Is It Time for the Beer Industry to Start Counting Calories?

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There’s a reoccurring conversation I’ve had in recent months, talking with with others about why people make the decision to drink craft beer.

The answers are plenty – taste, community, etc. – but one that typically doesn’t get a deep dive is a reflection on why “craft” matters both as a designation for the beer and the way people feel about it. Ever since the Great Recession, American consumers have reevaluated how they spend their money and on what, especially in terms of food and related goods.

First, people started caring more about where their food was coming from and how it was treated, which you can see from the dramatic rise of U.S. farmers markets over the last 20 years.

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That went hand-in-hand with changing attitudes about quality of foods. In the wake of the Great Recession, American households cut down spending on eating out, prepared more meals in-home and decreased daily calories, especially in terms of fat, saturated fat and cholesterol.

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So what does this have to do with beer? Even when money was tighter during the recession, craft beer still thrived. People felt a greater connection to a product that not only tasted different, but were OK with spending more on the perceived quality that came along with it. Beyond their wallets, drinkers also began giving greater consideration to what it meant when consuming craft beer in terms of ingredients and nutritional content.

Years after the recession ended, these attitudes continue to grow. People are paying more attention to what they put in their bodies and what that means for them in the immediate and long term. Naturally, now may be the time to start paying closer attention to how that plays out in terms of what our brains and waistlines want when it comes to beer.

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The Perfect Tap List as Determined by Beer Nerds

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Over on VinePair, writer Will Gordon recently shared an interesting game/exercise: creating “16 Perfect Taps” at the hypothetical bar of your dreams. It gained some traction among beer enthusiasts across social media as drinkers compiled their own lists picking out their favorite ales and lagers to take up each tap.

I thought an interesting twist might be to make the process a little more objective, from my point of view, by using the subjective ratings provided by beer lovers across the world.

Taking Will’s outline from his post, which breaks the tap list down into 16 categories, I sourced choices from four rating sites: RateBeer, Beer Advocate, BeerGraphs and Untappd. Each website offers its own proprietary ranking system, whether a formula devised by RateBeer and Beer Advocate or the “Beers Over Replacement” of BeerGraphs. Untappd, of course, has the bottle cap rating system.

Using that base, I picked the top-ranked beers from each site with the caveat that choices from RateBeer or BeerAdvocate needed to have at least 100 rankings. I have no interest in including a beer that is very highly rated, but has only been “checked in” a dozen times.

Let’s take a look at what we’ll be drinking…

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The Myths We Tell

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We love drama. We love emotion. We love stories.

Hardwired into our sociology, humans are drawn to the narrative arcs we create to highlight the challenges and successes – real or make believe. Storytelling is part of who we are:

…human beings are natural storytellers—that they can’t help telling stories, and that they turn things that aren’t really stories into stories because they like narratives so much. Everything—faith, science, love—needs a story for people to find it plausible. No story, no sale.

But how those stories are constructed is just as important as why they’re being told.

As the beer industry has matured in recent years and businesses work to separate themselves from each other, crafting a story and message that runs through an overall brand has become almost as important as crafting a good beer. People want something to connect to beyond their pint glass.

Through this same effort, however, those in the beer community have created broader stories that extend past individual businesses into the ethos of what beer – or, often, “craft beer” – is supposed to be about. Mostly, it creates a perpetual “us vs. them” scenario discussed among beer lovers who shower praise on The Small Guys, hate on The Big Boys and show anger or indifference to those caught in between.

Certainly, there are many facets to the political and business side of the industry that rightfully rile people up. But when we home in on these topics and put our blinders on, there are stories we have so easily accepted we fail to see the partial fallacy of a “black and white” scenario.

There is plenty of gray to go around.

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What We Mean When We Talk About the ‘Death’ of Flagship Beers

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Not once, but twice last week I read about a presumptive sweeping movement in the beer industry: the death of the flagship brand.

First, it was Chelsie over at Stouts and Stilettos, followed by Derek at Bear Flavored. Two different takes and perspectives on the cultural rejection of the notion that breweries, as a business, might have One Beer to Rule Them All.

Is there truth to this? Maybe a little, but no more than what we could glean from when Andy Crouch wrote about this same topic in 2012 :

So in the end of an era for some pioneer brands, where consumers appear ready to fully embrace their long-developing beer brand promiscuity, the first era of the flagship is over. The ultimate result of the evolving craft beer consumer’s fickle palate is the end of relations with these former beaus, only to be replaced with a new, younger and hipper string of beer relations.

Let’s for a moment assume we’ve spent the last four years witnessing the Death of the Flagship. The most important point we should talk about is addressing the audience for which “flagship” matters.

I am the 1 percent. If you’re reading this post, chances are you’re the 1 percent, too. We are the ultimate minority, the beer enthusiast who thrives on promiscuity and badges on Untappd. We want to learn about new beers from new breweries to fill our portfolio of experiences, often at the risk of ignoring heritage brands or simply buying beer in “bulk,” opting for single servings instead of six-packs.

There is nothing wrong with that. However, there is still 99 percent of the beer drinking public out there for which that behavior is not the norm.

Then again, this topic is wildly complicated. What we need to be asking, then, is what do the numbers show? Are flagships dying? Maybe, but not like you think.

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Zymurgy’s “Best Beers” List Loves Hops, Clings to Heritage Brands

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Death, taxes and Pliny the Elder being voted as Zymurgy’s “best beer” in America. All the things you can count on for the past eight years.

In fact, to see any change at the top of this list, you’d have to go all the way back to 2009, the last year the top-two beers *weren’t* Pliny (#1) and Bell’s Two Hearted (#2).

What makes the annual poll unique, however, is that it’s voted on by members of the American Homebrewers Association, not the public at-large from around the world, like Beer Advocate or RateBeer. On that point of information alone, you can surmise why Zymurgy’s list always includes unforgettable heritage brands made by the likes of Sierra Nevada and Dogfish Head. In just about any other scenario, beers made by these breweries are long past their expiration date of relevance to the Beer Nerds controlling review boards. Not so much on this year’s list – again.

BUT … the results are still similar in at least one way: these voters love their IPAs. More than 18,000 online votes cast with up to 20 allowed per voter picked the favorite commercial beers available for purchase in the United States.

Let’s see what’s trending.

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Let’s Build A Wall! U.S. Brewers Going After Mexican Import Market

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It’s getting hot out there. People are thinking beaches. Naturally, they’re thinking about beer, too.

With temperatures continuing to climb toward the summer months, what better time to “find your beach” then now? Fittingly, it’s a frame of mind successfully captured by Corona when it comes to pairing beer with an occasion. Of course, many of its peers are doing the same at a time when Americans are aiming to relax on some sand or in their backyard. As the mercury rises, so too have sales of Mexican beers.

Corona Extra, which has long been the top-selling imported beer, was joined by Modelo Especial last year to form a one-two punch at the top of import rankings. They’re not alone.

“For Mexican imports, it isn’t one brand that is driving growth, but rather nearly every brand within Mexican imports is growing either through distribution expansion, new marketing efforts and shifting consumer interest,” Danelle Kosmal, vice president of beverage alcohol practice for Nielsen, told Beverage Industry.

According to IRI data, Mexican imports represent 65.6 percent of the dollars spent on imported beer and 65.9 percent of the volume of imports brought to supermarkets and other stores in the U.S. In 2015, Mexican imports grew by 15 percent year-to-year in dollar volume. Slowly, those numbers continue to grow, too, buoyed by the country’s sizable Hispanic and Mexican population.

While sales of Mexican beers have chipped away at the market share of other foreign brands, it’s doing something of the opposite for U.S. brewers: It’s acting as inspiration.

Businesses are apparently thinking one way to make American beer great (again?) is by capturing some of this market.

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Your Beer of Summer is a Fruit IPA Because We All Keep Drinking Them

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Peaches are in season right now. Blueberries aren’t far behind. Watermelon is damn near the official fruit of the next few months.

The tastes of summer are here, but they aren’t just for our plates or serving bowls. More than ever, they’re for our pint glasses, too. Ballast Point might have started the trend with Grapefruit Sculpin, but now there’s New Belgium’s Citradelic, Green Flash’s Soul Style and Stone’s Enjoy By variant that includes tangerine. Fruit flavor isn’t only coming from the hops that we use, but increasingly fruit itself.

But why?

As more breweries skew toward our innate preference for sweetness to sell a variety of beers, it’s becoming clearer that this niche isn’t a flash in the pan trend. Breweries are going all in on new brands that play to our basic interests in food, offering us the pleasure of intoxicating brews mixed with a biological preference toward fruit.

It’s a match made in heaven: craft beer’s most popular style married to flavors we crave.

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Your Handy Guide to Explain Why Millennials Are So Important to Beer

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Lazy. Entitled. Selfish.

You could create an entire thesaurus with adjectives people love to use to describe Millennials, those selfie-taking, skinny-jean wearing, stay-at-home narcissists ruining society. What good do they do anyway?

“The pendulum will swing back,” I constantly hear from people trying to describe why their favorite thing will be a younger generation’s favorite thing because that’s how we make America great again.

Think pieces and hot takes by adults over 40 about how Millennials are ruining everything are a dime a dozen, bound together by a common denominator of nostalgia for “the good old days,” whatever they were, and a general lack of compelling data. Or, at least, selectively cherry picked data that helps to emphasize a particular point about how Millennials are wrong about something and whenever they grow and mature they’ll see the true path.

But lets for a second assume that all these businesses and marketing agencies touting the importance of courting a generation with trillion dollar buying power have some merit. What are we to do when those adorable curmudgeons come along? Let’s hit some talking points!

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Liking Sam Adams’ Beer is Now a Political Act

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“No thanks, I like my IPAs good…”

It was a comment left by my brother (mostly serious, partially in jest) on a recent photo I posted on Instagram showcasing Sam Adams’ Rebel Raw IPA. He gives me crap (jokingly) about my affinity for breweries like Sam Adams and Sierra Nevada, but he also lives in something of a beer Mecca in Seattle, Washington.

But he wasn’t the only one to tease, as I got some pushback on Facebook, too.

And there was this on Reddit:

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I know the conversation based around the question “is Sam Adams ‘craft'” gets people all kinds of wound up, but more than ever, the assertion that Boston Beer’s flagship brands should even be relevant just feels a bit too much. Even if it’s an argument spurred by beer lovers deep in the trenches of nerdom, having to justify an appreciation for one of the iconic breweries in the country makes the situation just a little too … political.

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Endless Love: The Search for Knowledge and Avoiding a ‘Beer Midlife Crisis’

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I am writing this from the grand hall of the Philadelphia Convention Center, where I’ve spent the last four days attending this year’s Craft Brewers Conference. I am here on an official capacity as a member of the media. I am still trying to wrap my head around it all.

I traveled just over 400 miles from North Carolina to get here and, by the time you read this, I will have traveled another 400 back.

The challenge of comprehending my place within beer – and the fact I have a place at all aside from Average Joe Drinker – gets pause from me every day. From whatever questionable beginnings of this blog to where I am now, I’ve somehow managed to carve out a niche. Because I write about beer sometimes.

I am still trying to wrap my head around it all.

So as Friend of the Program Oliver Gray prompts me to question the potential of my Beer Midlife Crisis as host of this month’s Session, I luckily fall – perhaps still bewildered – on the opposite side of his curiosities:

Do you find it hard to muster the same zeal for beer as you did a few years ago? Are you suffering through a beer-life crisis like I am? If so, how do you deal with it?

I’ve embraced the madness, whatever that means.

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