We Are What We Drink

Just as beer cases have become filled with colorful labels and wine cellars have started to fill with more regional variety than we could ever have imagined, craft spirits are becoming alternatives to the traditional big liquor names. The number of craft distilleries jumped 16% in 2018 and 26% in 2017. In terms of what that represents to the workforce, 19,529 people now work full-time at craft spirits companies.

By far, the greatest number of craft distillers, 32.7 %, are in western states, with the South coming in second at 29.3. Third is the Midwest with 19.1% and the Northeast right behind at 18.9%. Among individual states, the leader by far is California, which has 148 craft distilleries, or nearly 10% of the total. New York State is next, with 123 craft distilleries. Washington State has 106, Texas has 86, and Colorado has 80.

Craft distilleries still represent a fraction of the overall booze market, but they’re steadily picking up sales and volume. In 2016, craft distilleries held 3% of sales. By 2017, that rose to 3.8%. On the surface that seems small, but gaining nearly a percentage point in such a massive industry point to a broader shift, just as it did with beer. Looking at the volume, that becomes abundantly clear. In actual cases, the craft industry has risen from 2.5 million cases sold in 2012, to 5.8 million cases in 2017. Interestingly, more than half of the sales for craft distillers come from customers in their home state. So craft distilling is on the rise, but why? And what does it say about marketing?

Food and drink can have something that the distilling world has long dismissed: a sense of place, drawn from the soil and climate where the grains grow – drawn from the history and cultural patterns that create a sense of meaning. This is tied to a growing international movement by distillers, plant breeders and academic researchers to return distilling to what they see as its locally grounded. Spirits with a sense of place can be made by cultivating regionally specific varieties, along with farming and distilling techniques that emphasize a spirit’s local flavor. But this idea goes well beyond flavor.

Something craft distilleries have done, whether intentional or not, is to tap into or create a sense of history and, in some cases, a sense of mystery. Lifestyle and connectedness have a great impact on consumer behavior and brand preferences. Very often, we choose brands that are considered “appropriate” for our self-image, that fit within a specific context/mood, or are representational of an idea. As a result, we use brands as a relevant means of self-expression and drama. They are “beacons”. Identifying the contexts in which a brand finds life and meaning establishes a sense of connectedness. Tying it to a sense of place and time creates a story that we can immerse ourselves in. For any brand, that crafting of the story can have a huge impact on its longevity and relevance.

We identify and find purpose through the symbols we adorn ourselves with. Those symbols take on the shape of brands, which is probably why a wider variety of cultural expressions among brands can close the gap between the individual self and the commercial self.

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Beer, Brands, and Identity

Drinking alcohol seems to be one of the few things humans nearly everywhere do. Beer in particular has long been a part of human history and people have enjoyed raising a pint with friends since well before, well, pints were a thing. By 4000 BC the Sumerians were fermenting a form of bread to make a fermented pulp which had a “divine drink” By 3000 BC the Babylonians had up to 20 different types of beer. Beer is the foundation of civilization. But how do we go about choosing what to drink and where? What senses are drawn on to decipher what flows from that stein of beer? And does it matter if that beer is delivered in bottles, cans, or some other vessel?

While not actually being the easiest alcoholic beverage to produce (that distinction most likely goes to wine or mead), beer is considered to be a staple of many a diet. Over the course of human history the choices were largely dictated by the means of production – you drank the local brew because of availability, or, once mass production had nearly crush the independent brewery you drank what you were told to drink between episodes of Gun Smoke and the ball game. But today people have an incredibly wide range of choices available to them. Particularly, there has been an explosion in the number of “craft beers.” Within the U.S., the craft beer industry has grown considerably over the last decade, accounting for over 24% of all beers sales in 2017. So what’s the driving our choices and how can we apply those same principles to other food products?

Physicality

A central element in driving beer choice is “sensorial’, meaning it has qualities, whether the product itself or its packaging, that provokes our tastes and catches our eye. In other words, it stands out from the rest of the pack because it tantalizes our senses. Craft beer does this, in part, with considerably higher quality ingredients being used in the brewing process. Recipes are more elaborate and produce distinct flavors. Craft drinkers know they’re looking for something identifiable rather than something that appeals to the masses. Domestic beers is “watered down”, “flavorless”, “bland”. Craft beer, on the other hand, engages more of the senses. Enter the label, the bottle, the website. They serve to establish a particular flavor, lifestyle, to situate the product within a given community context. The packaging and display of the beer enhance the sensory experience, giving it a life of its own, a sense of identity. So beer is more than the taste, it’s the presentation, as well.

Making It MeanIngful

Food has symbolic meanings based on association with other meaningful experiences. An example of the symbolic meanings including food references can be found in many of our common expressions. Bread is a good example of the symbolism found in foods. When people sit together with friends at a meal they are said to break bread with one another. This expression symbolizes a setting where friends come together in a warm, inviting and jovial manner to eat. Bread has been called the staff of life – and as I alluded to before, bread is, in one sense, liquid bread. As much as taste and design impact the decisions we make about our beer, creating a sense of meaning is perhaps just as powerful. Food and drink, but especially beer, provide you with more than a taste experience. They are endowed with mystery, nostalgia, a sense of purpose. They provide the drinker with a sense of purpose.

Brand identity (and personal identity to a large degree) can be formed by the beers a brewery chooses to produce in relation to their definition of craftwork. Anchor Steam puts its history and dedication to the craft front and center in their identity through the connection to San Francisco and the tradition of “steam brewing”, as well as intentionally remaining relatively small. Boulevard Brewing out of Kansas City encourages their brewers in creative freedom, while Green Brewery creates all their beer while only using organic ingredientsAnd then there are those beers that are meant to inspire and encourage connection to a place. They create a sense of cultural connection by establishing a sense of imagined community. Most notably in the use of events by craft breweries to overlap the imagined communities of their own brewery with those of other businesses or breweries. Brooklyn Brewery ties one to a somewhat imagined sense of cultural unity with other Brooklyn Brewery drinkers. Lifting a bottle of Free State Ad Astra Ale connects people to Kansas and a bond between people over space and time.

And then there are those beers that are meant to inspire and encourage connection to a place. They create a sense of cultural connection by establishing a sense of imagined community. Most notably in the use of events by craft breweries to overlap the imagined communities of their own brewery with those of other businesses or breweries. Brooklyn Brewery ties one to a somewhat imagined sense of cultural unity with other Brooklyn Brewery drinkers. Lifting a bottle of Free State Ad Astra Ale connects people to Kansas and a bond between people over space and time.

But beyond the logo, the messaging, etc., many, if not most, of these breweries act. They have deep connections with their communities and facilitate a sense of betterment. Blue Brewery, for example, works closely with local charity organizations by giving them the proceeds from their monthly art shows. Free State helps support local organic farmers. Sun King sponsors events throughout the Indianapolis area, donating time and money to the efforts. They are all visible and engaged, helping establish themselves as anchors in the process of place-making.

Beyond Beer

So can it be done beyond beer? Do these same qualities apply to beef? Or milk? These are typically consumed away from the larger community, either alone, with family, or friends. They still fit into the complex symbolic exchange of sharing food, but they aren’t necessarily the types of food or drink you consume at a party, for instance. I would be inclined to say yes.
Personal and cultural connection to a place has a tremendous impact on the decisions we make about what we buy. Unless, of course, we’re talking about commodities. Whether that connection is to a direct cultural experience or to imagined community (e.g. a point in time, say, the late 1800s), the more connection you have to the product, the more likely you are to embrace it, to share it with likeminded individuals. If you’re from Maine, maple syrup has meaning. But if you’re from Maine, beef has meaning, too – it’s just that said beef may mean something representative of a bygone era to you. Regardless, the notion of craft factors in by establishing a strong set of feelings.

The feelings of both freedom and enslavement that mass production engenders appear to have been particularly invigorated in the wake of the economic crisis in the past several years. As opting out isn’t on the table for most, adapting within the system, personalization and localization, and efforts at self-sufficiency abound. That includes how we think about food. We’ve seen the explosion of trends such as the maker movement, the sharing economy and the associated decline in markets such as new car purchases, artisanal or slow-food cooking, and the success of marketplaces such Etsy, where at least if one isn’t quite ready for “doing handmade”, it’s easy to support the passion economy and gain something one-of-a-kind; revealing tensions towards mass production’s global reach and grip. It also creates a connection to something tangible. So too is it with how we construct meaning around our food. The more we can create a sense of connection and humanity with our food and drink, the more likely we are to create devotees.

Culturally speaking, in essence, what one eats defines who one is and is not. Eating is a daily reaffirmation of one’s cultural identity. Many people affiliate the foods from their culture, their childhood with warm, good feelings and memories. The food is part of who we are and become. It ties us to our families and holds a special worth to a person. Foods from our culture, from our family often become the comfort foods we seek as adults in times of frustration and stress. Be it beer, beef, or bread, tying what we consume to our personal identity and cultural context drives adoption.