Over-hyped and over-hopped, craft brewing needs some fresh strategies

Posted: July 03, 2014

FOR ALL their innovation, American craft brewers are starting to grow stale.

Over-hopped beers? Yeah, they were novel . . . about 15 years ago. Now everyone brews a double IPA.

Wacky flavors? Used to be we couldn't wait for pumpkin beer each autumn. Now, because there are so many of them competing for shelf space, the pumpkin season starts in two weeks and you'll be sick of them by Labor Day.

Barrel-aged beer? Because it takes months and years to properly age and blend beer, barrel-aged beer was once a rarity. Today, it's so commonplace that even Anheuser-Busch sells something called Shock Top Honey Bourbon Cask Wheat.

Small brewers push the envelope. It's part of their DNA. Hybrid hops. Canned micros. Wild ale. Collaboration brews. All great ideas that help create the essential aura of craft beer as something special.

But as they say: Been there, done that.

Craft brewing needs some fresh ideas. Here are five:

1. Get malty

Hops are fashionable, I know. They're a relatively cheap ingredient and - thanks to the development of new varieties - an easy way to add distinctive flavor and aroma.

But what about malt? When was the last time you read a label that extolled a beer's grain bill? Or tasted a beer made with a brand new type of barley?

Part of the problem is that, other than imperial stout, malty beers get very little notice from beer freaks. Breweries have largely abandoned other malt-centric styles, namely porter, traditional bock and dark lager, because people stopped drinking them in favor of hop bombs.

But a draft list with nothing but hops is boring. A brewery that focuses on malt - perhaps one that makes its own, like they did in the old days - will have a guaranteed spot on a tap lineup.

2. Returnable bottles

These days, every other brewery boasts about its efforts toward sustainability. Alternative energy sources. Reduced water use. Organic farming. Waste treatment. All good ideas.

Here's another one: refillable bottles.

Young readers will not remember this, but there was a time when it was standard operating procedure to return your bottles to the place where you purchased them. Just after World War II, nearly nine out of 10 beer bottles in America were refilled. Today, that portion is about 3 percent.

Refillable bottles reduce the need for raw materials, reduce waste and reduce energy use. It actually takes less water to wash a bottle than to make a new one.

A smart brewery could turn the chore of returning bottles into a promotional gimmick that draws repeat customers - one of the biggest challenges for small business.

3. Lower prices

For years we've been told that craft beer is pricier than mainstream beer because it uses more costly ingredients, is higher in alcohol and is painstakingly handcrafted in small batches.

Fair enough.

So how come session IPAs cost $40 a case? They're brewed with less malt, they're lower in alcohol and they're often made in computer-operated breweries that run as efficiently as mainstream plants that sell beer at half the price.

There's a profitable niche awaiting the first brewery that rethinks its pricing and targets workaday wallets.

4. Vending machines

You can buy practically anything in a vending machine, so why not beer?

Oh, right: It might be against the law.

Well, so was home brewing at one time, and when that was finally legalized under federal law in 1978, it revolutionized the beer industry.

Someone get to work on this now, please.

5. Advertise

Craft breweries are counterculture, so (other than Samuel Adams) they've historically rejected mainstream advertising. Outside of industry publications and websites, small breweries connect with their audience largely through person-to-person, grass-roots marketing and social media.

Since craft breweries are operated almost exclusively by white males, this marketing approach helps explain why the vast majority of craft beer's audience is white and male.

If craft beer is to reach its stated goal of 20-percent market share, it needs to connect with women and minorities. It needs to cast a wider net, and the most efficient way to do that is paid, mass-media advertising.

Naturally, I'd suggest the Daily News.


"Joe Sixpack" is written by Don Russell. For more on the beer scene, sign up for his weekly email update at joesixpack.net. Email: joesixpack@phillynews.com.

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