A craft beer for every palate … and a palate for every craft beer?

Great news for craft beer lovers earlier this week: NPR reported that craft beer sales jumped 20 percent in 2013, and now make up almost 8 percent of beer sales in America, according to numbers released by the Brewers Association.

The characterization of craft brewers as “bearded hipsters who brew their IPAs with chamomile and white sage or age their lagers in 30-year-old whiskey barrels” is hilariously close to home. But it was this sentence later in the article that really got me thinking:

These days, there’s a craft beer for practically every palate — and price range.

It got me wondering. What does “a craft beer for practically every palate” mean? Is craft beer growing because consumers are finding their favorite among a wide range of options and then drinking only that beer from then on out? Or because consumers are more adventurous and willing to try new things? Or some combination of the two?

In my day job, I work with marketing and product development people enough to know that modern businesses position themselves for success by offering a diverse portfolio of products. Today’s consumers demand customization. An electronics company won’t just make smartphones; they’ll make tablets, TVs, or laptops, or all of the above. A company that makes messenger bags offers a variety of similar bags with different colors, patterns, and compartments. Companies that make chewing gum make four thousand varieties of chewing gum. The idea is simple: no matter who you are, we have a product for you.

But most people only need one smartphone, or tablet, or messenger bag – at least one at a time. As consumable commodities, beers are something you always go back to buy more of. Still, craft breweries follow a similar model by offering a variety of beers: a stout, a wheat, a pale ale or two, etc. On the surface, the idea seems to be the same: no matter what kind of beer you like, we brew one for you. And I’m sure that accounts for the growing popularity of craft beer among most beer consumers. There are “Sierra Nevada Pale Ale men” out there the way there used to be “Bud men”, and that’s a great thing.

But there are other craft beer consumers, and I’ve mentioned them once already: the chamomile-and-white-sage-IPA hipsters. Hardcore beer geeks. Bearded and/or bespectacled, wearing shirts emblazoned with zymurgic shibboleths like “OG/FG” in the AC/DC font or with the logos of obscure breweries. Using words no one else uses, like Brett, goaty and attenuated, and otherwise talking about discontinued seasonals like some people talk about vintage comic books (“No, Tyler, you’re thinking of the Great Divide 16th Anniversary Wood Aged Double IPA, not the 18th.”)

These folks – maybe you know one, maybe you are one (guilty as charged here) – but the point is that we don’t just drink one kind of beer, no matter how good we think it is. We approach the beer aisle of our favorite store like entomologists on a hunt for some rare insect. We buy things we haven’t seen before. We may be disappointed or nonchalant. We may not buy it again. But we know it’s worth it to slog through nine six-packs of mediocre beer to find that tenth beer that absolutely wows us. And we buy a lot of beer.

For us, variety and innovation are the whole point. That’s probably why many of us homebrew. And we would be no happier in a world with only one beer even if that one beer was Pliny the Elder instead of Bud Light. (Okay, maybe we’d be a little happier.) But where do our palates fit in with the concept of “practically every palate”? Or is there a line on the spectrum for us whose palates are motivated by the love of all beer and are excited by beers that are both innovative and exceptionally brewed?

It’s not that I’m questioning the wording of the NPR article, far from it. It’s a great article shedding light on an issue that’s very important to me, and I appreciate NPR devoting space to it. I’m just wondering.

I’d love to see statistics on how much of craft beer’s growth is due to brand allegiance from consumers buying one kind of beer, and how much is due to consumers buying a lot of different beers. Someone must have a graph.

What do you think, Internet? Does anyone out there know?

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About Shawn M

Writer, podcaster, blogger, and homebrewer in Austin, Texas.

2 responses to “A craft beer for every palate … and a palate for every craft beer?”

  1. Charles says :

    I prefer to drink a variety of stuff. Sure, I have old faithfuls that I return to pretty frequently and favorites in different styles, but I still like to try different and new things.Beer is like wine or mixed drinks insofar as different seasons/meals/settings call for different beers. I wouldn’t drink a gin and tonic or vodka soda in winter, just like I wouldn’t typically drink a lot of heavy stouts and strong ales in summer. If I’m eating a heavy, fatty meal, I probably want a beer that’s light, refreshing, and fizzy to contrast and cut it, etc.

    But it would not surprise me if there were people who drink some craft-ish beers exclusively, i.e. “Bud men” or “Coors men.” With the big three (or how many is it now? I lose track…) buying up craft brewers, more decent stuff is ending up in chain restaurants and the like. You can find Blue Moon pretty much anywhere now, Sam Adams also – regardless of your opinion of them. Shock Top, Goose Island are also property of the mega-brewers. It wouldn’t surprise me to see the tastes of the swill-drinking masses shift as the big brewing companies make those options available. It’s the trickle-down effect. Kind of like how salsa is now a standard condiment on hand in every house, whereas when I was a kid in rural Mississippi, it was something rare. Now, there are fifty different varieties of packaged salsa at the grocery store, and the true connoisseurs make their own or get it in the mail from some little place in Texas…

    • Shawn says :

      So, so true. It’s kind of a golden age for whatever you’re obsessed with, isn’t it? So much to choose from that you can go deep and find whatever appeals to your specific tastes (or just make your own)!

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