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2018: Riding the Trends or Bucking Them?

I think, for many of us, 2017 will be a year we never forget. The 365 days we lived the state of our world, the state of our morals and even the state of our beer seemed to be summed up into the phrase “this is not normal”.

Last year saw the craft beer industry in a place in which it hasn’t been in for a long time – struggling with growth. Every day the number of breweries went up as operations of all shapes and sizes came on, reaching from ocean to ocean and border to border. With this growth the competition in the market for tap handles and shelf space became tighter. Some national and regional brands, long thought of as the leaders of growth, struggled to find the steady growth they’d became accustomed to in previous years or for some declines for the first time in the modern beer boom. It would seem the people were saying “Why should I drink this beer made several states away when I have this great small brewery right in my town?”

But even small, local breweries with years of experience and acclaim, that you may have though could never waver, find themselves struggling to keep the drinkers they once had. More and more “neighbors” are opening up and offering something new or even something better and the once thought of veterans of the scene now find themselves playing catch up to the new kids on the block.

We saw the rise in popularity of styles that has caused as many divisions as our nation’s politics. Is the push of innovation leading to the downfall of stability? Ask Twitter and you’ll see that strong divide again.

We saw in-fighting between breweries like never seen before. Some squabbles making a very public show of things while others happening in relative secrecy.

When it comes to the craft beer world that I fell in love with and worked in over this years – 2017 has been the most turbulent but will 2018 bring balance to the force that is craft beer?

Publications are asking brewers all over the country what they think will happen in 2018, each one seemingly responding with their Nostradamus like predictions for the rise of certain styles or shift in the way events are done. Are these predictions? Or are these their plans to try to shift and drive the market? No one predicted hazy IPAs or adjunct riddled stouts would be a craze, brewers just tried them and they caught on. If someone really saw those things coming they should have tried to leverage that knowledge into making a few bucks.

No one can say with 100% certainty how the market will go but there are predictions and trends that can be derived from data. For years there has been the talk of the “bubble” or the “plateau” in the industry and 2017 seemed to be an indicator that those theories aren’t necessarily moot. A big dip in seasonal beers was predicted by a downward trend in sales the few previous years. People can’t really say they didn’t see that coming but really they are.

Despite the trend of seasonal beers Boston Beer Company attempted to right the ship by adding not 1 but 2 new seasonal options, Hopscape and Fresh as Helles. And what happened? Hopscape flopped. Can we call a spade a spade?

So what can we actually expect in 2018 from the craft beer industry?

The pool is not getting any less crowded out there and breweries will need to make their beers and brands stand out. I think we may see more larger breweries buck the seasonal release trend and go towards more innovative and experimental limited releases. New Belgium saw some positive results in their limited release schedule from 2017 including interesting takes on their their core beers including Fat Tire White and Lime Citradelic.

I believe brewers will continue to try to create lagers in hopes of converting macro drinkers to their side. It’s a noble cause that has been going on for a few years now but may be at the point of banging your head against the wall. At this point it seems obvious to me that most macro light lager drinkers have absolutely no desire to turn away from their old faithful. It’s at the right price point and, more importantly, they like it.

Sans a few contract brews and adjunct lagers, craft has shown no ability to reach the price point that would initially pique the interest of macro drinkers. And price point is only opening the door to that consumer. They won’t come in if they don’t like it. There are some very tasty craft lagers out there but even I can see that their flavors may be too much for your everyday working guy with a Coors Light.

Don’t get me wrong, I think craft breweries should keep making lagers. Some of them are damn good at it (I’m looking at your Firestone Walker, Austin Beer Garden Brewing and Neshaminy Creek). Let’s just instead of trying to crack a safe that may be impenetrable we just focus on the craft lovers that enjoy those tasty, crisp lagers.

The counter to the whole lager game is the increase in blonde/golden ales. When a brewery doesn’t have the time, equipment or recipe to make a lager the alternative is the blonde ale and this style saw around 45% in increased sales. The blonde ale contains a lot of the qualities of a lager but at a fraction of the fermentation time and, in a lot of cases, a fraction of the cost.

Sure you may have breweries barking up the wrong tree by going after lager drinkers with their blonde ales but it may have less risk than the lager. Firestone Walker has seen their 805 Blonde Ale sales increase in ridiculous fashion since its launch that was initially only intended for the 805 area code. But a fantastic marketing campaign and branding geared towards people of all walks of life has helped differentiate itself and seem like it’s not just going after the easy drinking blue collared type.

I do unfortunately see more fighting between breweries to come. There will never be an end to “Hey that’s my beer name!” in public or “They don’t know how to make good beer” in private. You’ll hear about some of this but likely won’t hear about it all.

More and more breweries will continue to come online but will have the critical eyes and taste buds on them even more tightly than previous ones. The demand to be good right out of the gate will put pressure on start ups to live up to other breweries in their area that have already gathered the love and grander of the audience. A fancy system and taproom will only get you so far if you beer isn’t good.

I myself find this to be a negative trend as it seems people will unfairly knock a new brewery for “not being good enough” seeming on their opening night. I am all for quality winning out in the end but in their minds first night jitters or working out the kinks is unacceptable. You never have perfection right out of the blocks. Unfortunately this behavior will then weigh on a brewer’s mind heavily when they should just be concentrating on getting better. Constructive criticism is one thing, writing someone off for being new and having a few hiccups is another.

I’m also sure there will be a style that will see its stock elevated seemingly out of nowhere. Which one will it be? I don’t know but good luck to whoever stumbles upon it.

We are in a crazy time for beer right now. The industry as a whole is getting flat on sales increases. Some bigger breweries as seeing declines. Some are seeing increases. Small guys are growing faster than their capacity but other small guys are closing because they couldn’t evolve. Trends are heading in directions that we were not used to. Some people will luck out and fall into being the leader of trend but for others it will be about acclimating to the movement of the consumers and staying clear and relevant. We are seeing Darwinism at its finest in our industry. H.G. Wells said it best, “Adapt or perish”.

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