Disturbing Trends in Craft Beer: Part I

Do you like to cook? I do. I like exploring new flavor combinations. I like the experience of turning raw ingredients into delicious meals. For some reason, I’ve recently been drawn to the flavor palate of the Near East. Dishes from Turkey and Morocco, using spices I really have to struggle to find, or sometimes have to make substitutes for. I’ll find a recipe online, try to imagine what it tastes like, source the ingredients and try my best to follow the instructions. Sometimes it turns out great the first time. Immediately, I’m impressed with what I’ve created and add it to “the list”: meals that I want to cook regularly for my family. Sometimes it doesn’t. When that happens, I think back to the process. Did I cook the chicken too long and it turned out dry? Did I not add enough salt? What about the sauce? Should I have used the food processor instead of the Vitamix to get the right consistency? I take notes, sometimes just mental, but still of how I could improve upon my execution to get a better result next time. Brewers used to be allowed to do the same.

The Age of One-Offs and Constant Innovation

There are now more than 7,000 breweries operating in the United States. There are another 1,000 or so applications on file for breweries in planning. However, there is still a fixed amount of grocery store shelf space, and the market segment of craft beer drinkers seems to have stabilized, if not shown signs of declining numbers. This means that more and more breweries are vying for the attention of a somewhat finite audience on a very finite number of shelves. The question becomes, how do you stand out?

The Craft Beer Consumer

Craft beer drinkers are notoriously promiscuous. In the old days, your grandfather was a “Bud Guy” or a “Miller Guy” or whatever regional specialty he liked. The same beer was in that man’s fridge every day of the year. Beer was a commodity like toilet paper. He found one he liked, and he kept buying it. He didn’t need to try them all. Craft beer drinkers are different. Craft beer drinkers want to try EVERYTHING! Look at Untappd. People earn awards based on how many different types of beers they try and even for trying more than one of a certain style. No one gets a prize for really loving Sierra Nevada Pale Ale (an excellent beer, BTW) and drinking it every day of their lives. So craft breweries have to give the customers what they want.

Who Wants To Drink the Same Beer All Season?

It started out harmlessly enough. A brewery would have a year round ‘flagship’ selection, beers that they had perfected through trial and error. Sometimes the process took years before a new product was added to the regular offerings. Along with these masterpieces came Seasonals. These beers were something fun and limited for consumers. Maybe a fruity wheat beer for Spring or Summer; perhaps an Oktoberfest lager or a pumpkin beer for Fall. How about something higher in ABV and a little darker for Winter? Each year, the same Seasonals were released. Maybe there would be a little recipe tweaking from batch to batch to make them more interesting, but it was essentially the same reliable selection. Then flagship sales started to fade. Somewhere around 2010, brewers began to realize that seasonal beer sales were dramatically outpacing the sales of the flagship beers they’d worked so hard to perfect. So brewers began offering more Seasonals. Why not split Summer into two seasons? After all, you might be in a different mood on Memorial Day than on Labor Day. Why not have a beer to highlight every special time of year?

One-Offs

One-off is a beer nerd term meaning that a brewery intended to make a recipe once and never again. The idea used to be that a One-off was a fun, and sometimes silly, experiment in flavor. “What would happen if I added vanilla and blueberry to my American Wheat Ale recipe? Would it taste like blueberry cobbler?” These innocuous experiments were typically served at a brewery’s tasting room, a few random kegs would be sent to select draft accounts, and only occasionally would they make their way into packaging. Then things changed. As brewers started to realize that Seasonal sales were the lifting tide for their businesses, more Seasonals had to be offered. The thought became, “Why have a Memorial Day release and a Labor Day release when you can produce a different beer every month?” Then, it got more intense. “Wait, my competitor is releasing a different beer every two weeks? They have a line around the block, full of people waiting to buy cans of the new beer, something they’ve never tasted to even know if they’d like? I should release something every week then! Then they’ll line up around my brewery, instead!” Then things really got out of hand. Instead of just packaged One-offs, which anybody on the street, or the internet, could buy, there became taproom only One-off selections: extra special One-offs that could only be consumed at the brewery’s tasting room. More and more of the flagship beers saw declining on-premise sales. Why would you go to the brewery to drink the beer you could get at the gas station? Why not drink the super rare stuff? Tasting room sales are where breweries typically earn the highest profits and are testing grounds to chart consumer preferences. If it’s not selling at your brewery, you probably won’t continue to make a whole lot of it, right?

Self-Fulfilling Prophecy

And here we are. Breweries are constantly working to release a new beer every week, if not more than one. They are competing with one another for their share of an ever more fickle craft beer demographic. And the worst part is that they aren’t allowing themselves to get better at making their beers. There is no time to perfect a recipe when it’s a different one every week. Brewers aren’t given the chance to taste a beer and say, “Hmmm…maybe I could adjust the hop additions next time. Maybe I could have chosen a different yeast strain for this. Maybe the fruit (or coffee or chocolate or pineapple upside down cake or chicken noodle soup or whatever other weird ass ingredient they thought would garner attention on Instagram that week) addition was too high on this. I bet it’d taste better if I dialed it back next time.” Instead, it is a forced trajectory of constantly innovating and never refining. With that, the inevitable end is that beer quality suffers. Consumers become frustrated that when they buy new beers, they don’t taste like they said they would on the package. “You know, the coffee is coming through on this, but not the hazelnut, and I don’t really get the Everything bagel with lox that they said I’d get on the label. This brewery sucks!” If that happens to enough people enough times, their attentions get pulled in other directions. It’s not a great path forward for craft beer. Wine producers strive to make essentially the same products year after year. Through cultivation, fermentation, and blending, the products are slightly different, but more or less the same over time. You don’t see a lot of wineries adding Fruity Pebbles cereal to their Merlot to get the jump on the producer down the valley. It’s through refinement and perfection that they define their brands. That’s how the craft beer industry found its success fifteen years ago. My hope is that we’ll find it again. Anyway, enough on this topic for now. I’m probably over marinating my Aleppo spiced chicken.

If you’d like to talk more or enjoy some great beer (and yes, one-offs, too), join me on a brewery tour!