Readers of this column (and my father-in-law) regularly ask me if craft beer’s entrepreneurial spirit is dimming. Millions of dollars are spent annually tracking and predicting market trends and just about that many theories about craft beer abound. The shelves of aspiring CEOs are likely piled with management books lauding that similar snake oil. However, the simplicity that led to the rise of small and independent craft beer also holds its future: Behavior drives demand.
Craft beer’s market-busting rise followed rudimentary macroeconomic principals: supply and demand. It thrived for three decades in response (i.e. supply) to the quest (i.e. demand) of curious, discerning consumers who wanted more flavor, character, and life in a beer than what they tasted from the U.S. national brand beers during most of the 20th century.
Annual sales figures released by Boulder-based Brewers Association in December 2019 (derived principally from retail sales over wholesale and complete market sales) continue to reveal that small and independent craft beer is not in imminent danger. Nevertheless, it’s apparent that the consumer-facing nature of the industry is changing from a market segment perspective. Brand consolidation (e.g., Fort Collins’ New Belgium acquired by Kirin-owned Lion Little World Beverages) along with deeper corporate investment and shifting consumer trends (e.g., the “White Claw Effect”) have signaled market maturation.
There is no secret to preserving the market, but there are four demand-focused behaviors that local craft beer-lovers can adopt to make sure its culture remains vibrant:
- Find a drinking buddy. A 2015 study by the University of South Carolina’s Arnold School of Public Health on emotions and sensory experiences revealed we appreciate food and drink more when we are in good company. Parallel international studies on friendship also reveal that friends challenge us to see broader contexts and nuances, and thereby heighten our appreciation of food and drink. We simply taste beer more fully when it is part of an emotional experience. Evangelize and critique craft beer with friends — good friends and good beer taste better together.
- Escape the regular. The craft beer landscape appears to be narrowing as pioneers leverage successes and move on to new ventures, diluting competent brands from local markets (like Gunbarrel’s Vindication Brewing shuttering in 2018). As corporate trends drive segment-focused, bottom-line production philosophies, creative niche outlets like Erie’s Atom Brewing will become farther between. Seeking the crazy and small releases, though, and ordering off the taproom board rather than just the grocery store aisle will maintain that pure channel to true craft beer. Growth and the sustainable demand of craft beer lies in going beyond our comfort zone and flagship models.
- Take a class. In its commercial ascent, craft beer increased common market knowledge of brewing science and historic styles. Customers came to know local brewers and their practices, and brand or style loyalty became an informed, as much as a personal, decision. Craft beer drinkers are now smarter thanks to homebrew clubs and shops as well as higher-education programs that allow consumers to delve into brewing sciences. Take advantage of this bounty of knowledge by stepping into Longmont’s Bald Brewer, 651 8th Ave., and become a certified beer judge, or enroll in a brewing program at University of Northern Colorado or at Front Range Community College. Understanding the how and why behind what we enjoy helps keep us engaged and it drives demand.
- Discover your brewery’s story. Theodore Roosevelt is credited with saying, “people don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care,” which speaks as much to brand-retention as it does to brand-building. Patrons’ experiences are enhanced by knowing the stories behind their favorite local craft breweries. Drop by Longmont’s 300 Suns Brewing to find out why Dan and Jean Ditslear started the brewery, and their Rattlesnake Mountain Whiskey Sour Red Ale will taste brighter. Explore how Longmont’s Left Hand Brewing has anchored local craft brewing and has championed the community through the leadership of co-founder Eric Wallace and Chief Operating Officer Chris Lennart with local service organizations, and a new facet of Sawtooth Ale may come through. Behind Oskar Blues’ recent rebranding, there is also an organization that has created a specialty and high-quality hop pipeline for regional craft breweries. Understanding how good we have it and the motivations of the personalities who built the kingdoms we cherish will help keep the craft beer passion alive and vibrant.
Craft beer fans may have become complacent in recent decades as new breweries popped up weekly and fresh beer flooded the market. Steady maturation of the market, though, reminds us of the principals that elevated the beverage to commercial prominence and the values behind it. Craft beer anchors many communities and its future lies in our continued appreciation of those ties.