Understanding A Maturing Craft Beer Marketplace

By Sean O’Neill,  VP of Sales and Marketing at Drinx Unlimited, Norwalk, CT

Craft beer has exploded. Tastes have changed along with the way people drink beer, the way beer is produced to keep up with market demand. 

Drinking has always been perceived as a social activity. Nowadays, it’s also a form of social status. Many people no longer want to be associated with popular brands, and would rather be seen drinking something a little more “exclusive.” It’s all behind the massive appeal of craft beer. It’s a lot more challenging to produce and sell craft beer, and bars and restaurants have to be on their toes to make it work for them.

As a bar or restaurant, you have to stay current, you have to stay ahead of the pack. You almost have to anticipate what tastes are going to arise. Breweries are continually experimenting, fighting to bring new products to the public, and these are all the reasons craft beer has become so popular, and why breweries need to stay competitive and on top.

Here’s another idea to think about. Bars and restaurants today have sommeliers for their wine but some now have what they’re calling a Cicerone® for craft beer. It’s been running since 2008.  It’s similar to a sommelier, where you have stages. You have to get certified, which you do online for the first level. It’s called a Certified Beer Server, for restaurants and beer buying. And then you have a second stage, Certified Cicerone®, which is more comprehensive, and requires more studying and an in person exam. That’s more of the science of beer, the chemistry of beer, the history of beer. The four levels of Cicerone are Certified Beer Server, Certified Cicerone®, Advanced Cicerone™, and Master Cicerone®.

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Master Cicerone involves everything about beer such as mechanics of beer systems, engineering, chemistry. You have to identify beers across the board in terms of style with blind taste tests. You really have to taste an infinite amount of style and see where beers derive from in the world. Smart bar and restaurant owners are looking into providing this. More and more establishments are hiring Certified Cicerones or just qualified beer guys to help run their business.

If you’re considering rethinking your beer strategy, educate your staff. At the end of the day I could sell you the best kegs in the world that you could pour on your tap system. But if you or your bartenders don’t know what they’re doing, the beer’s going to go bad and you’re throwing 300 bucks on a keg out the window. It’s really knowledge of the product. Craft beer is passion, it’s a pioneering, innovative effort and a lot of the demographics are younger and they’re willing to push the envelope and try new things all the time. They’re not market skeptics and just stick to their old ways. You really need to have knowledgeable support because beer is fragile.

Now that the weather’s warming up, and we’re doing more outdoor activities, bars and restaurants will definitely see a shift to lighter content, lighter mouth-feel beers. You’re going to have a higher bitterness level and you’re going to have a lot of aromas and flavors contingent on the hops that you put in that beer.

Bars and restaurants also need to know about session India pale ales (IPAs). You put that word “session” before the India pale ale and it changes a lot of people’s buying habits, because session just means more drinkable, and lighter. You’re having a beer that’s under 5% alcohol that has all the qualities of an IPA, but it’s more drinkable. If you go to a bar and you like IPA’s, you may be able to drink four or five session IPA’s, where you may be able to only have two or three regular IPA’s. So it’s volume, it’s profitability, it’s velocity. It keeps the beer fresh and that’s why people like it.

Other popular flavors are blood orange and grapefruit. You even have IPA’s that are brewed with puree or blood orange zest or the pulp. There are certain styles that are brewed with souring agents, and that just yields a bit more acidity and tartness to the beer. Sometimes that makes it more refreshing when you have a beer that’s under 5 or 6%.

Craft beer is here to stay.