It's vacation week for me. While my Portland friends are stuck shoveling snow and braving treacherous roadways and walkways, I'm enjoying a week in the tropics. It's a tough job, but I guess someone has to do it. Might as well be me.
These respites away from the real world give me a chance to think about beer, something I seem to spend less and less time on these days. I've been trying to connect the dots between two articles I read on this trip. One by Andy Crouch, the other by Jeff Alworth.
Crouch's piece is in this month's BeerAdvocate, a publication I read sparingly these days. (There is no current web version of the article that I can find.) His basic premise is that our fixation on chasing multiple exotic beers at pubs and bars has ruined the simple experience of enjoying beers with friends. He describes a setting outside the U.S. in which all patrons are drinking one beer and having great conversations unrelated to beer.
Alworth's piece appeared on the Beervana blog, though it probably should have appeared in formally published form somewhere. His premise is that stratification is occurring in craft beer and that the largest brewers, though they continue to pander to the specialty audience, are aggressively going after an emerging mass craft market with trendy, disposable brands.
I'm not really sure Americans can ever return to a situation where we're satisfied drinking a single type or brand of beer in an evening. That was certainly the reality 40 or more years ago, when most of us drank tasteless industrial lager. There were a lot of different brands, but we were drinking basically the same beer and there wasn't much conversation about it.
Even in the early days of craft, there was nothing like the promiscuous market we see today, with folks striving to drink exotic variety. In those days, people were often satisfied to spend an evening drinking pitchers of the same beer. Breweries and bars typically had only four or five brands, so options were limited. It was a different world.
The specialty craze ramped up over the last 10 or so years, driven by breweries in an increasingly crowded market wanting to differentiate themselves and by a small, but aggressive crowd of geeks that became virtually addicted to exotic beers, pretty much regardless of cost. This crowd, though small, helped push craft dollar volume growth into the double digits in recent years.
What the large craft brewers have come to realize is that the specialty crowd is not the future. They recognize that the mainstream popularity of craft beer has created a huge pool of consumers who enjoy good beer, but aren't really interested in chasing exotic styles. That mass market is craft's future and that's where the large brewers are turning.
There's nothing, really, to add to what Jeff wrote in his piece. His notion that large brewers are targeting the mass market with trendy, disposable brands is absolutely correct. Consumers currently demand zesty IPAs and that's what brewers are delivering. They will easily move on to the next trendy thing when it comes along with new disposable brands. And so on.
Will we ever get to a scenario in which consumers drink a single type of beer, such as Crouch describes? Some might argue we've already crossed that bridge in some sense with the popularity of IPA. Even here, there's demand for numerous brands...Lagunitas, Ballast Point, Goose, etc. Spoiled Americans will probably always demand multiple brands of any trendy style.
The most intriguing thing about what's coming will be seeing how the big craft brewers implement a mass market strategy. My guess is the tactics will look something like those used in the past by macros to tap broad regional and national audiences. Irony abounds.
This transformation is gonna be comical and messy, I suspect. I look forward to watching it unfold.