In my last column, I urged the expansion of experiential offerings at taprooms, brewpubs, beer bars, and retail shops across the country.
Pandemic-related shifts in consumer behavior, coupled with increased competition for guest dollars, have made it necessary for everyone in the hospitality industry to reconsider the experiences they provide. From focusing on innovative events and activities to booking private parties and collaborating with competitors, everything is on the table to broaden our audience and encourage repeat visits from guests new and old.
Consumer research supports the need for such shifts in focus. Survey after survey tells us that younger drinkers are less committed to craft beer than they once were. Because many of them also enjoy RTDs, hard seltzers, kombuchas, and mixed drinks, brewers are deepening their on-premise offerings while simultaneously brewing intensely flavored ales that mimic the character of these other beverages.
Patios are expanding as quickly as food offerings; games are being packed into all spaces; and atmosphere—from music to décor—has become increasingly important. Our taprooms, bars, and beer gardens are becoming more comprehensive, even if they are doing so rather uniformly.
As more businesses adjust their offering to attract new guests, craft beer’s role continues to transform. Where it once stood out as the main attraction, it now often finds itself accompanying a wider range of on-site experiences. The guest who once lined up to tick off rare and obscure beers now moves from local brew to hard seltzer with each successive round of cornhole.
While this on-premise evolution has been essential to keeping craft beer relevant, I worry that the pendulum has swung too far away from the liquid itself. With more than 9,000 breweries in operation—and some manner of craft beer on every menu and retail shelf—the idea of singular, special, and memorable craft beer is in danger of being lost.
For those brewers who seek to balance high-quality beer offerings with exciting activities—a marketing word for those experiences that attract people to your brand—new opportunities to garner the guests’ attention await.
Think Bigger, Think Better
The craft-beer movement began as an effort to emphasize what was in the glass. In contrast to the heavily marketed—and highly profitable—commodity lagers that dominated American drinking, craft differentiated itself by being unusual, distinctive, and surprising. The superiority of the flavor experience—along with the engrossing narratives of style, method, and the brewers themselves—distinguished this new beverage from its diluted forebears.
In contrast to today’s market, the barriers to entry were stark, and we first had to introduce consumers to craft beer before they could be convinced of its value proposition. As brewers honed their craft, communicating insights on process among themselves and steadily increasing quality, they engaged a bourgeoning cadre of beer writers, judges, festival organizers, and buyers to help them tell their stories. Little by little, the narratives got out, building a community of interest around this fledgling beverage.
Eventually, the commitment to quality and relentless effort paid off. Distributors, retailers, and publicans became committed to craft beer, and guests flocked to taprooms, beer shops, and bars. Competition increased quickly, with brewers vying for public attention via rating sites, competition awards, critical reception, and word-of-mouth hype. Beer lines began to grow, and trading picked up, yet concerns about quality and the direction of craft beer were growing.
Before long, it seemed as if there were a taproom, bottle shop, beer bar, or brewpub on just about every corner. Craft beer succeeded in presenting itself as the full-flavored alternative to industrial lager, but its ubiquity stunted its growth. “Craft” became synonymous with quality for many drinkers, but—with profits rolling in—fewer brewers were consumed with the kind of disciplined commitment to improving quality that had launched the movement in the first place.
Too often today, brewers don’t see beyond their taprooms. They’re satisfied with the business that’s born of a general interest in local beer combined with the broad appeal of the barroom experience. With competition showing no signs of slowing down—and a drinking public consistently wooed by alternative beverages—now is the time to recommit to the beers themselves, to recommit to purposeful brewing.
Brewing with Purpose
Purposeful brewing means genuinely considering the craft of each and every beer that goes into the tank. This begins with the genesis of the beer choice, recipe, and flavor intentions, and it continues through the brewing of the beer itself. The narrative that develops around a beer should include a list of comparable stylistic influences, and an explanation of how tasting through those offerings has affected the current approach. Hit the books to research classic examples, reach out to fellow brewers for advice—whether through the fellowship of fests and collabs or just by dropping by your neighbor’s facility. Broadly, engage with the community of like-minded brewers committed to executing a vision through beer.
The very best beers are those that are tweaked with each re-brew, produced by brewers who constantly taste and consider their offerings. An in-house sensory panel can aid that evaluation (see “How to Start Up Your Sensory Panel”. Sending beers out for feedback to journalists, along with magazines, judging panels, competitions, and beer buyers, will expand the ability to make even more consistent improvements. Always be willing to dump beers that don’t make the cut. (The very best brewers dump more beer than you’d expect.)
Being thoughtful about beer also means educating staff and guests alike. Early on, education was the means by which craft beer became accepted, but increased market share has diminished the educational requirements. By hosting tastings and panel discussions, and by stocking the shelves with a wide array of beer books and periodicals, we can add further depth to the experience of enjoying distinctive ales and lagers.
It’s About the Beer
The craft-beer industry ascended by appealing to a broad number of consumers—first, by offering a flavor-driven alternative to industrial options and then by rounding out the on-site offering to attract and maintain guest interest.
Let’s continue to engage with a wider audience by expanding the on-premise experience while also doubling down on the liquid that started this whole thing off in the first place. Let’s push beer forward again, and let’s remind drinkers of the craft and dedication required to produce world-class beverages.