Good Beer Hunting

Fervent Few

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We love drinking beers! And we especially love trying new beers. But has the constant pursuit of the novel set craft beer on a path it can never turn back from? This week, we asked members of the Fervent Few where they stand. Is it time to find a few favorites and stick with them, or should we, as beer drinkers, constantly change what’s in our rotations?

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C. Sean West: “The chase for the new is what drives my travel and sometimes my bottle-shop purchases. A good local is more about community, ambiance, and what you are stuck with if you are lucky enough to have one—not everyone lives in a large city. I’ve been to breweries that thrive on trends and breweries that have told me their customers would be pissed if they didn’t have their favorite beer on tap. I believe there will continue to be a market for both.”

Arvo: “Trying something new and exploring what’s out there is the reason I liked the microbrewery (now craft beer) movement in the first place. It was about not having the same simple (only) choice every time but trying new and possibly more exciting things.

Technology is who I blame as I shake my fist at the kids on my lawn. People go for what’s popular to look like they aren’t missing out. Now it’s more about how many have you had and not what did you really enjoy. If you can’t remember the last time you finished a pint of beer and couldn’t wait to order another of the same...then you’re doing it wrong.

Finding what’s new is important, but not as key to the success of this industry as finding what’s good. Too many people take new or local to mean good. Instead we need to be searching for quality.

I can’t even imagine trying to be a brand-new brewery and deciding what to focus on. It could be an overnight success or a long, uphill battle of education.”

Lana Svitankova: “There'll always be more traditionalists than explorers. I'm pretty much sure that flagship beers are doing well in a huge number of localities, cities, towns, and countries in general. People really stick to their favorites. So I don't think that a brewery with a small but solid (and quality!) core range and regular new releases will be in danger. I personally always search for new things when I travel, but it's mostly because everything is new in new places, and I'll go for unexplored local beers and not for international options like Mikkeller or BrewDog. Most of the time, my choice is split between new arrivals (mostly Ukrainian breweries, on tap) and ones that I enjoy, and have enjoyed, for a long time (local Gose, St. Bernardus, Orval, Boon, Leann Follain, etc.). The mix is like 50/50.

Chasing the new has one really big downside: if you really liked something, you'll probably never get it again if it was a one-time brew. Sometimes it really drives me mad.”

Rob Steuart: “Although I think there is a segment of drinkers that is constantly chasing new things or ‘stamp collecting,’ there is still a desire amongst consumers for consistency within a portfolio. Consistency might be the ability to go back to an extremely drinkable staple from a brewery (or a brewer’s specialization in a specific beer style) so that you know every time you pick up an IPA or Pils from that brewery, it will be banging. I've spoken to a few local brewers about this recently, and while they still like making interesting new beers, they also still enjoy the craft of brewing the same cracking beer time and again, and always hitting that mark.”

Colleen O’Sullivan: “It's a hard line to walk. I came of beer appreciation age in Bend, OR in the noughties. Everything was an old, established style but new-world, developing over many years. Now in London for eight years, I feel like all the ‘maturation’ or development is hyper-paced. And I don't think it's good for breweries to be expanding in every which way, as we will inevitably find retrenchment. Last summer there was barely time to breathe as a consumer in the UK market, in terms of the plethora of beer experimentations. I tried to keep up, but it was too exhausting. And six months later I find myself buying more of the beers I know I love than the new, experimental ones.”

Miles Liebtag: “I’ll say for my part that I find the whole thing more and more exhausting. Typically I won’t even consider buying a brand-new beer in package unless it comes highly recommended by people I trust (that is, not CHUDs on Untappd). I still try to see this industry every day from a consumer perspective first, and unless you live in the craft beer space (as basically everyone reading this does), I think it’s become overwhelming and alienating to the mass of novices and casual drinkers. There’s just too much—too many brands, too many re-brands, too many new releases, too much old beer, too much poor-quality product. I don’t need to try the latest fruited Platform ‘Gose’ to know that it’s disgusting—but I come from a perspective of privilege and experience, and I think there’s a limited cohort of consumers willing to make that $11 a six-pack gamble.

Another part of the reason breweries like that depend so highly on constant new releases is the vicious ephemerality of the sales cycle: you can weekly sell a sixth barrel or a few cases of just about anything—literally anything—if it’s local and new. That’s the primary function of lots and lots of beer reps today: show up every week to tell the buyer what’s new, put ’em down for a couple units, on to the next one. Is this what your everyday consumer wants? Certainly some of them. Is playing that game long-term going to net new craft drinkers or win people away from wine and cocktails? I’m highly skeptical.”

James Hernandez: “I get why breweries do this and I’m cool with it. I will more than likely try it on tap then decide to purchase if I really like it. On the distro side, weekly releases are usually a nightmare to get going, time-wise. I’m all for these releases to stay/sell out of taprooms. I personally won’t travel too far for releases, but if something is or should be great it’s never out of the question. Only bad thing about constant releases is that it keeps some of these shitty Facebook groups in business.”

Austin L. Ray: “It's such a tricky thing. I understand why breweries feel compelled to make new stuff all the time (innovation/creation is exciting and people want to try fresh selections/styles), but it bums me out when that constant chase comes at the expense of their ‘hits,’ so to speak. I'm not about to go all #FlagshipFriday on y'all, but as others have mentioned on here previously, chasing after trends can sometimes lead to some pretty bad beer that shouldn't have been made. And I do find myself (maybe because I'm getting older) turning to old standbys that I know won't let me down instead of trying an unproven thing in more instances lately. The only thing I'm 100% certain of is that I'm glad I don't own a brewery right now, sheesh!”

Jason Dickinson: “I have a theory that over time craft beer consumers will get burned out with playing the ‘what's new’ game, and will default to trusted brands whenever the situation calls for it. I'm actually betting on this in the retail company I work for. I have a list of about 8-10 regional breweries that I am dedicating the shelf space to, in order to maintain their entire core lines and most seasonals year-round. Once a quarter, we pick one regional brewery to feature and ensure their entire line-up is both cold-stored and on the shelf for that quarter. We also try to work in at least one tap event and maintain at least one draft line dedicated to that company (usually two lines).

I choose those 8-10 breweries based on their distribution reliability, and a diverse style portfolio. I still have plenty of the ‘what's new’ beer, but I think we are hurting the craft ecosystem if we don't have quality, transitional beers, properly stored for new craft beer drinkers. Those transitional beers are also the ones people will most likely come back to when they want something that is familiar and high-quality. This forces me to make tough decisions about adding new breweries, because it is a zero-sum game on the shelf and in the cooler. It hurts when I have to say no to a really cool, one-off beer, because I am supporting Sierra Nevada Pale Ale or Allagash White instead. I also say no to seasonal creep. I will buy package beer once it goes to market, but I won't put an Oktoberfest beer on draft until they kick it off in Munich, for example.”

Mark Twig: “I feel that because we are in such a renaissance of beer, things will settle down in a couple of decades or so. But at the moment there are such incredible discoveries and evolutions within the realms of flavor, ingredients, terroir, and beer.

I want to experience every last drop of this amazing time. Yeah, the dust will settle. Styles will retract based on what we are experiencing and what is being influenced (positively and otherwise). I’d love to be one little piece in the shaping of that future jigsaw. God bless this possible golden age of beer and well-being amidst a shit age of a few other things.”

Tyler W. Plourd: “I think many consumers have been burned by the toss-up of buying the newest hazy IPA for $18/four-pack and not getting a quality product. Overall, I don't think this makes a dent in the relentless, one-off business models that we now see in the marketplace, but it does show a small crack in the ice.

The looming ‘bubble’ that everyone continues to forecast will occur, it will pop, and like most things, the best quality beers/breweries will stick around. The newest, latest-and-greatest model works really well when done correctly, but the longevity and pace don't scream ‘dependable.’

What happens when your normal 120-case run that almost always sells out every weekend only sells 75 cases, and then 50? Maybe not in a week-to-week sample size, but a bit more drawn out? Personally, if my brewery was built on this model, I wouldn't sleep a comfortable wink. There's a sweet spot: ideally you'd have a >50% portfolio anchor to keep the lights on while you experiment. Meanwhile, WeldWerks pumped out over 100 new recipes this past year. I don't think it will doom craft beer, but I can tell you there are certainly some very very fatigued brewery owners out there.”

Bobby Fitzgerald: “I don’t think it dooms craft beer. Craft beer is still growing and it’s not going away. It possibly can doom some folks in each tier, who refuse to meet market demand. In the end people will buy from trusted suppliers and retailers who provide consistent quality at a value with good service. Plain and simple.

Even when Sierra Nevada Pale Ale dips, people support their hazy IPA. Small brewers use innovation and agility to their strategic advantage against big craft and multinational brands. We know what we are doing to capture attention with our customers despite its difficulty.

It is hard as a brewer to execute new styles every week. And if you are making an average hazy IPA because your Amber is not selling anymore, then you have bigger problems. Hopefully consumers will see the inherent problems they create for breweries and will be sympathetic or learn to make it more of a conversation between supplier and customer, just like your local butcher or barista, vs. an Untappd check-in based off a 3-oz. taste. Customers should reward brands that take big risks for them, and provide constructive feedback on both old and new brands.

Just know that the market and the experience of beer are evolving, and the leaving-behind of past habits is not the same as a doomsday scenario.”

Rob Cartwright: “Doomed it? I’d say it’s what’s made (and will continue to make) it the vibrant industry that it is today. Innovation so rarely comes from the big players. That’s not a knock on the large brewers—their organizational structures simply aren’t built for it. If consumers are looking for something new, smaller breweries are where to find it.

Does some questionable beer get made along the way? Of course. Am I thankful that my job doesn’t involve developing new recipes and coordinating release schedules? You betcha. But, as an industry, the combination of agility and close proximity to the consumer creates a competitive advantage the big guys simply can’t replicate.”

Would you rather keep buying a brewery’s flagship beer, or do you want to buy a new beer from them every week? Join the Fervent Few and let us know which side you’re on!

Hosted by Jim Plachy