It’s time we had a talk about Green Flash. As we are now in the scheduled opening year for the Virginia Beach expansion of the San Diego brewery, I have been hearing a lot of buzz about what it’s going to mean to our local beer scene.
And, frankly, a lot of people are nervous.
There is no doubt that, as a consumer, the addition of Green Flash will be great for the area. There is also the inevitable increase in beer tourism, tax revenue, etc. Those are all well and good, but I wanted to focus on two things that make some people anxious: market saturation and talent drain. The two are actually very closely related in this case and both warrant examination individually and as a whole.
Sitting in the tasting room at a newly opened brewery, I was once again asked the question I often hear: Don’t you think we’ve reached the limit on breweries in our area? My initial reaction is no, as we actually have a fairly embarrassing per capita brewery ratio compared with many other similarly sized areas. Virginia as a whole ranks 27th in breweries per capita (according to the Brewer’s Association), significant growth given the late passage of SB-604. My calculations put Richmond at 1 brewery per 97,000 metro area residents and Hampton Roads at 1:121,000. Asheville, NC, has a ratio of 1:16,300.
We’ve still got plenty of room to grow. What we are going to have to do, however, is grow differently.
It’s not 2009 anymore. When Kevin O’Connor opened his brewery in Norfolk it was a singularly important moment for beer on the Southside. I remember going there often and liking the beer. Did I love the beer? Honestly, I probably loved the idea of it more than the beer itself. It was OURS. Our local beer. There were kinks to be worked out, for sure, and we were all willing to grade them on a curve while they did so. Why were there kinks? Because homebrewing and production brewing are different beasts. They may have the same basic steps and a shared lexicon, but I can assure you they are quite different. I am a homebrewer, and the few times I’ve had occasion to help out on a commercial system left me more confused than confident. O’Connor did eventually get the system down and they are without question making consistent and innovative beers now. For our purposes we are putting O’Connor at the base of our “homebrewer model” pyramid.
Our other pyramid is the “professional hire” model, with Smartmouth as the base. By hiring a head brewer with significant production level experience you drastically decrease (or eliminate) the learning curve. Smartmouth was solid right out of the gate and has remained so. The drawback for this model is obviously the added expense that comes with a professional hire. It’s a definite leap of faith while waiting for market share to increase. When Smartmouth opened it was probably a riskier move. Now it is almost becoming a necessity.
While we aren’t at market saturation, we are becoming pickier when presented with new options. Our collective palate is getting more sophisticated. When we look at our two pyramids we can go higher on the professional hire model than we can on the homebrewer model before quality starts to suffer. There are certainly exceptions, and I can assure you that my least favorite brewery is someone’s favorite, but as a general rule the new professional hire breweries (Commonwealth, Coelacanth, and the soon-to-open Virginia Beer Co.) are going to be less effected by increased options. For homebrewer startups it’s going to be tougher. Their keys to success during their learning curves are going to be location or niche brewing. For location, they need to either be within walking distance of a successful established brewery to hopefully secure overflow (Rip Rap and BenchTop) or so far away from one that they have exclusivity during their bumpy starts (Pleasure House and Big Ugly both did this successfully).
How does Green Flash fit into the picture? The immediate quality and options availability is going to accelerate the urgency. A mediocre brewery isn’t going to make it anymore and anyone in the early planning stages should take a hard look at viability. I seriously doubt that any of our current breweries are going to shutter because of their arrival, but it’s going to be a lot harder for start-ups. This is going to be good attrition in the long run, raising the quality level for the region as a whole.
The other concern I hear is that our current locals will lose production brewers to Green Flash, who will no doubt be able to offer a better compensation package as well as the opportunity to work for an industry leader. Will that happen? Absolutely. But there will also be people who move to the area to work for Green Flash and many of them (both the locals and the transplants) will trickle down into our other breweries. Moving around between breweries is fairly common in the industry, and at some point we will see a brewery workforce that has been trained by one of the best in the business. That training will benefit the breweries they end up at, and quality will again increase as a whole. If a startup can secure a production brewer from Green Flash who is looking for advancement they can mitigate the learning curve. In a sense, Green Flash is going to be Hampton Roads beer university.
The State of the Brewnion is sound, friends, and only going to get better. Green Flash should be embraced wholeheartedly in the local scene, not just for their quality beers but for the level to which they are going to elevate our other local breweries. Get ready for our next singularly important moment.
Author’s note: After publication, Kevin O’Connor pointed out that the brewery did initially start out with a professional brewer. Additionally, Kevin himself had spent time as a brewer at St. George Brewing Company in Hampton. It was certainly not my intention to belittle the experience of either.