In a food and beverage market in which new iterations of products vie for consumers’ attention daily, if not hourly, a certain caste of critics like to claim that craft beer is a fad, a class of drinks in fashion for the time being that will eventually—perhaps literally—fizzle out. It is these commentators who are perfectly content sticking to the American lagers of yore, cracking bottle after bottle of Budweiser, patiently waiting for consumers to return to their comfort zone of cheap, flavorless beer.
Yet, as in other industries in which a new trend took hold of the nation, the beer industry is not simply experiencing a blip that will be forgotten when things return to business as usual. Business is not going to change to usual. The craft beer craze is here to stay, and it’s only going to continue growing as big beer companies, or at least their subpar products, gradually lose the ability to quench beer drinkers’ thirst for good beer.
The Levis Theory: Craft Beer is Here for Good (and Gender Neutral)
Craft beer is the denim jeans of pants. True, beer has its en vogue styles—double and imperial IPAs, Brettanomyces-fermented “horse blanket” sours and barrel aged-to-infinity barley wines may go the way of whitewashed jeans, Capri jeans and bell bottom jeans—but just as denim came into the picture and never left, people are not going to change their minds about drinking beer that better suits their needs. Perhaps radical at the time, denim became a staple of the American (and Western) wardrobe for men and women everywhere, and people never stopped wearing it. They’re not going to stop drinking better beer, either.
The Playstation Theory: Craft Beer is Adapting to a Changing Market
Whether a gamer, Gen X-er, parent or arguably none of the above, almost everybody knows what Nintendo is. It’s the video game company that created Mario, the Mickey Mouse of video games, the arcade game from Japan that changed the world.
However, ask any modern gamer about Nintendo today, and they’ll shrug. No longer at the forefront of video game innovation, Nintendo has fallen by the wayside while it produces game after game with the same characters, for the same media. In the meantime, other, newer, console companies have been competing for first place: X Box and Playstation.
Playstation is continually coming out with new consoles, controllers, games and stories. Playstation 1, 2, 3 and 4 have each been relevant and coveted, even with X Box and X Box Live as its competitors. Year after year, both systems create new reasons to buy their consoles, their extensions, their games and those games’ new features.
Perhaps the most important distinction between Playstation/X Box and Nintendo is the existence and availability of (free) games in a medium that’s very important to players: the Internet (and in particular, mobile devices). While other video game companies have adapted to new technologies available to game players, Nintendo has famously faltered, preventing its products from becoming available for free or on mobile devices, and as such, it has been left behind. By refusing to adapt to changing consumer demands, the video game giant has become less successful.
As craft brewers invent new ways to make beer and create more locally-focused brews, holding their audience from batch to batch, big beer companies like Bud are slowly but steadily losing market share.
The Mrs. Meyers Theory: Craft Beer Costs More Because it’s Better for You and the Environment
When I was growing up, two or three brands of cleaning products shouted out for shoppers at local supermarkets. Chemicals had to be kept out of sight and under kitchen sinks because they could kill your children. Somewhere, meanwhile, Mrs. Meyers was brewing up new recipes for soaps and household cleaners in her eco-friendly kitchen.
As more environmentally conscious brands tried their hand at products that could actually clean your house without killing you—and look and smell good while they were doing—the next generation of house-cleaning consumers emerged. Names like “Method” and “Honest” bumped their pretty bottles up against harsh names on large containers like “Clorox” and “Windex.” Mrs. Meyers moved in next to Mr. Clean.
Budweiser and Coors may not be poison – I still drink it from time to time, just like I still use bleach to scrub my tiles from time to time – bleach will still clean your tiles incredibly well, just like Budweiser will still give you a buzz. But put simply, when there are better options, wouldn’t you rather do it better?
Compared to macro beers, micro-brewed beer is better for you because its ingredients maintain their nutritional integrity. In other words, the malted barley that is used to make beer and the liquid that’s extracted from it (along with what’s extracted from fruits, herbs and other ingredients included in many microbrews) stays present in the beer that you end up drinking.
This is not the case for major “lawnmower lagers.” Big brands remove much of the nutritional content in their beers via pasteurization to ensure homogeneity prior to sale. Craft brewers not only combat this “empty calories” scenario, but even serve to benefit the bodies of the health-conscious—used as a recovery beverage after a period of physical exertion, craft beer can actually replenish runners’ or cyclists’ electrolytes, as well as rebuild much needed muscle tissue due to vitamins present. (In fact, one Dutch study performed at the TNO Nutrition and Food Research Institute found that craft beer drinkers had 30 percent higher levels of vitamin B6 in their blood than non-drinkers, and twice as much vitamin B6 as wine drinkers.)
In my own experience, I have seen a considerable difference in the benefits of micro vs. macro beers in another area related to their ingredients: consumption. For myself and many friends, it has often been the assumption and practice that light beers are made for drinking in large quantities. Thanks to their being cheap, watered-down and easy to “chug,” they are ubiquitously present on college campuses to drink during activities that encourage binge drinking. If only for the sheer volume of bad beer drinking habits (beer pong, anyone?), experiences I’ve had and witnessed among the likes of Coors and Natural Light are not ones I would deign to repeat.
Craft beer, on the other hand, is meant to be savored. Even over a period of several hours, two companions might share two or four beers, as opposed to the dozen or more that could be crushed between the same people in the same amount of time otherwise. Studies have proven the benefits of moderate consumption of beer, qualifying the beverage as part of a healthy diet that can promote well-being, decrease risk of Alzheimer’s, achieve cancer-fighting antioxidants and contribute to LDL or “good cholesterol” which prevents heart disease. (Even further, a 2009 Tufts University study revealed that elderly test subjects who consumed a moderate amount of beer every day achieved higher bone density than those who abstained.)
Consumers’ tendency toward fewer, better, more thoughtfully crafted beers of a wide variety isn’t limited to “trendy” areas, either—the trend is taking hold across the United States, and it’s happening so rapidly in every region that a recent Brewers Association survey determined the majority of Americans live within 10 miles of a local brewery.
A fad implies a temporary fixation with a product or cultural item. The thousands of microbreweries cropping up across the country may be new, and surely many will fail. But the industry at its core will not fail and it is not temporary. Craft beer is a movement, both culturally and economically. As we gain more access to small and independent brewing companies making beers with fresh, local ingredients, we and the next generation of beer consumers will lose interest in lagers lacking flavor, inventiveness and versatility. We’re not drinking craft beer because it’s cool. We’re drinking it because we finally can.