Should We Be Afraid of a Looming Beer Bubble in O.C.?

Newport Beach Brewing Co. Photo credit: Charlie Perez

This may be frightening to some, but after about 23 years in operation, Newport Beach Brewing Co. is closing Sunday, according to a post from Monday on its Facebook Page. Although the post makes no mention of this, it is closing for renovation, estimated to reopen sometime in April.

 

However, the new ownership, a multi-restaurant entrepreneur, may mean the entity known as Newport Brewing is all but sent to the grave. There is no guarantee the name will remain intact about five months from now.

The nerves of our beer community have been rattled. There is also the constant fear of when the next big-beer buyout will happen. Although recent casualties in Orange County aren’t particularly numerous, they are noticeable: Alcatraz in 2013 and Valiant in 2017, both in Orange, and Evans Brewing Co.’s taking over Bayhawk Ales out of Irvine by 2014, and now Newport Beach Brewing. Earlier this year, San Diego’s Green Flash was taken over by an investment firm.

Newport Beach Brewing Co. Photo credit: Charlie Perez

Has the beer bubble burst? Perhaps, but perhaps not. That’s a tough question to ask a community of vocal and opinionated folks. We may have our individual vested interest to answer one way or another. Whether you are part of the industry or not, odds are you love beer as much as I do and appreciate the people associated with it. We are treated like friends, we most likely are friends, or we are on a first-name basis with brewery owners, brewers, beertenders, and reps. It’s understandable to fear that fast-approaching sharp object if we feel we’re part of the bubble. These are our friends; we feel connected to it.

I believe it’s more complicated than a simple bubble analogy. Unfortunately, Newport Beach Brewing may have fallen victim to one or more of the following. My observations point to this so-called bubble having to do with rapid expansion, poor education/quality control, oversaturation, poor business decisions, and vocal consumers.

Rapid Expansion

Some breweries start off small and grow at an alarming rate. Others bust out of the gate with large, multimillion-dollar facilities but don’t produce a quality product to put their money where their beer is. There is only so much shelf space, even at specialty bottle shops. We all know what happens when there is too much of a good thing. In other cases, breweries small or large start off strong, only to have their beers slowly decline in quality, unable to get out of their funk (sometimes, literally!).

Poor Education/Quality Control

I believe this is the most important aspect. Breweries often release products with off-flavors, and the average consumers have no idea they are consuming a flawed beer. I’ve been disappointed countless times by faulty beers with various defects. These include, but not limited to:

  • Diacetyl (Buttery flavors indicating incomplete fermentation)
  • Acetaldehyde (green apple flavor, also incomplete fermentation)
  • High amounts of isoamyl acetate (banana flavors, a sign of elevated fermentation temperatures)
  • Variety of phenols (clove-like or medicinal notes)
  • Butyric acid (a vomit-like aroma thought to be caused by a clostridium bacterium infection in kettle sours or infections by anaerobic bacteria like pediococcus)
  • Isovaleric acid (cheesy aroma caused by poor storage and use of old hops)
  • Mercaptan/autolysis (in worst cases, can smell like old meat or sewer drains caused by ruptured yeast cells)

This is not exclusive to the new ventures, as well-established breweries may experience quality issues, too. The problem lies when the tasting room staff, owner, and/or the brewer does not realize there’s a concern with the beer. Most of the time the beer is pulled off immediately and the problem is corrected at breweries where there is at least an understanding of brewing science or they are proactively learning. In many of these instances, it is a simple case of inexperience and unawareness. Most brewers will embrace beer education and will improve their skills over time.

Oversaturation

Orange County has nearly 40 breweries and brewpubs with more than a handful in planning. This is including the closure of Newport Beach Brewing. The consumers not only have many choices, but the quality is not always consistent. However, having breweries walking distance from one another is a welcome side effect.

Poor Business Decisions

This is usually case by case, but the principle remains the same with all breweries. All of the items above are indicative of poor business decisions. Additionally, there may be some other ill-advised items that may be exclusive to each operation, such as brewery name, logo, and imagery, marketing tactics, beer names, relying exclusively on regular customers, bad management/ownership, location, and so on.

Vocal Customers

Unfortunately, the consumer will choose what to buy with the information given to them and to meet their tastes. However, if a brewery releases quality beers, the consumer will find even more value in what they are drinking and is more likely to be a repeat customer. On the other side of the bar, a knowledgeable consumer can identify flaws, praise outstanding examples of a style, and appreciate esoteric offerings. I argue this is a two-way street and a little goes a long way. Experienced or novice, most have no problem pointing out mistakes or dislikes. However, put the snobbery aside and congratulate a brewer on a job well done on that helles or a beertender on handing you the perfect pour of a pale ale. We have the power to respectfully demand quality just as much as we tend to be vocal and opinionated about hazy IPAs and pastry stouts.

Both consumer and producer benefit from gaining knowledge, but the burden falls on the producer. As mentioned above, if a brewery does not know its product is flawed or lacking in flavor, it will keep producing it as-is. The brewers who take pride in making a quality product and respect the opinions of their patrons will listen. Respect is also a two-way street, and some brewers need to climb off their cloud sometimes, too.

I don’t believe we have a bubble and that the closure of Newport Beach Brewing is not indicative of the bubble bursting. I see the beer industry as an entity that is evolving to meet market needs. The market is a bit saturated, so it has become more fluid, a river of flowing water rather than a bubble about to burst. As with any flow of water, there may be some turbulent points. Think of those points as the items above. Consolidation, mergers, buyouts, and the dreadful closing are part of this crazy game we call business. We are too strong a culture to let mass-market consolidation happen again anytime soon. I believe that the industry is fine so long as we drink and support local. Respect your brewers, and they will respect you, and embrace beer education for the consumer and producer alike.

Even though the loss of Newport Beach Brewing may seem terrifying for the industry, in reality, there’s nothing to be scared of … yet.

Editor’s note: Charlie Perez is an Advanced Cicerone® who covers the Orange County beer scene for the Booze Blog.

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