Craft beer is necessarily complicated. But keeping it simple, too, can drive success.
I went to a family wedding recently with most of my Millennial nieces and nephews in attendance. Every family seems to have “that uncle,” and in my family, that’s me. But I’m also looked up to as the guy who makes the big beer runs during our family beach house reunions. I’d like to think this impressive bunch of young adults admires my beer acumen. But realistically, I think they appreciate me more for paying for their beer than my particular selections.
As with any wedding, we had a lot of downtime spent in bars. My blog came up, and this led to discussions of what’s going on in craft beer. A theme repeated throughout the weekend was how complicated craft beer has become.
Sometime in the late 1970’s and 1980’s beer choices began to expand. I remember when Miller Lite first became a popular option at our college bars in the late 1970’s. Then imports took off. And in the last 1990’s, craft beer choices exploded. The complexity continues to grow at a staggering pace.
Is this seemingly unlimited choice good, or not? It depends.
For the craft beer enthusiast, who has a refined palate and acquired ability to tolerate bitter and sour beers, the sky may be the limit in terms of styles, flavors and intensity. Complexity and scarcity drives status for these drinkers. One’s “best beer ever” is hopefully the next beer.
For another group, I’ll first have to confess that, yes, I did once work on ZIMA. Lord have mercy. But that work helped me understand another important group of drinkers: the novelty junkies. These are fickle drinkers chasing the latest and greatest, and usually something sweet, often less bitter, and sometimes less overtly male. Wine coolers, ciders, flavored malt beverages and other “beer alternatives” have all had their day. Some of these novelty junkies do stick with the beer alternatives of their youth as they approach their mid to late thirties. But others keep rocking on to the next fad. Many novelty junkies have found a home in craft beer with its myriad of available choices. And they will be staying for some time.
Somewhere south of the refined craft beer enthusiasts and east of the fickle novelty junkies are solid craft beer drinkers who really enjoy a great beer, but live pleasure-filled lives of meaning and purpose outside of taprooms. They may enjoy their wine and spirits as well as craft beer, or they may be pretty loyal to beer, just not that fussy. And there are a lot of these solid but simple craft drinkers.
I see room for all three types of drinkers around the craft table. Certainly, innovation and complexity will delight the craft enthusiasts and novelty junkies. But let’s not forget those who are still exploring their way into craft, or who have been along since the beginning, but have never made craft beer an all-encompassing lifestyle.
Luckily, it’s not hard to please all three and keep peace in the taproom. Portfolio management is key.
For craft enthusiasts, new flavors, textures, aromas and classic food pairings will help delight their palates. As well, this will fill their minds with interesting stories to share, which is their nature. The innovation cycle for enthusiasts needs to have a lively but measured pace. Mistakes can be costly with this crowd.
For the novelty junkies, the more exotic the ingredients, process or pairings the better. The innovation cycle should be frenetic, and a few misses here and there are actually a badge of honor for valiant attempts that fall short. For this crowd, if you’re not missing every now and then, you’re not trying hard enough.
And then there is the steady, simpler crowd. They find comfort in your classic, less pretentious choices. They’re more comfortable having a beer they know they will enjoy than going too far out of bounds to try something completely new that might disappoint. Flagship brands are obviously critical to this group. Even going to the trouble to call them out in a familiar spot on the beer board helps. These don’t have to be light lagers by any means! But a solid stout, amber, wheat or pale ale will go a long way with this crowd. And if they can always find a favorite, they’ll put up with all the other complexity on the board. Over time, they may even dabble in it.
Chances are, in any larger group there are some of each of these types of drinkers. Recognizing this, you’ll want to be sure you have something for all three in your portfolio.
Keep it both complex and simple.
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