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Missy Begay (left) with Shyla Sheppard at Bow and Arrow Brewing Company cater to Native Americans in the city's Wells Park neighbourhood.

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J Nikol Jackson-Beckham (above) is a diversity ambassador for the Brewers Association, at Draught Works Brewery in Montana.

Craft beers bank on niche appeal and greater awareness

Jan 18, 2019 5:50 AM

New York

THOUSANDS of craft beer brewers across the country have a problem: Sales are slowing, tastes are changing and stiff competition is coming from new directions. Wine and spirits have cut into market share. Cannabis deregulation looms.

Despite a dozen years of growth in the industry, some people in the business are wondering aloud if the "post-craft" era is nigh, and some are embracing the opportunity to broaden their appeal. From niche beers to inviting taprooms and branding, the business is formally investing in its cultural diversity as never before. Not just because brewers think it's the right move - because it's a smart move, too.

"If you are going to grow, you cannot simply sell beer to young white dudes with beards," J Nikol Jackson-Beckham said in May, in her opening address as the first diversity ambassador for the Brewers Association, craft brewing's largest trade group, which represents nearly 7,000 small, independent brewers.

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Over the last year, she has travelled to brewers' guilds and industry conferences, and developed guidelines and resources to help brewers make their workplaces, customers and brands more inclusive. She also worked with organisers of the inaugural Fresh Fest, an event in Pittsburgh last August that billed itself as the country's first for African-American beer enthusiasts, in what she called a "pilot case" that will inform how the association can best support more events like it.

Ms Jackson-Beckham, who teaches at Randolph College in Lynchburg, Virginia, has been a home brewer and beer scholar for years. Her appointment last spring was perhaps the most significant and visible move yet in an industrywide effort to make craft brewing culture as diverse as its beers.

Even as domestic sales of craft beer reached a record-setting US$26 billion in 2017, that figure was just 8 per cent higher than sales in 2016. In most industries, those numbers might be cause for celebration, but for American craft brewers, who enjoyed even stronger boom times earlier in the decade, it looks more like a slowdown.

There is plenty of room for craft beer to grow outside the demographic of white men aged 21 to 50. Just 31 per cent of women say they drink craft beer "several times a year or more often," compared with 49 per cent of men, according to data from Nielsen-Harris on Demand; that's up from 25 per cent of women in 2015. But even as "craft is doing better with females", said Bart Watson, the Brewers Association's chief economist, the category "hasn't changed its race/ethnicity mix very much".

For years, macrobrewers such as Anheuser-Busch InBev and MillerCoors have pitched their brands to minority and under-served populations to shore up sales as one-time customers switched to wine, spirits or even craft beer. But brewers must walk a fine line as they seek to diversify their workforce and their fans, so the changes do not come off as a feeble attempt to make money.

Marketing "is where a lot of the conversation and press has been", said Jackson-Beckham, noting that in recent years, the online craft beer community has policed offensive beer labels and names, and criticised the brewers behind them.

Now, many breweries are finding ways to sell beers to under-represented drinkers respectfully. In Albuquerque, Bow & Arrow Brewing Co caters to Native Americans in the city's Wells Park neighbourhood.

"We like to be able to share our passion with other folks like us," said Shyla Sheppard, who owns the brewery with her partner, Missy Begay. Sheppard is a member of the Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara Nation and Begay is Navajo. "Our buddies are Native professionals: doctors and lawyers or even farmers and ranchers."

Bow & Arrow's Rancho Bizarro is a series of sour ales with label art created by the indigenous illustrator Dale Deforest. The brewery has also used Navajo tea in a limited-edition grisette beer, with plans to incorporate more indigenous ingredients in new brews.

"I'm not a Pollyanna. I know it's driven by sales," said Gonzalo J Quintero, a community activist and current adviser for San Diego State University's craft brewing certification program. He said craft brewers in his area, like Thorn Brewing in the city's Barrio Logan area, have created Mexican-style lagers because "they see that's a style of beer that appeals to a wide audience".

Making beer Baja-style to celebrate the Mexican brewing tradition requires a level of cultural appreciation and sensitivity. "There're ways to do things and be culturally appropriate" and not engage in cultural appropriation, Mr Quintero said.

He points to SouthNorte Beer Co, founded by a former brewmaster at Coronado Brewing Co in San Diego. The brewery makes Mexican-style beers, like its Sea Senor lager and No Guey! mango India pale ale. Beyond cheeky labels, SouthNorte is making serious investments across the border, working with Telefonica Gastro Park in Tijuana, Mexico, to build a permanent brewing outpost there. This sort of genuine cultural exchange, said Mr Quintero, "is putting their money where their mouth is". NYTIMES