Is Beer Loyalty Dead?

You may have an uncle whose beer fridge is stocked only with Schlitz, or a grandpa who will accept no substitutes for his ride-or-die Miller Lite. In the modern era of craft beer, your younger relatives and friends might still have a favorite mass-market lager, but it's unlikely that it's the only six-pack in the fridge. They'll stock Coors Light for a party, say, but they'll also have a few craft IPAs on hand, plus a growler from the new brewery in town, plus a few hard seltzers or bottles of wine for good measure. Have we reached the end of brewery allegiances? Is the idea of a go-to beer outdated?

Read enough about beer sales and customer behavior, and you'll see the word "promiscuous" more than a few dozen times. It's the preferred term to describe beer drinkers in 2019, who, it's often said, are relentless in the pursuit of the latest trend, the freshest specialty release, the next new Untappd check-in. Craft beer drinkers seem to move like sharks, perpetually swimming forward on the prowl for fear they'll perish. With more than 7,000 breweries in the U.S.—compared to 49 in 1977—producing multiple brands of beers, there are unfathomably more beer choices than before. Customers never have to drink the same beer twice—and the common assumption is that they don't.

"As craft brewers, we have seen some of our regular customers move away [from our beer as they're] chasing choice, which has become more abundant," says David Walker, proprietor and half the namesake of Paso Robles, California-based brewery Firestone Walker, operating since 1996. He says craft brewers themselves created this environment with their exaltation—echoed year after year—to try something different, explore new beers, seek out innovation. Craft beer was built on the idea of choice and new flavors. "I always tell my fellow brewers: Be careful what you wish for. We got exactly what we set out to achieve."

Americans' beer consumption has dipped slightly over the past decade as the number of breweries has increased, so a consumer is probably buying less of their favorite beer than they would have years ago. Craft beer created its own relentless churn toward the new, and consumers are seeing the results in the form of more crowded beer shelves. According to data from the National Beer Wholesalers Association, which represents beer distributors (the middle men between breweries and bars/retailers), the average number of beer brands a distributor carries has increased from less than 200 in 1999 to more than 400 in 2008 to more than 1,000 in 2016. That's many more distinct six-packs in a distributor's warehouse, and more distinct bottles and cans competing for shoppers' attention in a cooler. Most shoppers don't go to the store with a beer in mind; recent Nielsen data showed that 70 percent of beer purchase decisions were made while looking at the shelf, which is higher than for other consumer goods. So when bars and bottle shops are bombarding shoppers with new options, they say it's because that's what beer drinkers want.

"More than anything in our bars, we get questions about the newest thing or customers say, 'I heard about this new beer. When's it going to be on tap?'" says Adam Roberts, regional beverage program manager for Midwest beer bar chain HopCat. "There's a certain crowd that definitely wants to try every single new thing that comes out, and they get bored with stagnant tap lists. They absolutely need that [rotation] to think 'Oh you're a cool bar.'"

A bar with a steady draft lineup these days risks being labeled boring or out of date. Where drinkers once looked forward to seasonal offerings like Oktoberfest lagers or holidays stouts cycling through every few months, the pace has accelerated to the point that beer bar customers now expect to see new choices every few days.

In the era of "rotation nation," one species is considered especially vulnerable: the flagship beer. A brewery's flagship is its year-round, core beer, usually an easy-drinking classic like Sam Adams Boston Lager or Anchor Steam. The upside of flagships is that they're often revered, consistent, familiar. But one thing they're certainly not is new. Threats to flagships from specialty and limited-release beers seem so dire these days that a concerned beer writer named Stephen Beaumont recently coined the movement #FlagshipFebruary to encourage drinkers to revisit some of those standbys, such as Allagash White or Sierra Nevada Pale Ale. One bar that signed on early and agreed to put more flagship beers on tap in solidarity was Seattle's Beveridge Place Pub.

"When I first read about Flagship February, I said 'Stephen Beaumont's right, I haven't put Sierra Nevada Pale Ale on tap in three years,'" says Beveridge's proprietor Gary Sink. "It's about reminding folks that yeah, you've had this beer before, but how long ago was that? Remind yourself why it's so great."

For Sink, who is in his fifties, many of the flagship beers he plans to celebrate were beers that helped kick off his own appreciation of craft beer. And while those beers might seem old news to some drinkers today, keep in mind that there's a new generation of drinkers turning 21 every day. If bars and bottle shops ignore those classic, easy-drinking beers in favor of only boozy double IPAs or esoteric barrel-aged sours, they risk alienating drinkers just getting their feet wet.

"There are always people turning 21, so there's this continual reinvention of [beer] as it brings in new people. It's great and scary for me, in that you're continuing to have to reinvent your brand and what it stands for," says Shaun Belongie, vice president of marketing for Fort Collins, Colorado-based New Belgium Brewery, founded in 1991. He explains that the brewery's decision to relaunch flagship amber ale Fat Tire this year—with new packaging, marketing, and the addition of live yeast in the bottles to improve freshness—had the goal of introducing that beer to new drinkers who might not have had it before. If established fans of Fat Tire find themselves falling in love all over again, that's a bonus. "You can't control loyalty, so to really grow requires attracting new people."

Belongie says he's also concerned that a constant focus on innovation caters only to the people who are already heavily interested in craft beer. Assuming that customers are only want experimental, boldly flavored beers means craft breweries could lose sight of potential new customers who prefer something a little simpler, a little less intense.

"One of our hypotheses is that we're putting craft in a bubble where if you're not in the bubble it's really hard to get into," he says. "What I often hear from people who are just getting interested in craft beer is like 'Oh cool, I want to know more but whoa, whoa, i can't navigate this menu or this shelf."

If shoppers can't find an easy-drinking gateway beer, it's easy to imagine them getting frustrated and giving up. Overwhelmed by out-there flavors and new beer styles popping up regularly (What's a brut IPA? What's a pastry stout?), potential beer drinkers might just throw up their hands and pick up wine instead.

But let's not pronounce brewery loyalty dead just yet. Allegiances are less straightforward than they once were (R.I.P. taglines like "My beer is Rheingold!"), but they do still exist. Experts say that a brewery being local matters much more than ever before, as drinkers develop a relationship with that brewery based on visits to the taproom or seeing the beer at events. That's why some small and midsize breweries have recently scaled back their distribution to fewer states to focus on their home turf.

"There's been a lot of movement where breweries have changed their model from trying to expand into different states to starting to focus on their taproom more," HopCat's Adam Roberts says. "Now if there are allegiances to certain brands, it's always local breweries."

Loyalty to a local brewery doesn't mean a customer will buy that brand of beer 100% of the time. But it might make them more likely to seek out what's new from that brewery, or to order the local IPA over one that's brewed out of state. Experts say customers are also increasingly loyal to styles than particular breweries—hence the "What IPAs do you have on tap?" question bartenders hear all the time. That would explain why breweries are rolling out multiple versions of styles that have done well for them: Ballast Point's variations on Sculpin IPA, MillerCoors' Mango Wheat and Summer Wheat Blue Moon spinoffs, Leinenkugel's five flavors of shandy, etc.

Customers may also be loyal to a brewery for reasons beyond just liking the liquid in the glass. If drinkers feel the brewery shares their lifestyle and their value, that can drive repeat purchases. It's why some breweries are making social causes part of their marketing, emphasizing their environmental efforts or their B-corporation status or their support of charitable causes—anything to help differentiate one brewery's pale ale from the other 15 on the shelf.

Prognosticating is never a sure thing. Back in 1977 when America was home to fewer than 50 breweries, hardly anyone could have foreseen beer bars with four dozen taps. Today, the pace of brewery openings doesn't appear to be slowing significantly, nor are we likely to see fewer bars and beer shops, either. (There were 113,234 more U.S. retailers selling alcohol in 2018 than there were in 2008, according to Nielsen data.) Are we just spiraling into a realm of overwhelming beer choice, where there's no such as loyalty at all? Not quite.

"I say this whole idea of promiscuity and no brand loyalty is grossly misdefined," says Lester Jones, chief economist for the National Beer Wholesalers Association. "It was pretty easy 25-30 years ago to find a brand that you liked and trusted and had relations to. I don't think people have changed, I think it's just taking longer to sift through the multitude of choices."

He balks at the idea that customers are somehow fundamentally less loyal than in previous generations; instead, he says it's just going to take them longer to settle down and find favorite beers.

"Instead of accepting the fact that their job is a lot harder, it's easy for brewers to turn and say 'The consumer is fickle. He doesn't know what he wants.' No, the consumer knows what he wants and the consumer is tasting to find what he wants, but given so many choices, it just takes longer," Jones says.

That sentiment plays out daily at Olympic Tavern in Rockford, Illinois, where general manager Zak Rotello says that despite offering 28 beers on draft, he often sees customers return to stalwart, flagship beers time and time again. Rotello boasts his bar sells a keg of Bell's Amber Ale each week, as well as doing a brisk business in other classics like Pilsner Urquell, Guinness, and Lagunitas IPA.

"Increasingly I'm finding people who come in and say 'Give me another [Firestone Walker] Pivo Pils or Sierra Nevada Pale Ale,'" he says. "Right now, I've got an 18-percent-alcohol beer on from Dogfish Head. How much am I going to sell of that versus Pilsner Urquell, which I'm selling in half liters over the bar all day every day? How many kegs of triple IPA can I sell a month, versus a keg of 5-percent [ABV] pale ale that people will drink multiples of?"

For customers (and bar owners) bewildered by the literally tens of thousands of beers for sale these days, New Belgium's Shaun Belongie offers a heartening parallel industry: chewing gum. He says he's been watching the gum industry closely, as it went through an explosion of new products—similar to craft beer—several years ago. Suddenly, checkout-aisle displays were packed with layered gum, liquid-center gum, every possible flavor under the sun. Gum makers couldn't kick out new products fast enough.

"It was just a free-for-all," Belongie says. "But over time, people became overwhelmed by that, and since then you've seen the category as a whole become reorganized. The pace of innovation has dramatically slowed and consolidated back to core brands and packages. They've made the category easier to navigate again."

As with the gum analogy, not only have customers become overwhelmed with the explosion in new beers, but so have grocery stores. Some have recently drawn a line in the sand, declining to add ever more products to the already full beer coolers.

"From a chain retailer perspective, what we're hearing from Kroger and Publix is they're going to bring sanity back to the category by not chasing every local craft brand in every market," Belongie says. "They're going to cut back on SKUs. They're going to force us back to some semblance of order."

So if we follow the gum analogy, that means we could soon expect a bit of a course-correction from gimmicky innovation toward a renewed focus on products that consistently please a broad base of people. That those people would then become repeat customers and loyal fans of a particular brewery, just as most people have a preferred brand of gum, is by no means guaranteed. It rests an assumption that beer drinkers in 2019 are like gum-chewers, not like perpetually prowling sharks in search of more flavorful waters. It also supposes that breweries will suddenly alter their tune after decades of acting as Pied Pipers of experimentation and exploration.

A return to more steadfast brewery loyalty would require not insignificant changes in consumer and brewery behavior. But as the past four decades of American brewing have shown, change is truly the only constant.