This year has seen a steady stream of retirements, departures, and role changes within craft beer as veteran leaders step back. Together, they represent a changing of the guard in the industry, which has collectively evolved from a near non-existent niche to an established slice of the U.S. alcohol market. 

The last nine months have seen the retirements of John Mallett (former VP of Brewing and Quality for Bell’s Brewery and New Belgium Brewing), Jeff White (former CEO of Sierra Nevada Brewing Co.), Mark Stutrud (former CEO of Summit Brewing), John Geist (former chief sales officer for Boston Beer Co.), Jeff Schrag (former CEO of Mother’s Brewing), plus the exit of Jeremy Ragonese (former president of Uinta Brewing Co.) and Dharma Tamm (former president of Rogue Ales & Spirits), and the transition of Sean Lawson (former CEO of Lawson’s Finest Liquids) to less of a day-to-day role with the brewery—among many others. This is not to mention the numerous beer-focused bars and restaurants that have closed recently, including icons like Denver’s Falling Rock Tap House.

Brewers and owners getting into craft beer today inherit a more mature industry than the generation before them. The first wave of pioneers fought for craft beer’s seat at the table with an underdog mindset, then presided over years of market share growth as IPAs and Wheat Beers became mainstream. In the last five years, however, the industry’s sales growth has cooled.

“We are a generation and a half in—30 years in—to the craft beer industry and it bears no resemblance to what it was,” says Maureen Ogle, a historian and the author of “Ambitious Brew: The Story of American Beer.” Ogle says that as she approaches her 70th birthday, she’s reflected on what the recent departure of industry veterans means for craft beer. 

“You lose the history, because as those leaders age out, their replacements are people who came into an entirely different industry,” she says. “What that means is the value set that drove that history isn’t really going to matter to people who don’t know anything about it. They’re creating a new set of norms and values.”

As figureheads within the industry depart, it’s not clear who will succeed them—or whether national craft beer figureheads are even possible in an industry that’s increasingly crowded and specialized.

“In terms of what that next set of up-and-comers are, there are so many small, small brewers out there, I can’t point to one and say: There they are,” Mallett says. He contrasts the nearly 10,000 existing U.S. craft breweries today with the between 100 and 200 that existed when he began his career in 1987. “Today there are breweries in my town that I’ve never heard of.”

The sheer number of breweries and their varying business models, geographies, and priorities creates a challenge for anyone seeking to speak on behalf of the collective. 

“I don’t know that everyone’s pointing the same way,” Mallett says of brewery owners. He uses breweries’ relationship with beer distributors as an example, saying that some breweries consider them valued business partners while others view them adversarially. “It would be a lot like asking the question: What do men or women want? There is no one perspective.”

Ogle has also tracked this fracturing. She points out that for decades, the Brewers Association (BA), under Charlie Papazian’s leadership, was as much a unified craft beer marketing and public relations organization as it was a lobbying group. The BA was also an unofficial kingmaker, elevating certain figureheads to speak on behalf of craft beer to the public and the media. She calls the BA “the axis” that oriented the craft beer industry for 25 years. 

“It was a smaller pool, so very flamboyant people like Greg Koch [of Stone Brewing] or dead serious people like Jim Koch [of Boston Beer] and Kim Jordan [of New Belgium Brewing] and Carol Stoudt [of Stoudt’s Brewing] rose to the top,” Ogle says. “I get the distinct impression that the BA’s role is now lobbying more than marketing and PR.” 

Trade organizations, including the BA, face a challenge in connecting with a new, younger generation of brewers, says Rafael D’Armas, a recent graduate of the Siebel Institute of Technology’s brewing program. He says younger brewers—and younger people generally—have a degree of weariness and cynicism toward established institutions. This is the generation that demonstrated in the streets as part of Black Lives Matter protests, and which views members of Congress as, on the whole, ancient and immovable. 

D’Armas also identifies a mismatch in the speed at which his generation expects change versus the bureaucratic nature of institutions. He says many brewers in his cohort share his desire for more efforts to recruit women, people of color, and LGBTQ+ people to beer, as consumers and workers. But there is also a skepticism that longstanding trade groups and businesses are prepared to move quickly on these issues. It’s part of the energy behind the formation of new groups, such as the National Black Brewers Association, and the rise of non-hierarchical mutual aid models in craft beer. 

“I think a lot of people believe that going through quote-unquote formal channels doesn’t hold a lot of value. There’s a perception that within the system, things don’t necessarily change,” D’Armas says. “Long term, they do [change], but it can be frustrating—when we live in a world of immediate communication—to deal with channels that are not designed for the speed at which information moves these days.”

D’Armas has immense respect for craft beer pioneers such as Ken Grossman, Garrett Oliver, and Rob Todd, crediting them with making the U.S. the model for craft beer globally. He feels brewers today have some commonality with those figureheads, primarily in terms of their passion for brewing and their desire to be creative. But when he looks for younger role models or mentors, he says official leadership roles in trade groups aren’t necessarily where he finds them. He’s more likely to encounter them on social media, at brewery festivals and events like Other Half’s Women’s Forum, and in beer-related media.

He names Liz Garibay of the Beer Culture Summit, Zahra Tabatabai of Back Home Beer, Marcus Baskerville of Weathered Souls Brewing, and Jenny Pfafflin of Dovetail Brewing as people he greatly admires in the industry. (Of those, only Baskerville has held a leadership role with the BA.) Another of his role models, Alice Jun of Hana Makgeolli, doesn’t work in beer at all, but has founded her own band of Korean rice wine. His personal list of leaders is diverse across race, gender, professional roles, geography, and LGBTQ+ identity; he says that these are the leaders who will push craft beer—the industry and the liquid—forward. 

“When you look at the places in which people of newer generations are taking leadership positions, you immediately see a more diverse group of people participating in initiatives to diversify the industry or help their communities in general,” D’Armas says. “You also see it in the type of beers being brewed, in terms of maybe a more bold approach to incorporating flavor profiles.”

This is a different role than what was asked of craft brewers in the 1980s through the early 2000s. The industry once needed national figureheads to pitch the concept of craft beer to a skeptical public: Garrett Oliver insisting that craft beer belonged on fine dining tables; Tomme Arthur extolling the virtues of complex, slightly funky, Belgian-inspired wild ales; Sam Calagione normalizing the use of culinary ingredients in beer. For a person coming of legal drinking age in the U.S. today, craft beer needs no justification. Most sizable towns have a craft brewery or 10, and flavorful beer is for sale at movie theaters, sports stadiums, and airports.

Even within individual breweries, leadership demands are evolving. That’s partially what led Sean Lawson to step back from his role as CEO of Lawson’s Finest Liquids and hand those reins to Adeline Druart, former president of Vermont Creamery. Lawson and his wife, brewery cofounder Karen Lawson, will remain involved in the brewery, though in less of a day-to-day, operational role. Karen Lawson will continue overseeing the company’s social impact program while Sean acts as a brand ambassador. 

He says that as the brewery grew from hiring its first paid employee in 2016 to today employing 85 people, its leadership needs have changed. Lawson’s Finest Liquids began 15 years ago with Sean as its sole brewer and employee; now it sells beer in nine states.

“We were more of a brand and now we’re more of a company,” Lawson says. “I realized that leading the leadership team and running the functional parts of the company isn’t necessarily my core competency and not what I love doing the most.”

Lawson emphasizes that he’s not retiring, just shifting his role. He says that the social impact portion of the brewery—it has surpassed $2 million in charitable giving and last year became a certified B Corporation—is what keeps him motivated. He can see a larger picture for his company beyond just making and selling beer. That’s especially important now as growth within the craft beer industry slows. 

“As I heard about these big changes at the top at New Belgium and at Sierra Nevada I thought: It’s a really challenging time for craft beer and yet it’s also a time of opportunity,” Lawson says. “When big challenges are in front of a whole industry, it’s an agent of change.”

Because craft beer’s established leaders continue to pass the baton, the industry entrusts itself to new hands. Younger brewers and owners may have different priorities than their forebearers, and even from each other. But craft beer itself isn’t going anywhere, no matter who leads it. 

“I’m keenly aware that the ground is shifting beneath people’s feet, but there’s enough of a foundation that it’s not going to completely collapse,” Ogle says. “There will always be breweries in the U.S. that make something beyond basic lager. When you strip away everything else, that’s the difference between the beer industry now and 1978.”

Words by Kate Bernot