Yesterday morning, my favorite beer writer, Jason Notte, published an interview with Christian Ettinger. Christian is the founder of Hopworks Urban Brewery, a microbrewery in Portland, OR, that pays particular attention to its impact on the environment. The piece is great, and you should read it: here.
The angle that Notte highlighted was that Hopworks is moving rapidly from bottling its beer to canning it, because it’s the more environmentally friendly thing to do and it’s way better for the beer. Beer gets badly affected by light and oxygen, and cans effectively block both. (If you can help it, never drink beer from a green bottle, and NEVER from a clear one. That’s right Corona drinkers, I’m talking to you.)
As I am wont to do, I tweeted the article because I think people should read it. And I called out one of the world’s best breweries, Firestone Walker, for the fact they can their beautiful, prototypical West Coast IPA, Union Jack, and that’s why I feel happy to drink it in New York City, 2,900 miles from where it is brewed, and expect it to taste as its expert brewers intend.
I was not alone. Jason Notte was inundated with comments debating the merits and demerits of cans as a pack format for beer…
Leading Notte to note that this kind of conversation simply wouldn’t have happened in the past.
And he’s right. How we package up our beer is on the surface a fundamentally boring topic. 10 years ago beer drinkers would likely neither have known enough nor cared enough how their beer is packaged to tip in on a public debate about it. I know I wouldn’t.
Which got me thinking – have we reached a tipping point of how much people care about beer, and know about beer, to have altered the way it’s brewed, marketed and sold altogether? And forever?
There is often debate about a “craft bubble”, the idea that the growth in exciting, tasty beers that now make up (according to the Brewers Association) over 10% of the volume of beer sold in the US is a fad, and that soon the craft segment will come crashing down to earth.
What’s particularly interesting about this is that the total amount of beer drunk in America is either flat or in gentle decline, depending on your source. According to a mixture of data from The Beverage Information Group, Nielsen and the Brewers Association, over the last five years the total volume of the beer market has declined by 1.5% while the number of operational brewers has more than doubled and the number of beers available (SKUs – stock keeping units) has almost doubled. And all the growth in the market has come from craft beers, flavored malt beverages and Mexican imports. (The Most Interesting Man In The World has done Heineken a few favors.)
In a flat market, the space for this growth has come at the expense of the vast light beer megabrands. An interesting statistic is that, according to The Beverage Information Group’s Beer Handbook (covering both on premise and off premise), the declines in 2014 in sales of Bud Light and Coors Light, the two biggest brands in the market, were almost exactly 10 times the total 2014 output of Dogfish Head, the 13th biggest craft brewer according to the Brewers Association. And it took Dogfish Head 19 years to get to that level of brewing.
While a very comfortable majority of beer sold in the US is still mass-brewed pilsner style lager, the trends all point in one direction. (If we make the big assumption that the growth of Mexican beer is a function of immigration and shifting demographics.) People are slowly but surely turning away from what Greg Koch of Stone Brewing will mercilessly refer to as fizzy yellow beer, and are now at a point where they’ll take time on a Friday to get involved in a discussion about the benefits of canned beer.
And savvy brewers are responding to this. While the beer drinker is increasingly discerning about what she’s putting in her mouth, she’s increasingly immune to the old marketing tricks employed by beer companies. Funny frogs and skateboarding dogs don’t give her the information she needs to make a choice about beer.
For some time, craft breweries have fastidiously been filling Youtube with information about their beers, straight from the brewers’ mouths. Check out the Youtube channels of Sam Adams, Stone Brewing, Dogfish Head and Brooklyn Brewery for a flavor. All heavily branded, yes, but full of information about the breweries and their beers, and all told by the real people who work there.
But now a few macro brewers are surfing with the tide too. There’s this beautiful ad from Guinness that recently broke in the US [disclaimer, I used to work for Guinness and still do consulting there], featuring real people who work at the brewery, showcasing their passion for their jobs. But the biggie is MillerCoors, which has jumped on the “real beer made by real people” bus with both feet, launching their own blog, and their own YouTube channel that contains videos about – gasp – how they make their beer, and who makes their beer.
And, from MillerCoors, the sometimes controversial crafted Belgian style ale, Blue Moon, has gone through a pretty dramatic shift (inspired perhaps by the class action raised against it recently). Five years ago their ads were pretty vanilla and typical: drawing a parallel between painting and crafting beer, with CGI’d actors and models playing around in a made-up barn. But in the past few months their commercials have gone very Sam Adams, starring Keith Villa, the Coors brewer who invented Blue Moon in the early 90s, and his colleagues. Real colleagues, talking about their beer with a level of detail that would have set the typical beer drinker switching the channel to Seinfeld in a flash back in ’99.
Have we reached a tipping point? Will ABI follow suit, or will it keep up with the King Canute act, resisting the incoming tide of tasty beer with its not insignificant marketing budgets? Their biggest beer is, after all, the perfect beer to drink while whatever happens.