time working on them when they were small.
As someone who’s worked in advertising agencies for the past 7 years, I’ve felt and seen it in my industry. I started with a company when it was the two founders and one other person. I helped build that company to over 35+ before I left and it’s continued to grow to be 50+. It was fun, they would have done/paid nearly anything to keep me, but if I was going to work for a mid-sized company, why not try something new.
I’m not trying to say my experience is a mirror of what's happening in the beer industry, but I will say that if I knew that starting my own firm would land me clients, I would be my own boss at this point.
In the beer industry, you don’t need 2 or 3 clients like I would, you have thousands all around you that are promiscuous and thirsty.
“This looks like exactly what we should want to see in this industry. People who helped build something great are now branching out as the things they created are being mass produced.”
“I'm not convinced that the average beer drinker has ever heard of people like Bouckaert or Steele, so I doubt it has a huge impact on purchasing behaviour. It matters to us because there aren't many "celebrity Brewers" out there, and it can feel like a canary in the coal mine. Personally I'd just see it as people looking for a new challenge, and many of these organizations are large enough to easily survive the loss of a single employee.”
“From a diversity perspective, I like a world where these brewers have an opportunity to create their own brands. Something that is ultimately unique and creatively their own. I see a country filled with many small breweries each with their own perspectives. Looking forward to seeing what Peter and Mitch create when they have the opportunity to express their own uniqueness. I think both Mitch and Peter understand they no longer live in a world where they will become a national brand and I think ultimately that's what they want and that is why they are moving on in the first place. A chance to create a local and regional fingerprint, i.e. Mitch Steele in Atlanta.”
While the responses were overwhelmingly positive, Andy Brown asks a good question:
“I'd ask if there was anything the brewery could've done to keep them.”
Could New Belgium have started a program that kept Peter Bouckaret working under their roof? If Stone had given Mitch Steele his own location and funding, would he still be employed there? Or was it just finally time to make a change?
The last lingering question is do drinkers turn away from breweries that lose their original creative forces? Todd Haug is no longer at Surly and Goose Island has been through a few brewmasters. Those breweries continue to thrive. So, as long as what’s in the bottle stays consistent and innovative new beers continue to be brewed people will keep coming back. In the end it might be the best situation. These breweries will continue to brew an exciting portfolio of new and established beers and the curious get a new brewery to discover.
We're still talking about this on Fervent Few, our subscriber community. And a host of other topics every day. Periodically, we'll gather up the highlights and share them here on GBH.