There’s a story that’s often being sold to beer drinkers. On the one hand, you’ve got 800 pound gorillas: the faceless corporate giants who mass-produce tasteless, watery beer by stuffing it with corn and rice and other things that make purists cringe. On the other hand, there’s the artisan: the little guys with an undying commitment to quality and flavor, who brew every batch by hand with a heart full of love, a bucket of rare hop varietals and a pinch of yeast extracted from dating back to the Sumerians. The problem with this story is that it’s at least 20 years out of date, and more importantly, it bears little resemblance to how the most dedicated and active craft beer enthusiasts view the industry.
Cynical advertisers on both sides of the supposed divide find it to their benefit to perpetuate the myth. Large independents like Samuel Adams and Sierra Nevada are straining against the upper limits of what could be considered craft brewing. Or more accurately, they’re actively working to raise those limits so that they can stay in the club. Meanwhile, giants like MillerCoors and Anheuser-Busch are openly courting lovers of simple beer and hoping that the “snobs” won’t notice that they now own beloved craft brewers like Anchor Steam, Goose Island, and Ballast Point.
If brands want to connect with American craft beer enthusiasts, they are going to have to understand what the market trends are that drive drinkers’ choices right now. Surprisingly, “making good beer” doesn’t appear to be the best way to attract the business of highly invested beer drinkers anymore. That doesn’t mean that they’ve all lost their sense of taste; it just means that the craft beer world offers such a variety that quality is no longer the best way to distinguish your brand. So where do brewers head?
The language of “Craft” matter. Craft beer used to be a nebulous category that conveyed both quality and independence, but increasingly it is defined by size, ownership, and production. The Brewers Association defines “craft” as:
- Producing fewer than 6 million barrels of year annually
- Less than 25 percent owned by “a beverage alcohol industry member which is not itself a craft brewer”
- Utilizing flavors made from “traditional or innovative brewing ingredients and their fermentation”
That’s not to say that the BA’s definitions are stable or that they coincide exactly with what is in the minds of craft beer enthusiasts. For example, its past criteria excluded “adjunct” grains like corn, rice or oats, which are now generally accepted as fair game for many craft brewers. They also used to cap the production level at 2 million barrels. With the success of companies like the Boston Beer Company and Boulevard Brewing they’ve had to make to accommodate their growing production levels.
The purchase of many icon craft breweries by giant corporations has led to a crisis within the craft beer community, as taste no longer serves to distinguish the independents from the majors. To inform drinkers, the Brewers Association created the independent craft brewer seal, an authorized indicator that the product is an authentic craft beer. As of fall 2018, more than 3,700 craft brewing companies had adopted the seal, representing more than 80% of the volume of craft beer.
Widespread use of the seal should go a long way toward informing beer drinkers about the craft status of the beer they’re drinking, and displaying it looks like an essential move for up-and-coming brewers. It’s too soon to predict whether the growing visibility of the independents will counteract the tendency of successful brewers to sell out to the majors. It also remains to be seen whether enthusiasts will tolerate leaving all the power in the hands of the Brewers Association to decide what is and isn’t craft beer. But it isn’t too soon to say that the shifts in the industry are making marketing challenges more complex.
Craft beer and inclusion. It’s also worth noting that in recent years we’ve seen a minor backlash against the craft beer community, focusing on the belief that enthusiasts are overwhelmingly straight white men with beards. Data does show that white people, professional men in particular, make up somewhere around 75% of the craft brew consumer population. Other demographics, then, constitute a major untapped source of revenue for brewers. And they signify an image problem for brands. If craft brewers can figure out how to authentically connect to women and people of color, they could sell a lot more a lot more beer.
Where brewers tend to go wrong is by assuming that it’s possible to bring in the missing demographics by devising new beer recipes. The widely accepted common wisdom states that men like IPAs while women prefer fruity or spiced beers; why couldn’t we find the beer types that appeal to black or Hispanic consumers as well? But the truth is that we don’t have hard data on these supposed preferences, and there’s no reason to believe that offering different varieties will bring in drinkers who previously have shown little interest in beer. What beer do women like? It’s an asinine question. In fact, pandering to women and minorities by offering beer styles that the brewer wouldn’t otherwise be interested in is a great way to undermine a brand’s reputation for quality and authenticity. If you want to combat craft beer’s image problem and bring in new drinkers at the same time, a better bet is to strive for diversity among the people making the beer.
Where’s the technology? TV advertising remains the traditional domain of the giant beer producers, and it’s rare to see craft brewers other than outlier Samuel Adams trying to beat them at their own game. Where smaller brands should look to connect with devoted customers is through social media and apps that have appeared in recent years. Untappd and Barley give users the ability to log and review beers, as well as to receive special offers and learn what’s available at nearby watering holes. Reflecting what we’ve seen about the politics of the craft beer world, Craft Check offers to verify that a given beer is truly independent instead of a covert major.
Loyalty programs provide an enticing opportunity to court return customers and gather data about what fans of your brand enjoy, but they probably won’t be feasible in the near future. The patchwork of state and local blue laws, which often prohibit giving beer away for free or offering people incentives to drink, combine to keep such programs from being scalable. While waiting on legal reform, brewers should focus on opening lines of communication with customers and offering them new beer suggestions.
Collaboration builds tribes. Most craft breweries are regional affairs without national distribution networks. Very few of them have the advertising budget to do much. For brands seeking exposure, collaboration tends to be the most low-cost and effective strategy for increasing name recognition. A common approach is collaboration on a particular beer between two breweries or a brewer and a chef, which has the effect of theoretically multiplying each brand’s exposure and fostering a sense of camaraderie over competition. The key point is that by creating a sense of connection and collaboration, a brand also creates a sense of identity. It creates tribes that anyone can join.
So what? As crowded as the craft beer market is, you might expect it to be increasingly competitive, with ruthless breweries buying up the brands that they can and driving the others out of business. But for the most part, this mentality hasn’t taken over the market yet. That atmosphere of benevolence and fair play is a big part of what the most dedicated craft beer drinkers find so appealing. Celebrating smallness, community, and authenticity go a long way in fostering the brands. This also helps drive greater diversity in the consumer base by establishing a sense of shared identity between consumers.