Behind The Bar: Escaping the Blur

Chasing flavor-driven trends on retail shelves is certainly one way to pursue growth. Yet smaller breweries may find more success by recommitting to an identity grounded in intentional brewing.

Greg Engert Oct 5, 2023 - 7 min read

Behind The Bar: Escaping the Blur Primary Image

Photo: Matt Graves

My first draft of this column set out to analyze the ways that brewers could capitalize on the booming interest in “flavor-driven” beer. As sales of craft beer slow, producers are looking for new growth opportunities, and these kinds of offerings—think fruit, herb, and spice brews, often mimicking classic cocktails—seem right in line with the kinds of products that have kept many smaller brewers going, if not growing.

However, as I wrote, I began to think more deeply about how effective this strategy would be, and I ultimately changed course.

Flavor-driven beers are joining a lengthening list of drinks hell-bent on blurring the lines between wine, spirits, beer, cocktails, cider, soda, coffee, tea, and more. These flavored malt beverages (FMBs) have been working alongside ready-to-drink cocktails (RTDs) to dominate retail shelves, and with spirits finally overcoming beer in dollar sales, it’s no surprise that brewers are designing flavor-driven products to get in on the action. Yet the field is already extremely crowded, and it’s dominated by large producers nimble and efficient enough to get an ever-expanding array of inexpensive options to the (mostly retail) market. The shelves have become a blur of diverse, flavored beverages, beer-based or otherwise, each increasingly less interested in the classic beer flavors derived from grain, hops, water, and fermentation.

Could craft brewers keep up with their own entries into this category? Should they?


The Disconnect

I also started to think about the retail data for more traditional beer styles. Regional and national breweries have had success lately in packaging strong, often fruited beers and mixed packs and getting them onto store shelves. Could that be an option? Here, again, price points would be an issue for the smaller brewers, as well as gaining access to distribution and the retailers themselves—getting into convenience stores at competitive prices is tough without an economy of scale—but those fruited double IPAs and sour tripels must be onto something, right?

The issue here is what I’ve seen happening in the draft-beer segment, which remains by far the most profitable option for brewers and on-premise retailers, even if sales are down compared to pre-pandemic. Across all of our bars, breweries, and restaurants, I’m seeing very different data than what’s been reported in the off-premise. Drinkers are less and less interested in strong beers on draft, being far more enamored with IPA and lager over double IPA. They’re also eschewing the heavily fruited sours and dessert-adjacent stouts that were all the rage not so long ago. Even our sales of classic cask ales have increased, and those are mostly below 5 percent ABV.

Here’s a thought: Maybe the “if we can’t beat ’em, join ’em” mentality that has fueled so many hard seltzer, RTD, and cocktail or fruited beer releases may not be the way forward. I realize craft beer took off in the first place thanks to an array of full-flavored options that stood in stark contrast to ubiquitous macro lagers. Now, it seems, craft beer is being outflanked by a broader category of flavored concoctions. Maybe differentiation comes from slowing down the game and kegging (or even casking) more classic beer styles—those that deliver nuanced flavor diversity compared to the sweet, simple, and straightforward beverages designed to taste like something else. Notably, these styles also lend themselves to drinking more than one.

Intentional Brewing

At ChurchKey in Washington, D.C., I recently moderated a panel of some of my favorite brewers, and they helped to further crystallize this vision for the path forward. The goal was to discern just what drives these producers to work tirelessly in the name of craft beer. The turnout was exceptional—no doubt because of the breweries present, which included Georgia’s Good Word, Denver’s Bierstadt, Tennessee’s Blackberry Farm, New Jersey’s The Seed, and New Hampshire’s Schilling—but also because of the growing interest in purpose-driven brewing.

Beyond their commitment to what we often call classic styles, I was more specifically impressed by their concentration on technique and stripped-down, ingredient-driven brewing. Whether committed to classic lager production, cask ale, or saison, each brewer emphasized their hands-on obsession with intentionally tweaking a focused family of beers that serves to clearly define their identity as brewers. They’re also brewing more flagships with great success for both their breweries and their customers. Constant reinvention is tiring, particularly in a world where the interest in ticking and lining up for rare releases has fallen off a cliff.

These brewers are consumed by quality and consistency, traits born of staying small and touching each beer that goes into the tanks. They’re traveling for collabs and fests, reading and texting, and ultimately surrounding themselves with fellow brewers they admire—all in the name of learning and making better beer.

Surprisingly or not, they’ve also learned that their guests prefer these lower-ABV styles, especially from keg, and they push to serve draft beer as much as possible at their taprooms as well as at like-minded bars, restaurants, and festivals. Besides the profit margin and guest preference, this approach allows them to engage more directly with their customers, tell their stories, and turn drinkers on to what they love: delicate, nuanced beers that stand out to the growing group of drinkers who are experiencing increasing palate fatigue.

Brewers can maintain some semblance of growth by consistently chasing trends into territory that’s increasingly beyond beer. Or they can step back, take a deep breath, and lean into the kind of intentional brewing that helps create an unwavering identity. And this is as true for brewers steadfastly dedicated to hazy IPAs and fruited sours as it is for those perfecting classic styles.

Developing a clearly defined narrative and brewing program may not draw as many guests, but it will certainly draw them more regularly. Plenty of drinkers are excited to devote themselves to brewers with passion and integrity.

Greg Engert is beer director of the Neighborhood Restaurant Group, whose bars and restaurants include ChurchKey, Rustico, and the Bluejacket brewery, among others.