With an over-crowded beer market and a dizzying amount of beer choices for consumers, staying up to date on trends is more important than ever for many breweries. While recognizing and following emerging trends is integral to survival in the beer industry, predicting and creating trends is an entirely different game. How does one go about doing this? What do beer trends mean to consumers? Does any of this matter in the long-term? The answers to these questions may hold the keys to success in an increasingly competitive market.
My name is Jake Endres, co-owner and head brewer at Crooked Run Brewing. We’re a small, ten barrel brewery that began as a nanobrewery in Leesburg four years ago. Our success is due at least in part to predicting market trends, and I hope that I can continue to read ahead and grow our business during what I and many others believe will be a shakeout in the industry over the next five years.
I am not any sort of mastermind or business prodigy, but I did recognize one emerging trend that has caused serious disruption in the beer industry–the move towards hyper-local beer. So-called “pint laws” that allowed for on-premise sale of beer at brewery taprooms completely changed the game. In Virginia, ours was called Senate Bill 604, and I began following it when it was still in the legislature. I believed it was likely to pass, and started planning our original nanobrewery and taproom. Three years ago, my partner Lee and I were discussing the future of beer. We agreed that more and more taps would be taken by local breweries, at the expense of the larger west coast breweries who had supplied so much of the nation’s craft beer for many years. Taprooms would thrive, since patrons could go directly to the source, but breweries would need to step up their game for their taproom experiences once non-beer geeks began to frequent breweries.
Flash forward to now, and all of this has come true. We’ve expanded to a larger location with an added restaurant, but still remain small. During our plans for expansion, I compared our proposed brewery, a modest ten barrel system around a third of the size of most breweries, to the English navy. Bigger breweries were like the Spanish armada–more powerful, but unable to change tack quickly to adapt to a rapidly evolving market. This is key. The three biggest trends of the last year have proven very difficult for larger breweries to cope with. What are these trends, exactly?
First, is the trend towards hyper-local that I already mentioned. Smaller breweries are chipping away at tap space for larger breweries. Ask most managers at grocery stores or bottle shops what sells, and the answer is local. Local breweries are very difficult to knock off tap once established, and while they may lack the economy of scale that some larger breweries have, they can put out fresh, interesting styles and capitalize on regional identity. Larger breweries that counted on and depended on continued, nigh-limitless growth have found that all the tiny breweries that have sprung up overnight can represent a pretty hard wall.
Second is the trend towards beer styles that taste less and less like beer. The explosion of New England IPAs, fruited sours, and dessert stouts all represent this trend. Low bitterness, juicy IPAs could replace the west coast style as we know it. Larger breweries that have built their brand on these styles may find this very difficult to cope with. I see this trend continuing. We already make a lot of these types of beer ourselves, and will continue to do so. At the same time, I predict German styles such as pilsner, Vienna lager, and hefeweizen will start to become more popular. These are tasty beers that are low-ABV and can be a welcome relief from the deluge of IPAs. I see this trend already with industry folk–many of us order these beers when we’re out drinking. Well-respected breweries known for their IPAs are already starting to offer these beers. In the past, these styles may have been a throwaway beer brewed for patrons that usually drank Coors or Bud Light, but not anymore.
Last is the trend towards on-premise can and bottle sales. Crooked Run has done some sporadic can and bottle releases, but in one month our new canning line will arrive, and cans and bottles should become a regular thing at our brewery. At some breweries, can releases are a huge deal. With lines snaking around the block, can releases can represent a big amount of revenue. We may not ever reach this level of demand, but we believe it’s important as a brewery to offer some type of to-go beer option other than growlers. It helps your beer reach more people, helps build your brand, and substantially increases sales. Cans can also be traded with others–in this way, your customer actually becomes your distributor! This has been a huge development over the last few years.
What does the future hold? It’s hard to predict the next big style, but one thing is for sure: this is a great time to be a consumer of beer in America. Fads come and go, and many great breweries and beer styles will remain timeless. However, attention and innovation are absolutely essential to success in the craft beer world we are currently living in, and I hope to offer people what they are looking for. Cheers!