Bryan Roth, beer's Nate Silver, has applied some data journalism to the idea that rare beers dominate "best of" lists--and beer geeks' hearts. Riffing on that, he wondered about causality: do we just happen to like rare beers, or do we like them because they're rare?
"It’s a long-winded way of saying: we may be underestimating the power wielded by the growing number of one-off programs and specialty releases. Emphasized through last 2016’s collection of best beer, there should now be a growing expectation that the most celebrated beers are often going to be ones we can’t enjoy ourselves."Fair enough--there are scads of scientific studies out there showing how susceptible we are to influence when we think something's special. But what does this phenomenon look like when you flip it around and instead examine those large regional or national brands? Here, I would argue, is the real story. Within the craft segment (however you define it), there are emerging sub-segments. The vast majority of craft beer is still just a few brands--Lagunitas IPA, Sierra Nevada Pale, Sam Adams Boston Lager, Blue Moon and so on.
There are millions of barrels of interest in what beer geeks now deem boring beer. If a brewery wants to appeal to this, ahem, mass market within the craft segment, they can't hope to do it with a brett-aged saison. Indeed, the opposite is happening. As big money flows into the craft segment, it's looking to find stable, large chunks of customers for its products. Buoyed by Heineken money, Lagunitas shipped nearly a million barrels of beer in 2016, 60% of it IPA. Goose Island IPA is actually growing faster than Lagunitas IPA and poised to overtake it. Constellation is pushing tons of Ballast Point Sculpin in all the colors of the fruit bowl. None of these brands is younger than a decade old.
In order to capture that mass market, other breweries are far from "innovating." As one example, everyone is trying to recreate Sculpin's fruit-IPA success. Sierra Nevada has a fruit-infused pale and an IPA that tastes like fruit (Tropical Torpedo). Kona has a passionfruit, orange, and guava IPA. Dogfish Head has Flesh and Blood, a ... fruit IPA. Full Sail's got one with papaya just coming out. New Belgium has Citradelic. And on and on. (It's actually entertaining to visit the website of one of the larger craft breweries and see that they all have one.) Or take Firestone Walker, which scored an unexpected, massive hit with 805, a golden ale. Guess what style we're starting to see the big breweries brew now?
Of course, most of those breweries are also putting out the rare beers Bryan mentions. They have barrel programs or specialty lines, and they make the kinds of beers that make geeks' hearts sing. What this signals is that the market is in the midst of a stratification, and we're seeing breweries attend to both "specialty craft" and "mass market craft" sub-segments. (No doubt drinkers pass back and forth between the categories, as they do between craft and mass market lagers. These are not separate populations of drinkers, but they are separate sub-sectors.)
By chance, I was perusing this page by the consumer research company Mintel and discovered that they were already out in front of me. They distinguish between "true-craft" and "mass-craft." For the moment, they use the dichotomy to honor the Brewers Association's definition of "craft," but that is a dying (or perhaps dead) distinction. There is a real market difference, both in type and price, between the specialty and mass craft segments. And it is only going to widen. Once you introduce the idea of "mass-craft," there's no going back.
So to return to Bryan's thinking. What I'd say is that it's the upper end that's abandoning the aficionado. They're no longer competing to make the most distinctive, interesting beers for the large regional and national markets. They're looking to put out products that capture a large portion of the audience, for however long that beer can keep their attention. Beers like Citradelic and IPApaya were not designed to be workhorse brands that will take breweries into the next decade. They're quick, trendy, and disposable (and of course, occasionally very good). We fall in love with the rare beers because we're not meant to fall in love with these. They're like some of my filler blog posts.* A few clicks/bucks and everybody's happy. You'll know when I put out the good stuff.*
I have a hunch this will hasten the tide of rising cynicism among some beer drinkers, but it's not the breweries' fault; people are going crazy right now for fruit IPAs and golden ales, and so that's what they have to brew. I'm sure your local brewer would rather drink a saison, too, but there's just not enough interest to push one to a national market. Welcome to the era of mass-craft.
*Ha, ha, kidding. Of course none of my blog posts are filler. They're all carefully considered and reported and run through my team of editors.