Diversity Amongst Craft Beer Trends

Over the last few weeks, I’ve been getting a lot of media requests trying to uncover “the hot craft beer trends for 2016.” I’m not the only one doing this, and there are a lot of common answers out there including:

  • Sessionable styles (pilsner, session IPA, blonde/golden ales, etc.),
  • Sours (particularly sessionable sours like gose and berliner weisse)
  • Fruit or other infused takes on existing styles (grapefruit [or insert your favorite citrus here] IPA or coffee beers).

Increasingly, however, I’ve been dissatisfied with these simplistic answers. Trends are general movements, where a group of actors all do similar things. Given the accelerating diversity of the craft market, I see as many differences as similarities. While it’s always nice to categorize things, sometimes the variations outweigh the themes. Consequently, my new answer to these questions is going to be a more meta statement: the trend for 2016 is not a trend, rather it’s diversity.

All of this stems from the need for differentiation, the necessity for businesses to offer products that don’t already exist in the market or that offer a “better” version of what already exists (better is in quotes since it’s in the eye of the beholder). Differentation is important in any niche, value-added market, because you need to give consumers a reason to pay more for your good than for a lower-priced good produced with greater scale. It’s probably even more important in craft brewing than in most markets given the variety-seeking nature of craft’s clientele. And craft lovers want more variety: 33% of craft drinkers said they would purchase more craft if there were “more variety” (source: Nielsen).

Forty years ago this was easy. In the 1980s, variety meant “I don’t make what the large brewers make, aka lager or light lager.” Making all-malt beer was enough to be totally different than the vast majority of the U.S. beer market. As breweries proliferated, brewers needed more variety and greater differentiation to stand out. For a few years, this seemed to take the form of, “I make an IPA, but mine has [insert high number] IBUs.”

So what does differentiation mean today? Increasingly, there isn’t a single answer. Some breweries will rely on flavors or styles. Others will rely on being local, a factor that clearly matters to beer drinkers, but with nearly 2,000 breweries in planning, how long can any brewery stay the small, local choice?

This brings me back to trends. In an era of niches and differentiation, trends mean moving with the crowd rather than standing out, and that’s a dangerous proposition. Unless you can do it first, better, or cheaper than your competitors, following a trend means hoping your competitors don’t have any of those advantages either. And increasingly, they do.

The only thing that remains is to be different. Different in branding, in innovation, in your brewery’s DNA. So while magazines and news writers look for the trends of 2016, breweries should be looking in the opposite direction. What can you offer that everyone else can’t? Maybe it’s unique local ingredients or partnerships, maybe it’s your story, maybe it’s a style that no one is talking about. Whatever it is, I’m continually amazed by the ability of small and independent brewers to come up with a new answer.

Bart Watson, Chief Economist for the Brewers Association, is a stats geek, beer lover, and Certified Cicerone®. He holds a PhD from the University of California, Berkeley, where in addition to his dissertation, he completed a comprehensive survey of Bay Area brewpubs one pint at a time. You can follow him on Twitter @BrewersStats.

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