At the opposite end of the beer spectrum from mass-produced light golden colored pilsners style lager beer can be found a category of beers called “craft beers”. And if you think NASCAR fans exhibit a high degree of brand identification it will almost boggle your imagination to experience the brand identification of the beer geek.
Before that example of fanaticism is explored it is important to determine exactly what “craft” beers are and where they came from.
Responsibility for the little bastards and I use the term specifically, as the first small breweries were exactly that, has been laid at the feet of three patriarchs: Bert Grant (Yakima Brewing and Malting Co.), Fritz Maytag (Anchor Brewing Co.), and John R. McAuliffe (New Albion). These stalwart pioneers epitomized exactly what “craft beer” would become famous for. All three were entrepreneurs, independent, and slightly eccentric.
From the beginning the Holy Grail was English Pale Ale. There were two reasons for this. The first reason was that many people had gone to Europe and tasted British beer for the first time and discovered pubs. Upon returning home they found the equivalent sadly lacking. The second reason is that the entire brewing process for ale is almost half of what it is for lager style beer and therefore a lot less expensive. With the exception of Fritz Maytag’s Anchor Brewery most of the first small breweries, by then they had a name “microbrewery”, were developed, maintained and operated on shoestring budgets. Their advertising department, marketing department, shipping department, accounts receivable and payable department, and brewmaster were usually the same person with at least one or two friends who knew something more than they did regarding at least one or two of the aforementioned departments.
This meant that not only did the restaurateurs, beverage managers, and bartenders get to meet the person who actually made the beer; more often as not there was a bar full of impressionable customers. The art of comparative beer tasting was not lost on these pioneers. The flavors and aromas of fresh ale are distinctly different from what had traditionally been thought of as premium beer. The colors were darker, and the hop and malt flavors used enthusiastically rather than hidden in the background. The freshness of the product, enhanced flavors and aroma, and the opportunity to meet the person who made the beer were all value enhancers that build an almost fanatical sense of brand identification.
While this was happening there was a growing interest, among members of the counterculture that found fulfillment in communal living and sustainable farming, in the magic and art of brewing beer for themselves and friends. Soon mainstream, or semi-mainstream, homebrewers were riding the coattails of the folks who fermented wine at home.
There were two types of people essentially that drove the popularity of this hobby. The first for those who simply enjoyed making something that was special to them for any number of reasons. At the other end of the spectrum could be found a good number of people seeking relatively inexpensive relatively highly alcoholic beverages. The coexistence, cooperation and appreciation of each other as expressed by members of both of these essential groups have been truly remarkable thing.
The continued popularity of “craft beer” can be seen in the efforts of the major brewers to emulate the packaging and marketing of the smaller breweries. This emulation of the small breweries by the large mega-breweries cannot be blamed on the influence “beer geeks” alone.
The ability of larger numbers of consumers to convince themselves of the unique characteristics of small breweries based simply on label art and packaging has only be matched by those in the 1960s who smuggled Coors beer to the East Coast convinced that it was the product of a funky little brewery in the mountains of Colorado.
Of course the proliferation of flavors is also something that makes the small breweries stand out and outstanding. Many beer drinkers await the seasonal beers produced by the small breweries with as much enthusiasm as basketball fans have for the annual March Madness.
All of this of course builds intense brand identification. However, there is a peculiar universality involved in the appreciation of “craft beer”. This peculiar universality is that local beer is fresh beer and the freshest beer is local beer. Therefore, although you may dearly love your brand from your hometown, when you are somewhere else their local beer is the beer to call for.
In short, what makes “craft beer” so special? The basic answer is quite simply as stated above “local beer is fresh beer and the freshest beer is local beer”. The hands-on image that it evokes is also essential implying additional value. The ability of brewers to be creative in their flavor combinations is also an additional draw to these types of beer. Finally, it is the amount of knowledge the consumers of these products bring to the decision-making process when picking a beer from the lineup of “craft beer”. And then of course there is the price. Almost all of these beers are super premium priced some bottles of beer costing almost as much as a similar sized bottle of wine. All of these things go together to create a sense of exclusivity, of being something special, of being part of something special.
And that’s why “craft beer” is special…