For two years, a collaboration of brewers from the Boston Beer Company and Weihenstephan worked to develop a unique new beer. The result, the champagne-like Infinium, was brewed in accordance with the German Beer Purity Law of 1516 with a process that is still patent pending. On its webpage, the beer is praised as “groundbreaking” and “unlike any ever brewed under the Reinheitsgebot.”
“I wanted to have it, I wanted to try it,” said Edgar McGuire, co-owner of Bootleggin’ Barzini’s in Coralville. And after securing a bottle, McGuire did exactly what many of his customers do: He drank it and thought, “Okay. What’s next?”
Instead of buying the same, trusted six-pack, many beer drinkers now spend their money on what is new, most extreme and whatever they are thirsty for at the moment. It is a mentality that is keeping everyone in the brewing industry on their toes to remain relevant in the booming craft beer market. And though retailers and brewers say it is not a bad thing, the insatiable curiosity and ever-changing cravings of their customers has thrown the old concept of brand and brewer loyalty out the window, replacing it with a passion tailored to each person’s unique set of taste buds.
“You’ve got to keep them all happy,” said Teresa Albert, co-owner of the Millstream Brewing Company in Amana, Iowa, “and it’s fun doing it.”
Since March, prominent craft breweries Founders, Green Flash and Stone have introduced their beers to the Iowa market, and local retailers say the highs and subsequent lows following each release serve as examples of the intense enthusiasm and newfound faithlessness of modern beer drinkers.
When Green Flash was released in July, Edgar and his brother, Clark, offered the brewery’s entire line-up. They dedicated an entire cooler to Green Flash beers and also displayed them on the sales floor. The beer sold well at first, but interest waned as the days and weeks passed. Now the McGuires offer just a single row of West Coast IPA on their room temperature shelf.
“People had it and then they were like, ‘Sweet. I’ve had it. What’s next?’” Edgar said
What was next were beers from Stone, which have eclipsed those from both Founders and Green Flash to become the newest thing and hottest seller in town.
Joe Hotek, the beer manager/beer guy at John’s Grocery, said he has noticed a “slow down” with Founders and Green Flash. Both still compete well with the other craft beers he offers, but the initial spike of interest has faded since their introduction. It is something he says is only natural. Beer enthusiasts are always excited when a beer they have tried elsewhere or have heard about is introduced locally. They only have “X amount of dollars” to spend and will buy the newest beer available. “The market is naturally going to shift that way,” Hotek said.
Though he does have customers who buy the same six-pack every other day and refuse to shop for anything else, Hotek said they are mostly older consumers. He said younger people like himself have no brand loyalties in regards to beer; gone are the days when they aligned themselves ideologically with one brewery. Nowadays, Hotek said beer drinkers are loyal to the craft beer industry as a whole and the styles of their liking. They also want the newest beers available—especially in Iowa, where the craft beer market has been deprived of brews found elsewhere in the country.
Albert echoed Hotek’s thoughts, saying that craft beer drinkers have a “huge loyalty” to the industry and the styles they like best. One week someone may be craving IPA and buy different versions, and another week they may be thirsty for stout and try as many as they can. It may be fickle, but she says it has been good for business.
“I’ve got fifteen different styles of beer, so that is giving you fifteen opportunities,” she said. “It’s not hurting us at all.”
However, despite the shift away from unwavering loyalties, Albert, Hotek and the McGuires all agreed that craft beer drinkers have a strong loyalty to local craft beer, something they attribute to the “buy local” and locavore movements. While in Colorado recently, Edgar McGuire said many restaurants and bars take pride in their local breweries, prominently showcasing their beers on menus. Albert said many of her customers are loyal because Millstream is Iowa-made, and has also been approached by nearby restaurateurs who want to locally source their beer just as they have locally sourced their food.
Quality, however, is essential. Beer drinkers, Albert said, will not continue to buy bad beer. A fan of amber ales, Albert tries as many as she can. If she drinks one she does not like, she will never try it again. “I am not going to give it a second chance. There are too many others out there,” she said.
But what is next? What can local beer drinkers eagerly anticipate in the coming years? How are brewers and retailers planning to meet the demands of customers always thirsting for something different?
Though he did not name names, Hotek expects many more brands to enter the state. By the end of 2013, he said Iowa will become a “full-fledged, modern craft beer state.” Eventually the highs and lows experienced this year with the release of Founders, Green Flash and Stone will even out as the market levels and no new breweries are entering the state.
To keep drinkers excited and interested, McGuire thinks more breweries should use what he called the “Dogfish Head model,” in reference to the Dogfish Head Brewery in Milton, Delaware. He thinks it is advantageous for breweries to offer four or five high-quality, year-round beers and release many seasonals and one-offs. “That way you’re always doing something new. You’re always trying something new,” he said.
Hotek agreed: Breweries should focus on seasonals and limited releases instead of expanding their year-round offerings. Even though a brewery may release a style he is not interested in, he said he will still try it. “Because it is something new, it’s limited,” he said, “and limited interests me.”
It is a message that has been received by Albert and her team. For the last couple years, Millstream has complemented its year-round beers and annual releases with an “extreme” series of high-proof beers. Depending on the reaction to each, Albert said the beers in the series will either be brewed again or replaced with another recipe. She thinks the series does keep people interested, but only appeals to the top twenty percent of beer geeks.
“But, boy, there’s twenty percent of those people out there that are going, ‘What’s different? What’s new? What can I get?’,” Albert said. “They may never drink it again, but they want to try these different things.”
Retailers are very aware of that, too. With a finite amount of space, and the fact that beer has a limited shelf-life, there is only so much room for so many craft beers. Those that do not sell or continue to generate interest will be cut. The industry is evolving so quickly, McGuire said, that “if you don’t stay on top of your game you’re gonna be forgotten.”
“We will never be satisfied as a craft consumer,” he said. “We are always going to want to see the next thing.”
Casey Wagner lives in Iowa City.