The Popularity of Craft Beer Explained by Chris O’Brien
Posted by Maggie on May 21, 2010
(This originally appeared as my “Brewing a Better World” column in the Fall 2006 issue of American Brewer.)
The craft brewing movement is part of a larger social trend toward commerce that incorporates the environment as a core business concern. But environmental concerns go hand in hand with a number of other values associated with the market segment called Cultural Creatives.
First a little context is needed to understand the context of the contemporary environmental business movement, and the cultural creatives market that is driving it. The Industrial Revolution, for the first time in human history, provided people with cheap, uniform, mass-produced goods. Citizens, who had always been producers themselves, became passive consumers on a massive scale. Concurrent with this industrial transition was a loss of spirituality, and changes in gender roles as families grew increasingly reliant on cash to purchase food rather than on largely female controlled subsistence agriculture. Women also lost control of brewing at the same time. This extraordinary development shattered long-standing social structures as production changed from agricultural, home and craft-scale to colossal urban manufacturing plants. Factory-made items, from washing machines to beer, lured customers with their low prices, consistent quality, wide availability and recognizable brand value.
Industrial production brought some serious problems with it. By removing the end user from the production process, it obscured the environmental results of consumer behavior. As a result, most beer drinkers today have as little clue about what goes into beer as they have about the impacts on nature caused by its production and consumption. Consumers are as insulated from the brewing process as they are the ecological realities of their drinking habits. This distance explains, in part, why we allow the social and environmental problems caused by industrial production to reach the crisis point before we begin to address them. Look how long it has taken us to even consider getting serious about halting climate change.
But more importantly for craft beer sellers is that this consumer alienation provided a market opportunity. Craft beer emerged when industrial brewing reached its nadir in the 1970s. Drinkers sought higher quality, more personal experiences associated with artisanal production rather than the cookie-cutter commodities of the industrial revolution. Better beer drinkers are not alone in this trend. They are part of what Paul Ray, a leading market researcher, terms “Cultural Creatives,” a population of over 50 million Americans that spans all races and age groups.
As customers, cultural creatives insist on authenticity. They want the real thing. Avoiding mass–produced, anonymous units, they prefer local products with unique stories. A few more defining characteristics: they tend to choose natural and organic products; they value women’s issues; health and well-being are priorities; they seek the positive side of the news; and they would like to see a return to spirituality in American life.
The craft brewing movement owes much of its success to the fact that it appeals to this large and expanding market (one in five Americans is a cultural creative) through its ability to communicate authenticity and to create a perception of “naturalness”.
The growth of craft brewing mirrors other market sectors driven by cultural creatives, especially the organic and fair trade food categories. Organic food has grown by 20% or more each of the last ten years, making it the fastest growing segment of the food industry. Similarly, fair trade coffee is the fastest growing niche in the specialty coffee sector. In 2003, U.S. coffee roasters selling Fair Trade Certified coffee for at least 2 years saw an average of 125% year-over-year growth in fair trade sales. These are not isolated examples of success for socially and environmental aware businesses. According to the market research journal Lifestyles of Health and Sustainability (LOHAS), 63 million American adults now base their purchasing decisions on how the products they consume affect the world.
Its easy to see why these sectors are flourishing when one considers the buying preferences of cultural creatives. Organic food communicates environmental sustainability, and fair trade tells hopeful stories of small producers. Craft brewers do both of these well: projecting an image of wholesome naturalness and putting real brewers front and center in the customer experience. But organic agriculture also projects an image of healthfulness, and fair trade is often associated with empowering stories about the lives of female artisans. Craft brewers are missing the angles that appeal to healthfulness and women.
Consider one more cultural creatives market trend: yoga. According to Yoga Journal’s Yoga in America Survey, the market expanded 43% from 2002 to 2005. Yoga, with its blending of spirituality and physical fitness, attracts mostly female practitioners, who account for more than three-quarters of the market. Craft beer has largely failed to cultivate an image of health and spirituality that appeals to females as customers, and for that matter, as professionals within the industry.
How can craft beer better integrate women, health, and spirituality? The reemergence of herbal beers is one positive sign that brewers are exploring ways of appealing to all three of these cultural creative market values. But much more can be done.
To expand beyond the core market, craft brewing must balance its male image with some of the qualities that attract female drinkers to cocktails and wine, drinks perceived as healthier and more feminine than beer and which are experiencing considerable upsurges in sales. Full brand makeovers are not required, merely some extensions. For example, Heartland Brewing, in New York, offers a Berry Champagne Ale made with raspberries, ginger, and pomegranate oil, fermented with Belgian yeast, and served in a champagne flute. Their press release explicitly states their intent to appeal to women with this beer. Smaller serving sizes, and more attractive packaging and glassware are also important. Successful brewers like Dogfish Head and Rogue among many others are packaging in wine bottles and serving in goblets and chalices. For on-premise sales establishments, a family-friendly atmosphere can be a draw for women. Smoke, noise, and a dozen screens of sports, though appealing to some core customers, can unnecessarily exclude potential female customers. The history of beer is dominated by women, but few beer customers know this. This history is rich fodder for creating new marketing themes that replace the image of overweight and immature young males with elegant and empowered beer drinking women.
The health benefits of beer drinking are now well-established scientifically, especially the heart-healthy attributes. But beer still suffers from an image associated with obesity and poor diet. The increasing popularity of beer and food pairings is a promising sign, but much more can be done to associate healthy foods and lifestyles with refined and sophisticated beers. It is essential to educate customers about the nutritional and health aspects of craft beer. Using the tried and true strategies can work: holding health-themed educational tastings; including health information on collateral materials; issuing press releases; sponsoring health events like walkathons and bike races and making sure the link between beer and health is explicit in the sponsorship marketing materials. Concerted legislative pressure is also required to clear the way for the inclusion of positive health information on beer packaging.
Spirituality may be a tougher nut to crack, but there is no reason to think it can not be done. Just as women have been a dominant force in the history of beer, so has worship of the divine. Ritual is central to worship, and beer can be an important component in ritual, as it has been in the past, especially as a lubricant for community bonding. One of the simpler ways to encourage this is to bring beer to post-church service gatherings. Re-integrating beer into community events centered around sacred practice has the additional benefit of renewing the image of beer as a wholesome, family-oriented beverage.
The craft beer market will keep growing as it continues to appeal to the cultural creatives’ market appetite for all things environmental. But whether artisanal beers move into a market majority or not may well depend on the movement’s ability to reach beyond the core male drinker and appeal to the broader cultural creative values of women’s issues, health, and spirituality.