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Craft Beers Driving Up Sales

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Flavor, unusual styles and a local focus are bringing microbrews to the masses.
By Amanda Baltazar August 2011 Beer

Thirsty? Grab a beer!

Just a few years ago it used to be that simple, but now drinkers want more: flavor, new styles, food pairings, and perhaps a beer’s golden ticket: a local origin.

All of these things have become important to serious beer drinkers as the craft beer movement continues to gain momentum.

Strong flavors rule, and session beers and different styles of beer are all the rage—whether it’s an IPA (India Pale Ale), a stout, a Hefeweisen or a Belgian Trippel.

And craft breweries are popping up across the country. There are 1,700 breweries in the U.S. today, more than there’s ever been since the late 1800s, and 97 percent of them are considered small and independent, according to the Brewers Association.

“These are historic beer times and we’re in the middle of them,” says Julia Herz, craft beer program director for the association in Boulder, Colorado. “People support these beers because they understand what’s behind those brands and understand what it took to become a viable business.”

And the numbers back Herz up. Beer is a $101 billion business in the U.S., which equals the wine and spirits businesses combined, Herz says. But still, just 7.6 percent of those sales come from small and independent craft brewers, though their beers saw sales increases of 12 percent last year, compared with 10.3 percent in 2009.

Fueling the growth of craft beers is the speedy adoption by restaurants, brewpubs, bars and even family chain restaurants.

Chains Get Crafty

Applebee’s is one of those chains, and it offers craft brews alongside traditional domestic beers.

“Domestic light beers are still the best sellers, but the growing popularity of craft beers is significant,” says Brian Masilionis, the chain’s senior manager of beverage. “Applebee’s is a neighborhood grill and bar, so we offer local beers that guests love.”

These beers are especially popular with the twenty-somethings, he explains. Consumers in this age group “are drinking fuller-flavored craft beers, as they tend to experiment more with rich, robust and unique flavors.”

And Tampa, Florida-based Beef ‘O’ Brady’s has expanded its beer selection from eight choices to closer to 24 in its new prototypes in Elizabethton, Tennessee, and Largo, Florida.

“We looked at what our competitors were doing, and they often offer an extensive line of draft beers, and it really brings in people who are serious beer drinkers,” says CEO Chris Elliott. “We have a significant shortcoming in that regard. I think the new prototype will draw in these people.”

The chain of 213 franchised restaurants prefers to keep its craft beer line pretty straightforward.

“We don’t want to get too fancy with it, but if there are some local favorites, you’ve got to make sure you’ve got them on tap, too, but the distributors can tell you what’s selling, and you want to feature those rather than trying to guess,” Elliott says.

While beer drinkers are on a quest for flavor, one particular flavor seems to be top of mind — or palate — at the moment, and that’s hops, which particularly stand out in India Pale Ales.

“IPAs are king right now. Big time,” says Kala Hadfield, one of the brewers at Spinnakers Gastro Brewpub in Victoria, British Columbia. “Once people get a taste for hops, it’s hard to go back.”

IPA is one of the big sellers at Spinnakers, which draws a crowd ranging from twenty-somethings to a grayer-haired contingent.

Swinging With The Seasons


Rogue Ale’s brew master of 21 years, John Maier, helps develop the company’s Chatoe Rogue line.

Spinnakers was one of the very first brewpubs and opened in 1981. Its best seller is its IPA followed by Nut Brown Ale, a slightly sweet and mildly hopped beer. The brewpub has five standard beers on tap and rotates in seasonals.

Seasonal beers are essential, Herz says. “People like different beers for different occasions. Consumers are promiscuous and experimental in what they like to try and are not extremely loyal to a brand. The more hard-core you are into craft beer, the more you’ll likely be experimenting through the month with what you’re drinking.”

Newport, Oregon-based Rogue Ales is enjoying a lot of success with its seasonal Chatoe Rogue series.

These beers all feature the company’s own hops and barley. There are five beers in the series — Single Malt Ale (using 100 percent of the brewery’s own malt); Oregasmic (100 percent Oregon ingredients, including Rogue’s own hops and barley); Dirtoir Black Lager, Creek Ale (with cherries) and a Wet Hop Ale that uses hops unprocessed, fresh from the vine, which president Brett Joyce says “gives the beer the freshest hop and floral flavor you can get.”

These changing flavors are what consumers are seeking, he says. “They are looking for local and specific flavors.”

Consumers are looking for “variety and for new,” says Greg Engert, beer director of Birch & Barley and ChurchKey, a restaurant and bar respectively, in Washington, D.C. The two locations each offer 555 craft beers.

Brewers seem to be cutting down their number of year-round beers and replacing that with more seasonal beers, Engert says. That is forcing brewers to get creative and innovative.

But Engert isn’t seeing the lower-alcohol session beers take off—yet. The craft beer craze has spread so quickly, he says, that new drinkers are still seeking the bolder, higher-alcohol beers. Established craft beer drinkers are looking for the session beers, he says, “So I think it will be quite a while before these session beers make the impact we think they already have.”

The Portsmouth Brewery, Portsmouth, New Hampshire, is also seeing consumers opting for different beers in different seasons, but head brewer Ted Mott acknowledges that the craze right now is for IPAs.

But during the summer, Mott says, customers are looking for lighter, more flavorful beers. These beers tend to be lower in alcohol and because of this, he says, “you have to have more flavor to make it interesting.”

Popular in the summer are a Hefeweisen, which has banana and clove flavors and Wit beers (Belgian white beers), which have a bitter and sweet orange peel flavor, but are crisp and refreshing. The Hefeweisen is 4.25 percent alcohol by volume; the Wit is 4.5 percent.

It’s the flavors that people are seeking, not the low alcohol, Mott says.

“I think a lot of people are looking for the flavor profile so they’d be drinking the beer whether it’s lower alcohol or higher alcohol. They need flavor in the winter—those beers are more malt forward like the Scotch Ales, Imperial Stouts, Double and Trippel Belgian styles and are seven to 10 percent alcohol.”


Rogue Ales’ president Brette Joyce shows the company’s varied line of beers.

Sessions For Drinking

Some beer drinkers do seek out lower-alcohol beers, which are also known as session beers because several can be consumed during one drinking “session.”

According to the Brewers Association, most beer styles average 5.5 percent alcohol by volume, and Herz says that “today among the U.S. craft brewers, the majority of what they make is session beers.”

“At this time of year, you’ll see more session-type beers in the seasonal offerings. This is the height of the year for these lighter styles.”

Lower-alcohol beers have caught on fast in Canada, but for a different reason—last year the driving laws changed to allow for only 50 milligrams of alcohol in 100 milliliters of blood (0.05), a drop from the previous maximum of 80 milligrams.

“People immediately got into the mindset that they couldn’t go out and drink,” another Spinnakers’ brewer, Tommie Grant, says.

“We’ve always offered quite a few higher-alcohol beers, but now we are filling the spectrum with these lower-alcohol beers. They’ve been selling well.”

The beers include Summer Ale, which is brewed with pilsner malt and European hops, and Discovery Ale, brewed with local malt. These are 3.9 percent and 3.8 percent alcohol respectively.

These beers are doing well, he says, but particularly in the summer, when customers are looking for something refreshing, too.

As well as IPAs, as well as seasonal beers and session beers, there’s something else consumers are enjoying: local beers.

These, Engert says, tend to be a little less esoteric, as smaller brewers try to get a foothold, but are often “approachable, classic styles.” Another reason local beers are popular is they are fresh and typically inexpensive since the brewers don’t incur shipping costs, he says.

Portsmouth Brewery has a guest beer that constantly changes, and it’s almost always something local. “Customers want local,” Mott says, “because of the freshness and because they like to support local.”

Consumers and brewers alike are enjoying the craft beer renaissance, which bodes well for an industry in its infancy.

“The exciting part is this race to create new styles, and to be a leader, not a follower,” says Spinnakers’ Hadfield.

That could be good advice for restaurants, too.

Mix It, Shake It: Beer is Now in Cocktails


JoeDoe's Black & Tan contains Blue Point Spring Fling beer, Geary's Porter, Hirsch Bourbon, and a frozen marshmallow

Most British children have had a taste of beer before their 10th birthday, but it’s usually in the form of a shandy—beer mixed half and half with 7-Up or Sprite.

The Brits do other things with their beers, too: There’s the Black and Tan, containing a pale ale and a stout or porter; the Snakebite, made of lager and cider; and the Snakebite Black—lager, cider and blackcurrant cordial.

Maybe our friends across the Atlantic are onto something because beer cocktails are coming into vogue stateside.

They’re huge business at JoeDoe, a restaurant in New York’s East Village.

Beer cocktails here include Cerveza Preparada, made with Presidente beer, hot sauce, lime juice, salt, and Worcestershire sauce (with or without a tequila float), and a play on the classic Mexican Michelada mixed drink with beer.

JoeDoe’s beer cocktail list is 10 or 11 drinks deep and also features “Here Comes the Sun,” containing Green Flash West Coast IPA, Siembra Azul Tequila, and preserved citrus, and the “Muddy Puddle,” containing Sierra Nevada Stout, Old Pogue Bourbon, iced espresso, and peanut dust.

The cocktails—which the restaurant calls Prepared Beers and which cost $12—“came about because we didn’t have enough money for a wine list when we opened, or a proper storage facility,” says Jill Schulster, co-owner and barkeep. “We knew we had to find a way to compete with other restaurants in our area.”

She likes to innovate with the drinks she invents and to try unusual combinations. “I use a lot of spice,” Schulster says, adding that her cocktails are “often savory rather than sweet.”

The beer cocktails outsell the regular cocktails. ”People coming to our restaurant tend to come with an open mind, so convincing them to try the beer cocktails was hard at first. But now they come specifically for them.”

The cocktails also pair well with food. The restaurant has held tasting menus paired with the cocktails, and they go particularly well with spicy and acidic dishes, which makes them a viable alternative to wine.

Spinnakers Gastro Brewpub in Victoria, British Columbia, has two beer cocktails that brewer Tommie Grant says are well-suited to the summer—as well as Canada’s stricter alcohol driving limits.

The brewery offers The Radler—Summer Ale and fresh lemonade; and Spinnakers Shandy, made with Summer Ale (or any other light draft beer) and ginger beer.

The Portsmouth Brewery, a brewpub in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, makes beer cocktails more in the winter because customers enjoy drinks made with the bigger, bolder beers, says head brewer Ted Mott.

Popular is the Black Velvet, made with two parts stout and one part champagne.

But in the summer, the brewery is finding customers enjoy the Goserita—a take on a margarita. It includes tequila, Cointreau, lime and Gose, an ancient Hefeweisen, instead of the sour mix. Gose, Mott says, comes from Leipzig, Germany, and was made with coriander instead of hops. Portsmouth’s Gose does contain hops but has coriander added.

Greg Engert deliberately steers clear of beer cocktails at Birch & Barley restaurant and ChurchKey bar in Washington, D.C.

“For a long time beer wasn’t respected on the same level as wine and spirits. I’ve been on a crusade to claim beer’s identity and let people know that craft beer is as good as any wine out there.

“People aren’t making cocktails out of fine Bordeaux, and in my opinion, the craft beers are finished by the time they get to me. I want people to appreciate those beers for what they are.”