Session #50: How Do They Make Me Buy The Beer?

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Our 50th Session is hosted by Alan McLeod from A Good Beer Blog, and is the second of our third hosting by the three original Session hosts on our fourth anniversary of Beer Blogging Friday. The topic he’s chosen is How Do They Make Me Buy Their Beer?, by which Alan means:

What makes you buy someone’s beer? Elemental. Multi-faceted. Maybe even interesting.

  • Buying beer. I mean takeaway. From the shelf to you glass. What rules are dumb? Who gives the best service? What does good service mean to you? Please avoid “my favorite bar references” however wonderful. I am not talking about taverns as the third space. Unless you really really need to and contextualize it into the moment of transaction at the bar. If you can crystallize that moment of “yes” when the bartender is, in fact, tender go for it.
  • What doesn’t work? What fad or ad turned you off what had previously been turned on about some beer’s appeal? When does a beer jump the shark? When does a beer store fail or soar? When does a brewery lose your pennies or earn your dimes?
  • Go micro rather than macro. You may want to explore when you got tired of “extreme” or “lite” or “Belgian-style” but think about it in terms of your relationship with one brewery rather than some sort of internet wave of slag … like that ever happens.
  • What is the most you paid for a great beer? More importantly – because this is not about being negative – what is the least? I don’t mean a gift. What compels you you to say this is the quality price ratio (“QPR”) that works best for you? When does a beer scream “you would have paid 27% more for me but you didn’t need to!”?

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As an old curmudgeon who’s been alive and drinking before there was a craft beer industry — at least in practice, if not entirely legally — my earliest memories of the beer available where I lived were the more or less local regional brands. I grew up in medium-sized east coast industrial town — Reading, Pennsylvania — and our local brewery closed my junior year of high school — 1976. Before that, I vividly recall accompanying my stepfather to the beer distributor to pick up beer and soda. He didn’t always choose Reading Premium, but he did gravitate toward the more local and regional brands (in this case, mostly from Philadelphia, eastern Pennsylvania and New York).

The funny thing about that is nobody talked about “buying local” as a concept and the word “locavore” was decades from being coined. But that’s what people did. They patronized local businesses. We bought almost all of our produce from the local farmer’s market, along with some of our meat and other food. It was open every Friday in an indoor setting where each person rented a stall that was the same from week to week, and they were more or less permanent with cash registers, refrigerated cases, etc. But they were the local farmers, butchers, food purveyors, etc. We knew them all by name. They were a part of the community. About every six months or so, my parents bought a side of beef from a butcher, had it cut into numerous packages — ground beef, steak, etc. — and stored it in a deep freezer in our basement. All the meat came from the same cow, it wasn’t from an assembly line meat-packing plant. For bread, we went to the local baker. Milk was delivered to our doorstep twice a week. Charles Chips even made potato chip deliveries, though I preferred Good’s Chips in the Blue Can, which we bought every week at the farmer’s market. Good’s were made by a Mennonite family on their farm in nearby Reinholds. I visited the chip farm once. It was a simple operation, but it worked. The chips themselves were even simpler. The label read: potatoes, fried in lard, salt added. They were the best chips … ever.

And beer was just the same. I remember when I was little, my Mom liked Sunshine beer, another label from the Reading Brewing Co. Then there were the Philly brands: Schmidt’s, Ortlieb’s, etc. Everyone drank Ballantine when visiting my aunt and uncle in New Jersey. There were other regional Pennsylvania and New York brands: Yuengling, Genesee Cream Ale, Schaefer and Fyfe & Drum Extra Lyte Beer (their slogan: less filling … more refreshing). I seem to recall a lot of Carling Black Label in our house, too. I think it was on sale a lot, though I don’t remember where it was brewed back then. The point is I don’t even remember seeing a national brand until I was well into my teens. I first started being aware of Budweiser in junior high, Lite Beer from Miller when they started advertising nationally in the mid-1970s or so, and Coors once I started driving in high school. It became “cool” to get a Coors iron-on t-shirt down the shore at Ocean City or Wildwood, our preferred weekend getaway towns.

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But the greed and consumerism that seemed to mark the 80s also sounded the death knell for local, and even healthy, food in general. High-fructose corn syrup began it meteoric rise around 1975 but really hit its stride in the 1980s. Giant grocery store chains dominated and the locally owned ones disappeared, paving the way for the big national food processors to likewise dominate stores shelves (they were the only ones who could afford the slotting fees that should be illegal, but curiously are not when it comes to food).

Pennsylvania grocery stores couldn’t sell beer (and still can’t) so I don’t have firsthand knowledge of what happened to grocery sets during that time, but I can only assume what happened with food, also happened with beer. At that time, I started moving around for work — Virginia, New York, back to Pennsylvania, North Carolina and then, finally, California in 1985. By the time I arrived in California — thirsty for good beer, sparked by my time in NYC — there was the chain of Liquor Barns that carried a wide selection of both imported beer and the new micros, but grocery stores were still almost exclusively national and international brands, with just a few exceptions. Bars, too, carried a very small number of beers, and very few, if any micros. It slowly got better, but even in 1991, when I visited over 550 bars in four months to write The Bars of Silicon Valley: A Beer Drinker’s Guide to Silicon Valley, very few carried anything beyond the Big 3 and a few imports (usually Heineken, Corona, or if the bar was Irish or British-themed: Guinness).

So what does all this nostalgia have to do with Alan’s topic? How does any of that make me buy a particular beer, or choose one over another? As the Peter Allen song claims, “Everything Old Is New Again,” and so it is with buying locally. What once was taken for granted as not so much buying locally, but simply “buying,” people are again purchasing locally made or grown goods, the only difference is this time it’s on purpose. It’s a decision, based on a growing understanding that doing so is beneficial on several fronts. It’s good for the planet because the closer the food is to the consumer, the shorter distance is as to travel, meaning it uses less fossil fuels, and as a bonus it’s usually fresher, too. It’s also good for the local economy because it creates local jobs, but more importantly the money stays in circulation locally, too. It isn’t shipped back to a corporate headquarters somewhere else, which is just one of the reasons Wal-Mart is so bad for local economies.

The dirty little secret in brewing is that many of the ingredients for making beer come from far afield, and there isn’t much that can be done about that. Barley and hops don’t grow everywhere, and certain types that are necessary for certain kinds of beers can’t be obtained from local sources in many, many places. More and more breweries, both large and small, are trying to make “estate” beers or beers made using only relatively local ingredients. Sierra Nevada is making an estate beer using their own locally grown barley and hops, and the San Francisco brewpub, Thirsty Bear, recently made a beer using all organic ingredients from northern California farmers. But that’s hard to do, especially in certain locations where the agriculture just isn’t available. I applaud such efforts, but it simply isn’t feasible for everybody. Hops is starting to be grown in more locations than the Pacific Northwest, but most efforts will not be able to replace the Willamette or the Yakima Valleys, only supplement the supply, not to mention hop varieties from abroad — England, Germany, the Czech Republic, New Zealand, etc.

So the brewing industry, for the most part, will have to continue to hang its hat on local production, not that that’s necessarily a bad thing, just the reality of how beer is made. But with over 1700 breweries in the U.S. — and 618 in planning — finding locally brewed beer is getting easier and easier. In a sense, we’re returning to a time when it was local and regional breweries that held sway. In the late 19th century, America peaked at just over 4,000 breweries. It was a time when beer didn’t travel or age very well and so every locale needed a brewery. Even many small and mid-sized towns had multiple breweries. Then it was out of necessity, but today an increasing number of people are choosing smaller, local beers over the national brands. It’s happening very slowly — too slowly for my personal tastes — but it is moving in the right direction. The big brands, both foreign and domestic, are flat or down in some cases, while the smaller breweries are for the most part up, and up a lot in many cases. And that’s played out over ten plus years, a sufficiently long enough period of time that I think we can safely call it a trend.

I continue to believe that distribution will be the single most important aspect of continuing that growth and finding, finally, a tipping point, where better local beer becomes the norm. And that’s one worrying counter-trend. The number of distributors continues to shrink, and that will be bad, I think, if a work around can’t be found, especially in states where self-distribution is not legal, where franchise laws are particularly strong, and where it’s difficult for alternative new distribution models to emerge.

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So what causes me to make a particular purchase decision? How Do They Make Me Buy The Beer? Well, firstly, I’m not a typical consumer. If you write a beer blog, chances are you’re not either, even if you believe otherwise. Because you and I will will try almost any new beer. That’s just who we are. Typical consumers, I’d argue, don’t. The only evidence I need for that is the fact most breweries have a flagship beer that accounts for 60%, 70% or even 80% of their total production. Somebody is buying all that beer, if it’s not you and me. Although, the fact that seasonal beer is the fastest growing category in grocery stores does suggest that many people are buying something different along with the flagship beer, too.

But secondly, if I’m not buying beer to sample for work, if I’m just picking up beer to watch a game with friends, or for a party or just to have a good time, I’ll buy something brewed locally. Usually, I know all the beers on a typical grocery or liquor store’s shelves — occupational hazard — so once I get past the novelty of something new, factoring in the weather and/or what I’m eating, the decision comes down to location, location, location.

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Comments

  1. beerman49 says

    AMEN! I can get good brew at my local (Richmond)Costco (SNPA & seasonals, Lagunitas IPA, & Mendocino “Case of Hawks”) & @ BevMo/Trader Joe’s/major grocery chains/beer stores statewide.

    PA’s weird – its alcohol laws are arcane! That you can’t buy a 6-pack/bottle of wine in a grocery store is criminal! Is its legislature beholden to the beer distributors (who probably are beholden to the mafia), or is it caught in a time warp? We who live in CA have the best of most states when it comes to buying alcohol (we’re SOL 2-6AM, but that’s not an issue except for nightclubs & derelicts).

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