10 Aug 2009 @ 8:28 AM 

For anybody close to the industry, it seems like craft beer is doing great. It is! The craft beer industry has seen amazing, even phenomenal, amounts of growth over the past decade. It is, however, still struggling to reach 10% of the U.S. market. It’s easy to throw percentages around, though. So, instead, let’s use some numbers that are impossible to imagine. There are (using really rough math through all of this) 200 million adults of drinking age in the U.S.. If ALL of them drank beer (which they don’t), 20 million would drink craft beer. 180 million would not. Of course, not all 200 million adults of drinking age drink beer. Let’s say that half do. So we’re down to 10 million (ish) craft beer drinkers. And 190 million (ish) non-craft beer drinkers. Yikes! There’s still a ways to go.

Personally, I think this is great news. It’s gonna be a whole lot of fun getting all those people to drink craft beer.

Unfortunately, young as it is, the craft beer industry can tend to act a lot like a well-established industry. We like to fool ourselves. It has a lot to do with the fact that craft beer’s largest competitors are well-established, and even centuries-old, industries. There’s also the fact that craft beer people tend to spend a lot of time with other craft beer people. We like good beer, so we spend time seeking it out. Spend some time traveling around the country, though. There are pockets where excellent beer selection is readily available, but that 10%/90% divide becomes all too apparent when your travels take you outside of those pockets.

In the meantime, the craft beer industry seems to spends a lot of time making itself more and more inaccessible to the other 90%. High-gravity, extreme beers are great, but they’re not the kind of beer that a novice craft beer drinker will fall all over him/herself to seek out. More often than not, those can be very intimidating. When you’ve been spending $6 on a 30-pack of Busch Light, how likely are you to turn around and spend $15 on one bottle of Oak-Aged Chocolate Bourbon Stout with Cherries and Jalapenos? Those are great for the craft beer elite (send some to me, please), but the other 190 million people out there will be seeking something else before they make those steps.

Cool – this isn’t about a column about not making crazy beers. Make them. I want you to. Hell, I want to make crazy beers, myself.

In fact, the craft beer industry spends a lot of time making those not-crazy beers, but because they’re not crazy, they tend to get glossed over. We don’t know as much about what’s in the beer. Aside from specific hops and grain, “Oak-Aged Chocolate Bourbon Stout with Cherries and Jalapenos” gives me a rather evocative idea about what’s going to be going on inside the bottle. However, the same brewery might make “Spring ESB.” Because I am an enormous beer geek, I know – in a basic sense – what’s in that bottle. But a lot of people don’t and even I’m going to be making a guess based on style guidelines and what I know about the brewery.

This column is about telling me what’s in those beers. Let’s imagine a scenario for 190 million people and what happens when they pick up a craft beer for the first few times:

They take a sip, probably from the bottle. The flavor hits, maybe they get a whiff of aromas. It’s a mouth-filling, wonderful experience. They say the magic phrase, “I didn’t think beer could taste like that!”* They look in wonder at the bottle, remember the name of the beer, and probably the name of the brewery. They might have a few more. Maybe they’re still having a hard time getting over the bitterness, or the alcoholic strength, or the roasty flavors. It’s all so different than the fizzy yellow stuff they had before.

Later on, they try another one. Probably the same brewery, different beer. I mean you have to try something else. This one tastes awful. So bitter and astringent! Or maybe it’s WAY too sweet! Ugh! I thought I liked this stuff! Was it just that one?

Maybe they try another of the same type of beer by a different brewery and – yeesh – this one is incredibly different, too! How can these two beers be the same style?! Where’s the consistency?

To be fair – this is conjecture and hyperbole, but here’s my point:

One of the great things about beer is that two beers of the same style can be so radically different. The craft beer elite – we know this. Most of the people who have come to craft beer so far are huge freakin’ nerds. I know. I am one. They are quirky and odd and smart and crave knowledge in a way that a lot of beer drinkers in the country do not. We want to seek out as much information as we can about our product and we want variety. They want to know that the product has consistency and value.

There’s a reason that McDonald’s is so popular. Consistency and value. Think about it. Those are the people you have to reach to find a significant foothold in the market.

Over and over again at the CBC this year, I heard: Education. It’s the path to customer retention, someone said. It’s how to get women to drink beer, someone else said. It’s how you convert people to drinking craft beer, another person said. Education is key. Hear, freakin’ hear.

I think that craft beer needs a way to help people become beer geeks. I believe the first step is a voluntary labeling standard to tell people what is inside their beer. A lot of breweries already try to do it by putting wordy descriptions on their bottles. “This dark ale has notes of chocolate, coffee, caramel, and strong hints of toast.”** Great start. This kind of stuff is necessary. Wine does it, so we need to as well. But I think we need more. We need to revel in the fact that there is such a wide range of ingredients available to us and help people figure out what they taste like.

A rough first draft:

What makes my Irish Red great.

Some breweries – Rogue comes to mind – already indulge in some aspect of this level of labeling, and it’s fantastic. Once you know what’s in the beer that you like, you can start finding other beers with similar ingredients and trying them – or avoiding them.

It took me years to figure out that I don’t like Anchor Steam because I don’t like Northern Brewer hops. With consistent ingredient labeling I might have found this out earlier, and while Anchor would have lost a couple of purchases off of me for that, I might have realized earlier that it was Anchor Steam that I didn’t like, not Anchor Brewery, and gotten a couple of more while I tried different products.

When a brewery does something like this, they’re showing their customers that they have nothing to hide. No crazy adjuncts – or exactly what those crazy adjuncts are. No secrets. The things on this list are what makes your beer great. I’m not saying to put the full proportions of your grain bill or your hop schedule on there. You’ll note that I very specifically left yeast off the list. Don’t give it all away, but for the love of god, give as much as you can. Help people to enjoy your beer. On any given day I would rather drink a beer that listed, ‘black malt, roasted barley, Carafa, and Biscuit Malt” than “Made with four types of dark grain.”

Why not say what’s inside? Afraid people won’t understand it? They won’t if you don’t let them.

This is not a magic bullet that will make people love and understand beer. There isn’t one. But this is at least a small step in the right direction. Start here. Let people be the beer geeks that they want to be, and grow from there.

* – The very fact that the craft beer industry still goes ga-ga over this phrase is proof that the industry is still very young, small, and has a long way to go.

** – Toast is my favorite descriptor for beer. I think I have a really good palate. I can taste all kinds of things in beer that I can pull out and describe to others in a wide vocabulary, but I have never had anything in a beer that has remotely reminded me of toast. Maybe I eat the wrong kind of toast.

Posted By: erik
Last Edit: 10 Aug 2009 @ 08:31 AM



Responses to this post » (5 Total)

  1. meg says:

    I love the six-packs that actually tell me something about the beer inside. Though usually they’re kind of out there, and I’m one of your novice craft beer drinkers who likes beer to taste like… beer.

    Here’s what I really want (lately) – something like Piece Brewery’s Worryin’ Ale. The web site just says it’s “Rye Beer.” The menu said it was a “medium bodied moderately hopped English style ale”

    I keep looking for a beer (one that I can obtain locally) that says anything like that, and I always come up empty, alas!

  2. erik says:

    Wow, Meg. You’re like the perfect test case for my idea.

    On top of that, I wish I had a recommendation for you.

  3. frzz says:

    As a vegan, I wish the labels on beers had a much more informative ingredient list. “Natural flavors” is not very descriptive. It sucks having to email/write the breweries and then take their word that there is no isinglass, honey, gelatin or dairy derived lactic acid, etc.

    I also like being a beer nerd, and my tastes are weird. not jalapeno/chocolate weird, but…

    • Nick says:

      Yeah Mike, it’s really too bad that they had to ccanel it. Oh well. I’m definitely looking forward to Wednesday evening. Have fun at your beer dinner! (Don’t worry, I didn’t think you were rubbing it in.) Thanks for the comment!Nick

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