There’s been a lot of coverage recently about what a craft beer is and who should be allowed to call their brews by that name. As the big beer companies spend more either investing in smaller brewers or developing their own line of craft-style beers, they are basically admitting that what the future holds is less and less likely to be a loyal consumer base interested in beers that are difficult to tell apart.
In 2012, craft beer surpassed six percent of the total U.S. beer market, with volume and dollar sales reaching record levels,” said Paul Gatza, Director of the Brewers Association, recently. “Increasingly, beer lovers are turning to craft brewed beer from small and independent producers to satisfy their thirst for bold, innovative and flavor-forward beers.”
He’s right, but on premise operators still have a long way to go before they can be considered drivers rather than passengers on this ride. Maybe a look at the top craft brewers will be an indicator: many major restaurants carry beers made by two of the recent fast-growers, Sierra Nevada and New Belgium, as well as old favorite Sam Adams. But how about the great beers, ales and stouts from the twelfth largest U.S. brewer, Deschutes of Oregon? That’s twelfth largest brewer over all, not just an indication of how popular an individual brand is or where Deschutes stands among craft competitors. Or how about beers from California’s Lagunitas? It’s the sixth largest craft brewer, just behind the four mentioned above and Gambrinus, and the thirteenth largest overall. Clearly, these and other major suppliers of craft beer aren’t the rinky-dink brewers of yesteryear and haven’t been for some time. Their consistently high quality beers, smart business practices, savvy marketing and genuine authenticity have been proven time and again, or they wouldn’t still be thriving in the cut throat brew business.
But scan many of the leading chain restaurant beverage menus and you’ll find national brand Sam Adams and few if any others. Kudos to Sam and the Boston Beer Company, but when the beers on your menu are almost identical to those stacked in the cooler at the local 7-11, well, you’re neglecting your image as a place that serves something special.
“Special” doesn’t need to mean rare or unique or cask-conditioned or any of the phrases that might be key at an independent beer-focused operation. But just as serving the same dish prepared the same way won’t differentiate your operation from the bar and grill format across the parking lot, a cookie cutter beer program won’t do anything exceptional for the marketing of your beverage program as cutting edge. Or even make it one that can be picked out of a crowd of competitors.
More importantly, as your customer cohort ages and younger consumers, hit hard by the recession and not going to restaurants as much as they would if they were better off, eventually recover, you’ll find their tastes to be quite different from those who will settle for the same old thing. They expect choice and will reward only those who provide it, we’re told time and again by research and studies. Beer might be a great place to start offering them more choice.