In part two of our look at Oklahoma craft beer, Choc Brewing Co. President Zach Prichard shares his views.
The Thirsty Beagle: How would you describe the tone of the Craft Brewers Conference this year? How was it different or the same when comparing it to the tone of the conference over the past several years?
Zach Prichard: Professional. Don’t get me wrong, the conference was a lot of fun and there was plenty of time for drinking beer. The past few years the industry has experienced tremendous growth in terms of number of breweries, potential breweries and overall interest. It was evident at the CBC. The events were crowed and despite great effort by the Brewers Association staff, somewhat chaotic. The industry was literally growing faster than the BA could plan for. When anything experiences this kind of rapid growth some amount of chaos and disorganization is to be expected. If this CBC was any indication it appears the industry is growing past this. Large craft brewers are becoming more sophisticated, and mid-sized brewers are following suit.
TTB: What were some specific points passed along from the leadership of the Brewers Association — or from other brewers — that made an impression on you?
Zach: I cannot think of any specific points. A more general impression that I can take away from other successful brewers and the leadership of the BA is the feeling that we are all dealing with the same issues. Of course the scale may be different, but issues such as ingredients sourcing, distribution relationships, production scheduling, and team building that are a daily challenge for us are the same issues challenging the best and most successful breweries. Realizing this and that the challenges can be overcome is very motivating. In general Oklahoma has so much room for growth of artisan and craft beer. It is exciting to be a part of that.
TTB: When you think about the direction the craft beer industry is going in Oklahoma right now, what do you feel? Is Oklahoma a good reflection of what’s happening on the national scene right now?
Zach: I’m excited. Oklahoma is not a reflection of the overall industry as much as it is like looking into the past. In much the same way the big “domestic” brewers and imports dominated every U.S. market 20 or 30 years ago, they still do in Oklahoma. We are still in the early, early stages in Oklahoma. Our products have been well received by many beer fans but there is still a lot of room for growth. That growth keeps me excited.
TTB: I’ve heard the argument that a lot of new brewers are getting into the game because it seems fun or cool, and that they’re more interested in making money than they are in making good beer — and that may diminish the quality of what’s out there on the market. Playing devil’s advocate here, I’ve also heard it said that that argument is being made by established brewers who don’t want new guys cutting into their sales, market, etc. Where do you stand? Bring it on as long as they’re dedicated to making good beer?
Zach: I haven’t heard that criticism very often. I don’t see a lot of people that are getting into this business solely to make money. Truthfully if that is your motivation you will not enter this business. It doesn’t take very long once you start crunching numbers to realize that when compared to the risk and start up cost this is not a particularly lucrative business. Regardless of people’s motivation the market will decide what brands prosper. That’s why we try to focus on crafting great beer and marketing it appropriately.
TTB: One point that’s not up for debate is that the craft beer industry is growing fast. People have said this could cause problems for brewers trying to secure grains, hops and equipment — all of which are becoming more scarce; or that it could cause liquor store owners and bar managers to drop old standards so they can stock the latest flavor of the month. Are these real problems everyone is dealing with, or will have to deal with?
Zach: These all concerns. We have been concerned about sourcing ingredients for years now. We haven’t had to deal with any disaster situations though. While the growth creates these problems it also helps to solve it. As the craft and artisan beer industry grows, suppliers can more confidently produce raw materials. Also new suppliers will enter the market. We saw this at CBC this year. There were over twice as many vendors at the trade show as last year. Generally speaking, people in this industry should not be afraid of change. After all the industry is really just one big change. A generation ago people laughed at the idea of craft beer. The industry is dynamic. That creates challenges but it also creates opportunity. As long as we are mindful of this we will be fine.
TTB: Lastly, what advice would you offer to new brewers or those wanting to get into the business?