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[Photo: Heather Vandenengel]

It's been an exciting few years for craft beer. At the end of last year, according to the Brewers Association, the U.S. brewery count passed 2,700 and there are more than 1,700 in planning. In 2012, craft beer in the U.S. had a 6.5% market share by volume and 10.2% by dollar.

Yet as the industry continues to grow and mature, so too will its challenges. The good news is that the beer community is a talkative one, and tough conversations about how the industry is going to work through the big issues are starting to happen. (Give HenHouse Brewing Co. partner Collin McDonnell's recent 'Beer and Community' lecture a listen for an insightful perspective.) Here are five issues craft beer brewers and drinkers should be paying attention to and talking about.

The Gender Issue

Women have solidified their place in beer—as drinkers, brewers, lab techs, maltsters, sales reps, bar owners and homebrewers—but they also continue to show up half-naked on beer labels or caught up in insulting double entendres.

Groups such as the Pink Boots Society, which empowers women in the beer industry through education or Girls Pint Out, a national organization for women craft beer lovers that holds community and educational events, have helped to give the female segment a voice. And while the craft beer segment has been making strides compared to the beer industry as a whole, notes beer journalist Christopher Shepard of the trade publication Beer Marketer's INSIGHTS, there is still work to do.

"[Beer] is a beverage, that for a long time, has been fairly heavily gendered toward male. I don't think there is much understanding in the industry of how to get away from that or a really full belief that it does need to get away from to be as successful of an industry as it could be," says Shepard.

The Overconsumption Issue

Talking about overconsumption and potential for serious drinking problems can be tricky—if craft beer supposed to be encouraging quality and flavor, then surely abuse of alcohol isn't a part of it. But anyone who has experienced the last hour of a beer festival has seen craft beer fans who may be pushing their fandom to dangerous limits.

Miles Liebtag of the website Beer Graphs recently brought up the topic in an excellent article. He writes:

"Craft beer culture (whatever that is) encourages curiosity and exploration among consumers, but has relatively little to say about healthy drinking habits. By turning beer into a hobby and a lifestyle, craft as a market trend smooths out a lot of the stigma that would otherwise be attached to, say, drinking an 11% double IPA at lunch. And then having another," writes Liebtag.

As he also notes, lower-alcohol session beers are enjoying a comeback and finding several options less than 6% ABV on a beer menu is easier today than just a few years ago. It's a start, and hopefully a trend that will stick.

[Photo: Adam Lindsley]

The Beer as a Business Issue

By playing the David to big beer's Goliath, craft beer has been able to emphasize the "rising tide lifting all boats" mentality and highlight camaraderie and collaboration. But competition within the segment is picking up as the industry booms, especially when it comes to resources, whether it's a question of trademark conflicts, hop contracts, access to capital, or shelf space and tap handles.

"We all talk about the camaraderie in the industry, but at some point competition is a very real issue: the number of breweries outpacing the growth of the consumer base, outpacing the growth of available tap handle space, available grocery store space," says Tom Nickel, co-founder of Nickel Beer Company in Julian, California and co-owner of O'Brien's Pub and West Coast Barbecue & Brew.

As Chris Furnari, editor of Brewbound.com points out, competition could pose a greater challenge to smaller and newer breweries who may have a greater challenge securing finances to grow their operation and brew and sell more beer: "If they don't get the money to grow and they don't have the liquid to back it up, it's going to be tough to compete. And I don't know if consumers really understand that element, just how tough it is to compete without financial resources," says Furnari.

The Environmental Issue

Beer is an agricultural product reliant on access to clean water and a consistent supply of quality hops and grain.

During the worst recorded drought in California's history, access to water is currently on the mind of of the state's many breweries. As NPR reports, Lagunitas Brewing Co. in Petaluma may be forced to shift its water supply from the Russian River to well water, while Bear Republic Brewing Co. says they don't currently have another source of water.

On the other end, the brewing process produces a significant amount of byproducts and waste in the form of spent grain, hops and yeast. Donating spent grain—the leftover malt from brewing and beer's biggest byproduct—to local farmers for animal feed is common practice, but it could get more complicated as there are proposed rules from the Food and Drug Administration under the Food Safety Modernization Act to regulate brewers' spent grain sold as animal feed.

The Safety Issue

Breweries are manufacturing plants and employees work daily with pressurized tanks, caustic chemicals, scalding hot water and heavy machinery. A few recent tragedies have brought brewery safety concerns into the public eye. Stone Brewing Co. brewer Matt Courtright died in a forklift accident in August and in April 2012 when Redhook Brewery employee Ben Harris died from a plastic keg explosion at the Portsmouth, NH brewery.

The Brewers Association technical committee established a brewing safety subcommittee and they held their first meeting in September, says Chuck Skypeck, the Brewers Association technical brewing projects coordinator.

"We are getting close to 2,000 brewery members and they range from brewery restaurants to very small nanos to larger breweries that are really stepping up production and turning into larger scale facilities. All of those breweries are at very different places in their evolution and safety practices and that's one of the biggest challenges we're sorting out is how to address those very diverse safety needs in our membership."

Paul Schneider, brewer at Chicago's Solemn Oath Brewery, recently published a thorough piece outlining the safety concerns of a brewery, from heat to pH. And as Schneider says, consumers can take part in the conversation by asking a simple question next time you're on a brewery tour or filling growlers: "What do you guys do for safety around here?"

About the Author: Heather Vandenengel is a nomadic beer writer and the News Editor for All About Beer. You can follow her on Twitter @heathervandy.

Read More by Heather Vandenengel:

6 Québécois Breweries You Should Know
Beer Geek Glossary: Making Sense of Beer Trading Terms
Brewery to Watch: Propolis Brewing, Port Townsend, WA
Where to Drink Beer in Montreal
The State of Sour Beer: We Chat With Brewers at the What the Funk?! Fest

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