Exploring Drinker Demographics: When Biology and Social Expectations Collide

Who cares about “craft beer”? And when?

The first time I found out I loved craft beer, I didn’t know it was craft beer.

It was just “beer.” And it was good.

I had moved beyond the BMC days of high school and found out there was more beer readily available than the Hoegaarden or Guinness I became fond of in my late teens. While I loved Sam Adams and their variety packs, everything changed my senior year of college.

I found myself with a minimal disposable income, a growing interest in what I drank and a bottle shop a few miles away. All of a sudden, new beers and flavors were within easy reach.

My roommates and I – all 21 or 22 – made trips together. We once bought a case of Saranac Caramel Porter to share among the three of us, which was the best beer I’d ever had. I drank it cold or warm. From the bottle or out of a somewhat clean shaker pint glass. I didn’t care.

It was sweet and candy-like, but not annoyingly so. A mix of malt, caramelized sugar and natural flavors. I had no idea Saranac wasn’t actually the name of the brewery (it’s Matt Brewing Company) nor did I know what “craft” was or how the business fit into it.

It was just “beer.” And it was good.

Which makes me wonder about today’s young drinkers. My experience with Saranac was about eight years ago, an entire era in our modern craft beer boom. For those transitioning out of youthful habits and into new maturity based around the presence and idea of “craft,” how does that impact their decisions as consumers?

Firstly, we know that for college-aged drinkers, price point is the top factor influencing purchase behaviors. But somewhere along the line, that changes. Perhaps it’s worth considering that Millennials, who represent almost 50 percent of the craft beer market and include that group of college students, believe what you drink “says a lot about you.

“Craft beer is not only a beverage choice; it appears to be a lifestyle choice,” said Mintel’s food and drink analyst Beth Bloom.

What causes us to move on from binging and seek out a rewarding drinking experience?

So what we have here is a case of maturity – both as a person and a consumer. But how does this circle back to our binging college students?

On most campuses, there are offices or organizations focused on cutting back unhealthy alcohol use. There are even national organizations focused on the issue. Drinking less, or at least more responsibly, has direct correlation with simply having such a program in place.

Which leads me to wonder, if we think more about what we drink, as evidenced by Millennials who believe it defines you, will it impact how we drink? From a social and biological standpoint, the answer seems like yes.

Let’s go back to the original crux of this discussion: those college students.

Are we “wired” to care about craft?

We know that price means a lot to take the initial action of drinking a beer, but why go after another and another? Some alcohol-based studies have pointed toward the brain’s ventromedial prefrontal cortex, which associates with our reward-based choices. Not only is its matter less mature for young people, but it’s also tied to the potential of allowing binge drinkers to process what “reward” means differently than others.

In the short-term for young drinkers, the ventromedial prefrontal cortex associates with judgement related to pleasure. But on a long-term scale, that part of the brain also has a key role in constructing one’s self identity.

This aspect is important, then, as it coincides with social signals we rely on to display levels of conformity, especially as we grow and mature as both a person and a consumer.

What does craft say about us?

Would you consider “craft beer” more mature than macro options like Keystone, Coors Light or Natty Light? My assumption is that we all do (to some degree) due to a connection between the belief that enjoying a better product (no matter the price) equates to greater maturity as a consumer. So as these young drinkers are moving from one stage of “drinking maturity” to another, I wonder: in addition to taste, do people adjust to craft beer simply because it’s more “grown up”?

From 2011 to 2013, 80 percent of craft beer growth came from new customers, the majority of which were 21 to 29. This group – on the tail end of an undergraduate collegiate career and beyond – find themselves in a market swarmed with new beer choices, but also discretionary income, maturing societal pressures and their own biological maturity.

If these are the people who believe that the kind of beer you drink defines you, they’ve essentially hit the perfect trifecta to become a new craft beer consumer. Not only are Millennials ready to be marketed to, but the collective buying power of this age demographic is rising. It’s expected to hit $200 billion annually starting in 2017 and is spurred on by increased job growth, a prospect that also impacts drinkers just above the Millennial age range.

At some point in their late teens and early 20s, young drinkers are making the conscious decision that price isn’t as important as quality. More important, they’re flocking en masse to craft beer options as Big Beer struggles to figure out what to do.

Even though I wasn’t acutely aware of what “craft beer” was eight years ago as I tipped back Saranac Caramel Porters, that feels like a generation ago in today’s craft-centric beer culture. To today’s young drinkers, labels may be important. Hell, they may even define who they are.

But what seems clear is they’re looking for “craft beer.” And it better be good.

Later this week I’ll delve into this idea of demographics one more time, with the hope of better defining who our drinkers are and why it’s important to look beyond the numbers associated with them.

More in this series:

+Bryan Roth
“Don’t drink to get drunk. Drink to enjoy life.” — Jack Kerouac

Disclaimer: I am not a neurologist, nor do I have a background in brain sciences. I just have great curiosity and access to the National Institutes of Health website and its supported studies. Additional information or context to add to the biological discussion of this post is welcomed.


7 thoughts on “Exploring Drinker Demographics: When Biology and Social Expectations Collide

  1. “At some point in their late teens and early 20s, young drinkers are making the conscious decision that price isn’t as important as quality.”

    I think most humans spend what they make. It isn’t a conscious decision to reject lower quality and adopt higher quality. We always seek out the best quality we can afford. Their decision is based off disposable income. Students have minimal income therefore they eat Ramen noodles, drive clunkers, drink cheap beer, and live in the slums. In several ways their life looks similar to people who live in poverty. As income goes up they buy newer cars, live in better apartments, eat better food, and drink better beer.

    1. An excellent point, Tom! That’s a natural correlation, for sure. What is of particular interest to me, and something I hope to address in a post on Friday, is that more money doesn’t necessarily mean buying craft. I’m in complete agreement with you – having that disposable income changes your expectations. As with everything, I’m just terribly curious as to all the “whys” that may apply!

  2. I think your missing the point a touch… When I was 20, a large pepperoni pizza and a six pack was a culinary adventure. As I get older, I want (and demand) diversity and complexity of flavors in both my food and beverages… and as a trained Sommelier, I can tell you palates can be educated and do evolve. I have seen it happen with people many times. For those still wanting to sample new things that life has to offer, perhaps with age comes wisdom… and a more educated palate?

    1. I think we’re both pointing at the same thing, just coming from different angles! I agree that maturity as a person most definitely correlates to maturity as a consumer, which leads to your point of a shifting palate. A large part of my curiosity comes from the question of why we’re seeing this beyond just taste, because from that perspective, it’s an easy answer: diversity and complexity in our food and drink isn’t just adventurous, but delicious.

      I believe there are many threads that connect to that final outcome and wanted to tug at some that wound up in my brain. Perhaps today’s post adds another layer? (Or just makes it all murkier still)

      Thanks for reading and chiming in!

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