Surveying the New Craft Beer Landscape
Surveying the New Craft Beer Landscape

Why being nice is more important than making good beer (but you have to do that, too).

There’s a story that the advertising world is trying to sell to beer drinkers, a tale of David and Goliath. On the one hand, you’ve got Goliath: the faceless corporate giants who mass-produce tasteless, watery beer by stuffing it with corn and rice and other things that make purists cringe. On the other hand, there’s David: the righteous little guys with an undying commitment to quality and flavor, who brew every batch by hand with a heart full of love, a bucket of rare hop varietals and a pinch of yeast extracted from the innards of the Great Pyramid. This story has mutated over time into more of a snobs vs. slobs narrative, with the majors taking pride in the fact that insufferable hipsters don’t like their product. But the split between cheap domestic beers and quality craft brews is the same.

The problem with this story is that it’s at least 20 years out of date, and more importantly, it bears no resemblance to how the most dedicated and active craft beer enthusiasts view the industry.

Cynical advertisers on both sides of the supposed divide find it to their benefit to perpetuate the lie. Large independents like Samuel Adams and Sierra Nevada—with their multiple production facilities, sizable marketing budgets and annual production numbers upwards of one million barrels—are straining against the upper limits of what could be considered craft brewing. Or more accurately, they’re actively working to raise those limits so that they can stay in the club. Meanwhile, giants like MillerCoors and Anheuser-Busch InBev are openly courting lovers of simple beer and hoping that the snobs won’t notice that they now own beloved “craft” brewers like Anchor, Goose Island, Ballast Point and Karbach.

If brands want to connect with American craft beer enthusiasts, they are going to have to understand what the market trends are that drive drinkers’ choices right now. Surprisingly, “making good beer” doesn’t appear to be the best way to attract the business of highly invested beer drinkers anymore. That doesn’t mean that they’ve all lost their sense of taste; it just means that the craft beer world offers such an embarrassment of riches that quality is no longer the best way to distinguish your brand. Here’s how you should go about building a devoted following:

Understand how enthusiasts define “craft.”

Craft beer used to be a nebulous category that conveyed both quality and independence, but increasingly it is defined almost exclusively by size, ownership and production conditions. The Brewers Association, a trade group that advances the interests of craft breweries, defines “craft” as:

  • Producing fewer than 6 million barrels of year annually
  • Less than 25 percent owned by “a beverage alcohol industry member which is not itself a craft brewer”
  • Utilizing flavors made from “traditional or innovative brewing ingredients and their fermentation”

That’s not to say that the BA’s definitions are stable or that they coincide exactly with what is in the minds of craft beer enthusiasts. Its criteria used to exclude “adjunct” grains like corn, rice or oats, which are now generally accepted as fair game for craft brewers; they also used to cap the production level at 2 million barrels. The primary reason for the higher cap was a desire to retain the Boston Beer Company, producer of Samuel Adams beers, as an official craft brewer despite its ballooning production level. It also gave breweries like Sierra Nevada and New Belgium the green light to ramp up their own production. One probably unintended result of these two changes was that the blue-collar East Coast stalwart Yuengling technically became the nation’s largest craft brewer. While the status of Samuel Adams as “craft” is ambiguous among conscious drinkers, it’s safe to say that few would ever have considered applying that term to the unpretentious Yuengling.

The purchase of many iconic craft breweries by giant corporations has led to a crisis within the craft beer community, as taste no longer serves to distinguish the independents from the majors. To inform drinkers, the Brewers Association introduced the independent craft brewer seal, an authorized indicator that the product is an authentic craft beer. “As of fall 2018, more than 3,700 craft brewing companies had adopted the seal — representing more than 80 percent of the volume of craft brewed beer,” reported the BA publication

Widespread use of the seal should go a long way toward informing beer drinkers about the craft status of the beer they’re drinking, and displaying it looks like an essential move for up-and-coming brewers. It’s too soon right now to predict whether the growing visibility of the true independents will counteract the tendency of successful brewers to sell out to the majors. It also remains to be seen whether enthusiasts will tolerate leaving all the power in the hands of the Brewers Association to decide what is and isn’t craft beer.



Fight craft beer’s image problem with an inclusive approach.

Recent years have seen a minor backlash against the craft beer community, focusing on the belief that enthusiasts are overwhelmingly straight white men with beards—and that, by extension, the market doesn’t have much to offer people who fall outside that demographic. Polling data does show that white people make up somewhere around four-fifths of the craft brew consumer population, while black drinkers make up less than four percent. The breakdown by gender isn’t quite so drastic, with women inching toward making up a third of craft brew drinkers. But these underrepresented demographics constitute a major untapped source of revenue for brewers—and for brands, they represent an image problem.

BrewDog USA CEO Tanisha Robinson is an unusual figure in the craft beer industry, a biracial lesbian Army veteran who has risen to prominence. She has distinguished herself by her commitment to various outreach initiatives, from recruiting black entrepreneurs to introducing more beginner-friendly beer recipes.

Robinson, who acknowledges that the beer industry is largely male and white, sees a “demographic opportunity” to draw in more women and people of color.

“If craft brewers could figure out how to authentically connect to women and people of color, they could sell a lot more beer,” she said. “That’s something that I highly doubt most craft brewers are talking about or thinking about, but it’s something that is important to me — that craft beer should be open and accessible and authentic and approachable for everyone.”

Where brewers tend to go wrong is by assuming that it’s possible to bring in the missing demographics by devising new beer recipes. The widely accepted common wisdom states that men like IPAs while women prefer fruity or spiced beers; why couldn’t we find the beer types that appeal to black or Hispanic consumers as well? But the truth is that we don’t have hard data on these supposed preferences, and there’s no reason to believe that offering different varieties will bring in drinkers who previously have shown little interest in beer. What beer do women like? “I’m going to be direct,” says marketing consultant Ginger Johnson. “It’s just as asinine as saying, ‘What kind of pasta do men like?’”

In fact, chasing women and minorities by offering beer styles that the brewer wouldn’t otherwise be interested in is a great way to undermine a brand’s reputation for quality and authenticity. There’s no reason for craft brewers to emulate MillerCoors’ Two Hats fiasco: new beers are best designed around time-tested recipes, not theoretical models pulled from market research. If you want to combat craft beer’s image problem and bring in new drinkers at the same time, a better bet is to strive for diversity among the people making the beer.

Leverage technology to build customer engagement.

Television advertising remains the traditional domain of the giant beer producers, and it’s rare to see craft brewers other than outlier Samuel Adams trying to beat them at their own game. Where smaller brands should look to connect with devoted customers is through social media and the popular beer apps that have appeared in recent years. Untappd and Barley give users the ability to log and review beers, as well as to receive special offers and learn what’s available at nearby watering holes. Reflecting what we’ve seen about the politics of the craft beer world, Craft Check offers to verify that a given beer is truly independent instead of a covert major.

Breweries frequently use platforms like Instagram and Yelp, along with the social functions of Untappd, to engage with customers. Even something as simple as offering a “Cheers!” to someone who checks in with one of your brand’s beers is a potentially effective way to establish a relationship. These conversations provide opportunities to explain a beer in greater detail than a label allows for and to recommend other offerings that a customer might enjoy.

Loyalty programs provide an enticing opportunity to court return customers and gather data about what fans of your brand enjoy, but they probably won’t be feasible in the near future. The patchwork of state and local blue laws, which often prohibit giving beer away for free or offering people incentives to drink, combine to keep such programs from being scalable. While waiting on legal reform, brewers should focus on opening lines of communication with customers and offering them new beer suggestions.

Collaboration is key.

Most craft breweries are strictly regional affairs without national distribution networks, and very few of them have the advertising budget to do much more than rent some billboard space. That’s why, for brands seeking exposure, collaboration tends to be the most low-cost and effective strategy for increasing name recognition.

One common approach is collaboration on a particular beer between two (or sometimes even three) breweries, which has the effect of theoretically multiplying each brand’s exposure and fostering a sense of fraternal camaraderie over competition. Brewers also find value in collaborating with the makers of key ingredients, either local (Prairie’s imperial stout Bomb! employs coffee from fellow Tulsa business Nordaggios Coffee) or long-distance (Detroit brewer Atwater makes a schwarzbier with coffee from Austin roaster Ruta Maya).

Some small breweries have even found collaboration to be a vehicle for tapping into the reach of larger advertising campaigns. Hudson, N.Y.-based Keegan Ales partnered with IHOP to produce IHOPS, a pumpkin spice pancake stout, while 2SP teamed up with convenience store chain Wawa to put out a winter coffee stout. The larger entities in these brand partnerships came away with credit for fostering community spirit and supporting beloved mom-and-pop businesses, while the breweries were given nationwide publicity they would otherwise have been unable to afford.

Nice guys finish first in this game.

As crowded as the craft beer market is, you might expect it to be increasingly competitive, with ruthless breweries buying up the brands that they can and driving the others out of business. But for the most part, this mentality hasn’t taken over the market yet—and the atmosphere of benevolence and fair play is a big part of what the most dedicated craft beer drinkers find so appealing. So brands who want to get ahead in this world shouldn’t be scared to:

  • Celebrate smallness and authenticity
  • Pursue diversity in your consumer base by fostering it in the workplace
  • Use apps and social media to engage with customers one-on-one
  • Rely on collaborations to expand your brand’s reach
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