Good Beer Hunting

Independent Thinkers — Craft Beer Waits for More Consumers to Join its Movement


How do you measure the success of a political movement? Usually it’s votes, and presumably victories. The shared goal isn’t always reliant on a quantitative result, but it sure is helpful when there is one.

In the roughly 600 days since the Brewers Association launched its independent craft brewer seal to “minimize confusion in the marketplace” with who fits the organization’s “small and independent” definition (which is, of course, a moving target), there have been plenty of numbers to highlight the effort’s growth. More than 4,000 breweries have adopted the seal, though it’s unclear how or whether it’s been used. For example, 43 of the top 50 largest BA craft breweries have signed a pledge to use it, but only 30 have added it to packaging.

Additionally, a fall 2018 survey which specifically asked, “If you saw this logo on beer how much, if at all, would it affect your likelihood of purchasing the beer?” earned a 40% positive response rate, a 5% increase from 2017. Answers, however, came from about 2,700 self-identified “craft beer” respondents. This change came on the heels of a a 2017 survey by Brewbound and Nielsen that showed 81% of “craft beer consumers were familiar” with phrases of “independent” and “independently owned” in relation to beer, but not that they preferred those words to define the business or beer they choose.

The linchpin of today’s Craft vs. The World argument has become one of independence. Breweries and supporters alike now have literal badges of honor to show their dedication to the cause, a proud display against multinational conglomerates trying to capture the attention of a populace with dwindling attention for beer.

And there are certainly raw numbers to celebrate—metaphorical votes being cast in favor of “small and independent,” as it were. But when it comes to victories, it’s still about as hazy as a New England IPA. All these figures showcasing businesses and drinkers identifying independence as a signifier for their purchase decision are still flailing a bit when considering the one key qualifier among it all: we keep talking about this movement almost entirely from the perspective of craft beer fans.

The closest we’ve come to an “aha” moment in connecting buying behaviors and preferences toward ideas of independence is in a newly published paper in the Journal of Wine Economics. In “Drink Beer for Science: An Experiment on Consumer Preferences for Local Craft Beer,” UC-Davis PhD student Jarrett Hart collected responses from 301 participants to determine a consumer’s willingness to pay for beer if it’s local and/or independently produced. Results showed interest toward these attributes, but with strong caveats, and almost entirely skewed toward craft beer consumers.

Of his data set, almost two-thirds said craft beer is “most” or “all” of their beer purchases. When factoring in participants who also buy craft “about half” the time, 259 of the 301 respondents could be considered active craft consumers. Hart purposefully left it to them to define what a “craft brewer” was, which was key for the unique data collected. In modeling the results, he found that, regardless of a person's knowledge about beer, an interest in "local" was constant. When it came to independence, however, “that comes into play for people based on their knowledge of craft beer,” he says. “The people who know a lot about craft beer care about [a brewery] being certified craft beer, where the average consumer might not care at all.”

This led to two important results: When someone had a preferred style, say they liked IPAs, there was no premium for locally-made beer. But when considering something outside that favorite style, if offered an Amber, locality earned significant value. In terms of spending habits, that means results showed a drinker wouldn’t want to pay more for that IPA whether it was made down the street or across the country, but for an unknown or unappreciated Amber, proximity mattered.

“I’d hypothesize when venturing out of a preferred style, and they see two beers on tap and one is a local brewery they know and trust, they prefer that beer and are willing to pay more because of that knowledge,” Hart says.

The trouble with that was determining what “local” meant. For his study, consumers identified their own definition of local, “not what is geographically local to the place where the experiment is carried out,” he writes in his paper, adding that “participants identified beers from across the country and even internationally as being local.” Regardless of what the actual mileage was from Davis, CA, the value placed on “local” and willingness to pay more for it held.

Corporate ownership also only seemed to matter in certain instances. Average consumers “do not value craft beer differently from non-craft, but those with more knowledge of craft beer increasingly value the attribute,” Hart writes in his findings, additionally telling GBH that "a lot of the time I had people in the experiment say that beer needs to be independently-owned for it to be local."

In an extreme, hypothetical example, Hart noted that if someone was presented with a beer made at an Anheuser-Busch plant around the corner from their home, that would not be considered a “local” beer and would carry less interest. Oddly enough, if a beer by Lagunitas was offered, that would be seen as both local and independent, despite ownership by Heineken.

“Scale of production and distribution of the beer definitely plays a role,” Hart says. “It can be really difficult to identify the effect for local because it’s going to vary so much from person-to-person.”

With all these findings coming from craft beer consumers, it seems clear there’s much more nuance to the assumed spectrum of “craft” or “not craft” to which the Brewers Association and enthusiasts adhere. Interest in local beer seems to be a given, but anything beyond that—including whether it’s earned a BA-approved “craft brewer” designation—has yet to show direct correlation to purchase decisions outside ardent fans.

Hart’s results tie into previous research nicely, including his own past work. In 2017, he released research based off analysis of RateBeer ratings, pulling around 3.5 million reviews from 2000-2016. Among his initial findings were that ratings for beers from local reviewers were 0.035 points higher on average, but acquisitions of a brewery would reduce those ratings, including at higher rates for local reviewers.

Hart is quick to point out that work was not indicative of average consumers, but does add another layer to the importance of local, while ownership connects with the biggest beer fans. Through this research and others, he’s found an odd—but perhaps unsurprising—outcome: beer fans seem to care more about ownership by Anheuser-Busch InBev and MillerCoors than other large corporations like Constellation Brands (owner of Ballast Point, Funky Buddha, and others) or Mahou San Miguel (minority stakes in Avery and Founders).

This idea of preference toward what’s “local”—no matter how a consumer may define it personally—is at the core of this month’s Flagship February movement. The effort is meant to guide drinkers toward classics like Sierra Nevada Pale Ale or Anchor Steam, while also considering what core brands are for other breweries. Losing flagships is not the problem, of course, but increased value placed on locality and the additional number of options available to drinkers has become a self-made antithesis of being loyal to only one brand. Flagships exist with these new choices, but those options can quickly change thanks to sheer volume.

According to Hart’s research, locality doesn’t matter when drinking within a person’s preferred style, but does if and when they venture into types of beer they haven’t tried or don’t consider a favorite. By that finding alone, along with years of industry pros having constantly pushed for increased experimentation and trial from beer drinkers to move away from adjunct Lager, it would indicate changes in how flagships or styles are represented. If IPA is the defining craft beer style for the U.S., it makes sense that every brewery would want to have one. Its power to drive purchases based on its locality is a bonus after considering America’s love for lupulin.

This was spotted about five years ago on Beergraphs, where ratings from Untappd showed user preference for in-state beers as opposed to selections from farther away. While there's never an easy way for consumers to define "local," study of those numbers showed higher-than-average scores for beers within a 125-mile radius of their origin.

That was also repeated in survey results from DataQuencher, where 73% of participants indicated a local brewer delivers “consistently high-quality product” versus 62% for out-of-state consumers. “Not only is the quality perception different, but consumers are also much more likely to consider a brewery as ‘innovative’ if it’s in their state,” founder Rob Cartwright wrote in describing the findings.

Even polling within California showed dramatic shifts in perception. When comparing results of drinkers from Los Angeles and San Diego, respondents found their home city breweries to be more innovative (+14%) and producing more high quality beer (+17%) than breweries outside L.A. or San Diego, but within a three-hour drive.

Given the connection between beer enthusiasts and their interpretation of quality with aspects of what’s local and independent, it would seem that the broader effort of winning over the taste buds and minds of beer drinkers all over comes back to the creation of a political movement.

In 2014, the Brewers Association set an ambitious goal: to have its members combine to reach 20% of America's beer market share by 2020. It hasn’t worked out for a host of reasons that range from slowing sales across alcoholic beverages to loss of the BA’s biggest members due to acquisitions by larger companies, which isn’t allowed for the organization’s defined “craft brewers.” Share has somewhat plateaued right around 13%, and the BA abandoned its goal in 2017, but the aspirations to continually grow based on the strength of themes of “small and independent” now represent the core marketing principles for the organization. It makes the use of “craft” seem kinda quaint by comparison.

“One thing that everybody knows, but we kind of forget, is the Brewers Association is a political actor,” says Jeff Alworth, a writer and author who covers beer. The organization focuses on aspects of legislation and favorable positioning in the marketplace, he adds, but enthusiasts should pay attention to the idea behind all that, too. “In a certain sense, we should take everything they do as a political act.”

Almost two years ago, when the BA’s independent seal was originally announced, Alworth began talking about it in this way, noting it appeared as a long game move that would take years to pay off. At the moment, he guesses—and he admits it’s an uneducated one—that maybe 1 or 2% of beer drinkers actually take “independence” into account for their beer of choice.

“When a consumer makes a buying decision at the grocery store, they’re thinking of a lot of different things—style, connection to brand, price point, what season is it,” he says. “There’s a lot of things that go into that and right now, independence is not one of those things.”

To be clear, Alworth thinks the seal and what it stands for is a smart move, noting it gives BA members a unique point of distinction on chain store shelves where non-BA defined beer takes up plenty of space. But it’s “going to take a long time,” to make a dent in consumer psyche, and he says that he doesn’t expect to see any major movement for at least five years—realistically, closer to a decade—before it starts to really resonate with average consumers.

Anyone who sees it as a foolish endeavor now may want to think twice, he says, pointing to how reluctant multinational companies are to show their ownership on craft brands. If AB InBev, MillerCoors, or Heineken really didn't care, they wouldn't be bothered by slapping their names on 10 Barrel, Saint Archer, or Lagunitas bottles.

"What we've seen time and time again is that if all you're talking about is who can produce quality beer, then any brewery devoted to making good beer can do that, including the big breweries," he says. "But if you're looking for a marketplace that's diversified and interesting, you want independent players and you want to see niche products that don't have a giant footprint. All the churn comes from the little guys and filters up."

When looking at the data—quantitative, qualitative, or anecdotal—one thing continues to show up. At this moment, at least. “Independence” simply doesn’t have any clear connection with a broad base of consumers like “local” or even “craft” can. But the Brewers Association says otherwise.

“Many beer lovers have their eyes—and wallets—open to seek the seal,” Julia Herz, craft beer program director, Brewers Association, said in a press release recently announcing the BA’s independence seal for “supporters.”

“From printing it on menus or grouping independent craft beers together at retail, to prominent signage at beer festivals,” she continued, “now is a great time for supporters to put the seal in play and help advance the beverage of beer.”

The statement straddles two realities. “Many beer lovers” feels like an exaggeration given surveys and studies that have relied on self-identified craft beer shoppers, but now is actually a great time to push harder, even if that means small, incremental gains won’t actually be felt until 2030, a decade after that first ambitious 20% goal of market share for BA-defined craft brewers.

What is left is reminiscent of the strategy (and its flaws) behind Flagship February. Heritage brands or even the idea of core beers are not at risk. There is no extinction level event coming to take away your balanced Pale Ale or Amber. But getting people to think about these things is at least worth the effort. Businesses like Boston Beer, Anchor Brewing, and Great Lakes Brewery are sponsoring Flagship February and the Brewers Association and its members will continue to slap their seal on event spaces and packages.

The question to keep asking until the answer is unequivocally clear is, “Who cares?” And it’s not a snarky thing to ask. We’ll need to tally votes not just by dollars, but in the form of conversation. When the sight of an upside down bottle is a barometer of choice and not just a piece of flair.

Words by Bryan Roth