At Callahan Creek, we tend to spend a lot of time with craft beer drinkers. Part of it is because we work with Free State Brewery here in Lawrence, Kansas. But mostly it’s just because we love craft beer. Even when on vacation, many of us like to frequent brewpubs in different cities and share our discoveries with our friends and colleagues back at the office. Just recently, my wife and I embarked on a 4,400 mile loop through Boulder, Salt Lake City, Las Vegas, Los Angeles, Flagstaff, Albuquerque and Oklahoma City. And yep, we found a brewpub (or three) in every city. After visiting these pubs, I came away with an even stronger belief in the power of the “craft beer trinity,” the intersection of food, folks and fermentation. Understanding and applying these elements to a craft beer brand will result in stronger loyalty and advocacy.
Beer Is Contextual
Drinking beer is highly contextual. The situation drives the identity a drinker adopts in order to “fit in” culturally and socially and drives choices with regard to food, drink, behavior and projected image. For example, the beer selected after mowing the yard is typically very different from the beer ordered when dining with a business colleague. There are situations where craft beer is frequently ordered, and in these circumstances the quality of the food tends to be higher (e.g., not just chips and dip) while the focus of socialization is on human interaction and connection. These occasions are best understood by examining the interaction between food, folks and fermentation.
Food – Food is such a powerful element of culture. It communicates an individual’s level of sophistication, their level of respect or caring for another and even personal competency. Food is also an essential part of craft beer culture and choice, i.e., good food is expected with good beer. When a craft beer is ordered and any accompanying food is presented and prepared without the same degree of thought and quality as was the beer, the overall experience is diminished.
Folks – Beer is frequently used as a badge, and there are those who only care about holding the bottle a certain way so everyone can see the label in their hand. Craft beer drinkers, however, tend to be more relationship-oriented. For them, drinking craft beer is not only what they are drinking but who they are drinking it with. The shared experience and human interaction are a inseparable part of the mix, and craft brewers should reflect this milieu when talking about their beer.
Fermentation – At the end of the day, quality does matter. Craft beer is entering a new era, one where there are many new arrivals in the market that have the sole intent of making money, not creating great beers. Many of these new offerings are disappointing, not delivering on the level of quality and taste that is expected of a craft brewer. Always remember that craft beer stands for quality and experience, and delivering a “good enough” product is what the mass beers do. If you aren’t truly any different or better than a mass beer, why would anyone spend money on your brand?
What’s a Craft Brewer to Do?
Along my trip, a few brewers did a great job across all three of these elements, and the venues in which their beers were served were vibrant, busy and energetic. They just felt different. Most, however, only delivered on one or two. They were just less: less memorable, less enjoyable and less meaningful.
I foresee a lot of confusion and consternation amongst craft beer brewers and consumers over the next few years as new craft beers flood the market. An established craft beer brewer can survive by delivering clear and authentic communication about their craft beer along with a commitment to and resolute focus on product quality. Anything else will ultimately just get lost in a sea of sameness. What do you think? Should craft brewers spend time and effort on the elements of this trinity? Or is the market still growing so fast that it will lift all boats?