A couple of months ago I noted that the breadth of available choices is what makes the U.S. beverage market—especially beer and spirits—the envy of the rest of the world. I witness this as a consumer, as much as I do as an industry observer. I frequent a lot of bars that boast, 25, 50, even 100 tap handles. Their whiskey lists are intimidatingly robust; I don’t think I’ll get to try half of the items on the menu in this lifetime.
But is such on-premise abundance always a good thing?
At many of my local haunts, it’s not uncommon for Monday’s chalkboard list of what’s on tap to look nothing like the one on Thursday. There’s a complete turnover. If you happened to like something you tried Monday night, you’re out of luck if you want to drink it again later in the week. And I’m as guilty of enabling this as anyone. My M.O., more often than not, is to try something new rather than default to the familiar. When there’s wait service, the server returns to my table and usually asks, “Could I get you another X?” My response tends to be, “No, this time I’ll have Y.”
More than a few distributor reps with whom I’ve spoken have admitted that while it’s great that their on-premise accounts are eager to buy so many small, up-and-coming brands, it stresses their entire system to fulfill such variable demands so frequently. It’s not just a huge order of a handful of high-velocity SKUs anymore. It’s an epic series of micro-orders of much lower-volume products.
Distributors, to their credit, have adapted fairly well to this new normal.
The real potential casualty in all this, however, is brand loyalty. I know, I know, marketers always tell me “On-premise is where consumers experiment and off-premise is where they’ll buy the six-pack of the beer or a bottle of the bourbon they discovered during the course of their experimentation.”
But shouldn’t we be worried that, essentially, on-premise is completely ceding any notion of brand allegiance to the off-premise?
The craft beer world and now, to some extent, the craft spirits talk about the “wine-ification” of their products. The dark side of that dynamic is that when menus turn over so quickly to keep up with consumers’ brand A.D.D. (again, guilty as charged), bar and restaurant patrons are just going to order by style, not brand, as is often the case with wine. I.P.A. will be the new Cabernet. And don’t think that this behavior won’t spill over into the off-premise as well. It already happens off-premise with wine and I have witnessed it on occasion with beer and spirits. Consumer: “Do you have Russian River Pliny the Elder?” Retailer: “No, but we just got a couple of bomber bottles of this double IPA from a new brewery that just opened in Virginia.” Consumer: “Great, what brewery?” Retailer: “I don’t remember.” Consumer: “Whatever, I’ll take it.”
And with that brief commercial exchange, another tiny nail is driven in the coffin of brand loyalty.
We tend to use the term “Emotional roller coaster” so much in our every day lives, both personal and professional, that we’ve become numb and oblivious to just how much of a cliché it’s become. But there really is no better way to describe major global beverage alcohol news from the past month and a half or so. Reading the headlines of the past six weeks has been akin to watching all of the most hackneyed cinematic clichés play out on screen.
There’s the tragic romance in which the overtures of a much more well-to-do suitor (SABMiller) are ultimately rebuffed by the object of affection (Heineken). Of course, that unrequited pursuit may have been in defiance of a forced marriage (AB InBev).
Then there’s the tale of the rebellious, sardonic hipster whose tough, above-it-all exterior really hides a delicate vulnerability (Pabst). That all comes to the surface when the rebel falls for an exotic stranger from a faraway land (Russia).
And, especially this time of year, there has to be plenty of Oscar bait. And who doesn’t like a good, sweeping epic? It’s the story of a nation in conflict (Scotland) and the common hard-working folk (The Scotch whisky industry) just trying to get by as the world around them is nearly torn at the seams. I say ‘nearly,’ as at the 11th hour, that world was forged back together.
Okay, I should get serious for a bit, put on my movie critic’s hat, and tackle each of these in reverse order.
The Scotch Whisky Association sees last month’s “No” vote on Scottish independence as the dodging of quite a bullet. If Scotland had left the United Kingdom, uncertainty and instability in the Scotch market would prevail. Whisky exports already have been falling. If the industry suddenly faced new tariffs as it tried to ship to its biggest markets in the EU—which it would have to go through a potentially lengthy process of rejoining as its own entity—it wouldn’t bode well for the bottom line.
On the Pabst development, I was surprised (well, not really) at how many people expressed shock that the brand that’s enjoyed a renaissance at the hands of American hipsters would be (*GASP*) foreign-owned (and by investors in Mother Russia, no less). To that, I say, “Get over it.” Pabst has been playing ownership musical chairs for years. It’s essentially a trademark holding company, as it doesn’t operate its own breweries. Drinkers shouldn’t get too upset about something as abstract as a trademark. It’ll be business as usual.
As for the AB InBev-SABMiller dance and the SABMiller-Heineken dalliance: That’s a little more serious. If a merger between the two biggest brewers were to take place, it’d essentially create an entity that’s responsible for nearly a third of all beer volume in the world and closer to 40 percent of its revenue. That’s pretty intimidating. But I wouldn’t get too scared because there are far too many regulatory hurdles to jump before such a combination could become a reality. As for Heineken, my hat’s off to the family for, well, wanting to keep it in the family (at least for now). Though, it would’ve given SABMiller a solid and rapidly growing Mexican brand (Dos Equis) with which it can compete directly with the Modelo business that AB InBev now owns.
But I’ve had enough of these manipulative, heart-string-tugging films. I’m in the mood for a feel-good comeback story. And that’s exactly what’s happening in Kentucky. If there’s ever been any doubt that the bourbon renaissance is here to stay, just look at what Diageo’s been up to over the past couple of months. The company broke ground on its $115 million Bulleit Distilling Co. distillery and cut the ribbon on the visitors’ center at the rejuvenated historic Stitzel-Weller facility. When the world’s biggest spirits market gives the Bluegrass State and its distilling heritage that much of a vote of confidence, it makes me eager to get off that chaotic emotional roller coaster in favor of another cliché: raising a glass.
Ever get the feeling you’re being followed? That’s exactly the sense I’ve been getting recently from a certain herbal digestif that’s been popping up in my many travels for the past year. I’m talking about Fernet, the classic spirit whose flavor has been described as a cross between black licorice and minty-fresh mouthwash. It’s enjoying a renaissance of sorts, clues of which it seems to have planted, “Doctor Who”-style—at various points in space and time for me to see.
It started last year in Buenos Aires. Before I departed for South America, the spirit barely had been on my radar, little more than a curiosity that I’d see behind the bar at some taverns and Italian restaurants. But as I was researching local tipples in Argentina I discovered that it’s enormously popular there. Italian immigrants and their descendants comprise a significant portion of the Argentine population. They pretty much brought the spirit with them.
Several months later I was in San Francisco and there it was, just about everywhere I turned—not just in bars but in ads for Fernet Branca, the leading brand, strategically posted throughout the city (I never noticed the ads all the other times I’d been to San Francisco, so it supports my theory that some nefarious time-jumping force had retconned it into my personal chronology). It’s had quite the cult following there since pre-Prohibition (and during). I asked my cousin, Tom, a previous resident of the Fog City (now residing in Los Angeles), what the deal is with Fernet. “It’s a restaurant industry thing,” said Tom, an accomplished pastry chef. “Everyone in or around the restaurants in SF drinks it...Hang with any cook and you’ll wind up drinking some.”
And, last fall, when I was in Denver for the Great American Beer Festival, a friend told me I just had to try Odell Brewing Co.’s porter aged in, you guessed it, Fernet barrels. The best way I can describe that combination is to ask you to imagine eating a handful of Andes Candies and Good ‘N’ Plenties at the same time. Not quite, but that’s about as close as I can get. But good on the Fort Collins, Colo.-based brewery for being at the forefront of a spirit-ual renaissance.
And a true renaissance it is, as noted by the folks at Sensient in last month’s issue detailing the flavor company’s 2014 Taste to Trend report: “Long seen in a small number of cocktails, Sensient researchers report that Fernet has taken the bar scene by storm. Bar patrons appreciate the vintage feel of classic cocktails, but with a contemporary spin.”
In light of that, I suspect that a great many consumers will be experiencing that “am I being followed?” sensation this year—all the way to the bar.
The Brewers Association traded the Beltway for Broadway for the sixth edition of Savor, its craft beer/food pairing extravaganza, hoping the one-year detour to the Big Apple would boost craft’s profile in the eyes of the largest media market in the U.S. and, arguably, the world.
The annual rite of late spring had made its home at Washington, D.C.’s National Building Museum—save for its inaugural edition, which was at the Andrew W. Mellon Auditorium.
“Being in New York puts craft brewers on center stage,” Brewers Association craft beer program director Julia Herz told Beverage World during the event at Manhattan’s adjoining Metropolitan Pavilion and Altman Building. “In D.C. we had Brewers on an amazing stage, but New York is a great home for a year and we’re reaching a different audience.”
The organization already had hosted 6,500 at the Craft Brewers Conference (CBC) in the nation’s capital in late March and decided one event in the first half of 2013 in the District was enough. Savor had provided an opportunity for brewers to meet with their legislators, but CBC fulfilled that objective this year.
“Why not come to the biggest media and food market?” Herz added.
Missing from last month’s event were the National Building Museum’s stately, atrium-style high ceilings and towering columns, but the classy, low-lit cocktail party vibe was still intact at the New York venue. As was the foodie’s paradise of culinary creations prepared under the direction of chef Adam Dulye, designed to pair with everything from a pilsner to a Russian imperial stout.
But despite New York City’s cred as a media and gastronomic center, the city still lags behind cities like Portland, Ore, Philadelphia and Chicago when it comes to being considered a “beer town.” That’s been gradually changing, especially with the efforts of established locals like The Brooklyn Brewery—the No. 11 craft brewer in the country this year celebrates its 25th anniversary—and Sixpoint Brewery. And a few new ones are opening in the city each year. Additionally, distributors like Manhattan Beer and L.Knife-owned Union Beer have been leading wholesalers of craft. New craft-centric beer bars seem to be opening every month as well; a local organization has created the Good Beer Seal to recognize such destinations.
Still, New York’s been a tricky market, especially when you consider how much competition there is for the drinker’s attention. And, of course, space isn’t something that’s in particular abundance in New York City.
Many craft breweries outside the region—including larger, established ones like Savor supporting brewery New Belgium—have yet to enter the market.
John Bryant, co-founder of Spokane, Wash.-based No-Li Brewhouse had considered the market, but has been hanging back, largely because of packaging issues.
“We were looking at New York and we were advised early on that the 22-ounce bottle package, which is what we’re in, wasn’t really relevant to the city,” Bryant explained as he poured from those same bottles of No-Li’s Jet Star Imperial IPA and Wrecking Ball Imperial Stout. “The were saying a lot of the smaller stores, up and down the street, are carrying six-packs, but they weren’t doing a lot of 22s on the shelf….But we’ve since been learning that with the 22, people are actually starting to experiment more.”
Bryant said he hoped Savor would attract a new level of attention. “Savor is in the capital of media, food and culture,” he said. “Boston’s great and North Carolina’s great, but New York’s where trends start.”
Eugene, Ore.-based Ninkasi Brewing Co. isn’t available in New York either, but part-owner and founding brewer Jamie Floyd was sampling Believer imperial red ale and Tricerahops imperial IPA, with an eye on the bigger, national picture. “It’s kind of more for the broader, national exposure,” Floyd revealed. We also spend a lot of time as a company working on food and beer pairings.”
As for entering the New York market, “We never say never,” Floyd said. “We’ve talked about it but we’re not looking for East Coast distribution at this point. We’re in the process of a $20 million expansion right now and that will allow us to continue to fill in more of the West Coast.”
One West Coast brewery that is available in the city is Hood River, Ore.-based Full Sail, though it took about 24 of the company’s 26-year history to finally get there. Founder and CEO Irene Firmat was pouring a pilsner from Full Sail’s LTD series and its Pub Series extra special bitter. “[Savor] is a celebration of beer and food and taking seriously, but still having a whole lot of fun,” Firmat said. Full Sail’s Savor participation extends back to the first edition in D.C. back in 2008. So which host city does Firmat prefer?
“I’m a native New Yorker,” she said, “so I’m a little biased.”