July is American Beer Month and there is no better way to celebrate than featuring your favorite domestic beers at your bar. Crack open long-time American staples like Budweiser, serve up popular American craft brews like Sierra Nevada or stick with what works and showcase the seemingly always-relevant Pabst Blue Ribbon. Of course, there is no question that Americans have always loved beer, but when was this official celebration for U.S. brews conceived? American Beer Month came to be in 1999 during the Great American Beer Festival in Denver, with the first official American Beer Month held in 2000. And though many people focus on American Craft Beer Week held in May, American Beer Month in July is a time to celebrate all American brews. Paul Gatza, director of the Brewers Association, told Nightclub & Bar why American brews are so easy to love.
NCB: What makes American beer stand out?
Paul Gatza: American craft brewers brew a diversity of beer styles beyond what is being brewed anywhere else in the world. Many of the American craft brewers were inspired by beer styles of England, Germany and Belgium. Now brewers in these countries with rich brewing traditions are incorporating some American brewing ideas onto their traditional styles. For example, we see Belgian beers being made with American hop varieties at hop rates for styles such as American IPA. (For more information, click here.)
NCB: How has American beer changed over the years?
PG: Share has shifted from domestic premium lager to craft and lately from imports to craft. We see around 125 beer styles being made in the U.S. plus many beers that do not fit any style, so the choices available for the beer drinker have never been better or more diverse.
NCB: Who would you say is the typical consumer of American beer? Has that consumer changed over the years?
PG: More men than women identify themselves as beer drinkers, although craft beer does over index with legal drinking age women compared to other beer segments. All income groups enjoy beer.
The American beer consumer enjoyed local beers until the late-1800s, then we saw the era of consolidation and rise of regional and national brands until around 1980 (with the interruption for Prohibition, of course). Craft brewers emerged in local communities and imports had success in the 1990s as taste or image became part of the beer drinker equation. Since the recession began, we are seeing less consumption of imports and non-craft domestic lagers and increased enjoyment of craft brewed beer. One interesting stat is that draft beer sales have grown 1.6 percent by volume in the first five months of 2010 as beer drinkers are choosing the draft experience more often.
NCB: Do you find bars and patrons are more willing to drink domestic brews?
PG: We are seeing far greater interest in consumers and in restaurant and bar owners in carrying local beers. It says something about an establishment when they have local offerings -- “we know what our patrons are into, we support local businesses and we carry beers that you can’t just get anywhere.”
NCB: What does American beer have to do to continue growing in popularity?
PG: Continue to respond to the needs and trends of the beer drinker. Some of those needs are found in brands that resonate with Millennials. The six big megabrands are in a difficult patch, as smaller brands are replacing them during many drinking occasions. I think the beer industry has to understand who the Millennial beer drinker is and satisfy the needs for flavor, diversity of choices and image. A brand image that shows that someone is an individual is tough to achieve right now for a major brand, so smaller brands are gaining share.
NCB: What do American beers offer that imported beers don’t?
PG: The local connection is very important and something that import brands can’t create. When someone considers a local beer, it is easy to make the purchase because people can see the connection to keeping the money in the local economy, providing local jobs and supporting a brand that isn’t omnipresent.
NCB: What are you favorite American beers?
PG: My personal favorites depend on the occasion. Sometimes I like an IPA that is hop-emphasized. Other times I crave dopplebock for its malt character. Lately, I have been really into imperial stouts for their rich, strong, roasty flavors — even in summer. For specific beer brands, I recommend visiting the winners list for the Great American Beer Festival. If a beer wins a medal at GABF, it is clearly one of the best in style for a U.S. beer.
NCB: What American beers should bar operators look out for? What’s the current trend?
PG: Sales have been great for ultra-premium craft beers — the ones that retail for over $50 per case in the off-premise market are growing fast in the on-premise. Many of these beers fit flavor profiles of higher in alcohol, often assertively hopped by the brewer, sometimes aged in oak, and there is a hot trend of Belgian-inspired sour beers made by craft brewers. People go to bars socially and having a larger bottle that may cost a little more than can be shared at the table is a big opportunity for profit and image for the bar.
Another trend we are seeing is new bar openings with a minimum of six tap handles that cover a variety of styles — maybe a light lager, an import and four beers of a range of styles from regional or local players.
The draft selection that worked for bars even five years ago is likely to be outdated and not in touch with current beer drinkers. People no longer have to settle for a dull beer lineup where many of the beers resemble each other in a narrow flavor band. The beer drinker wants choices, and they will seek them out either in your establishment or one nearby.
NCB: What else should people know about American Beer Month?
PG: In this information age, the bar owner easily can find out about beer options and what is growing. There is likely a beer expert on your serving or management staff that is in tune with today’s beer drinker. Perhaps pay attention to these sources more than just the beer distributor, who has an agenda that may not be 100 percent aligned with the bar owner. It is your bar so go ahead and take full control over what your beer list means to your bottom line and the image of your establishment.
Also, beer is fun. More diversity in a beer list translates into more fun for the beer drinker.