Saturday, December 13, 2008

Consumer Trends, Brewing Trends

Merriam-Webster defines a trend as "a line or general direction of movement” or “a prevailing tendency or inclination." The most obvious trends are either in fashion or on Wall Street, where the skill of detecting and predicting trends is almost a science. Consumers trend constantly in their choices and purchases, from autos to household electronics, from movies to the food they eat.

Likewise, craft beer is not immune to trends. It is as much a consumer item as any DVD or child’s Christmas toy, and craft brewers are as attuned to the market as any retailer or manufacturer. Let us examine a few recent trends in the Texas craft beer market. Texas makes a good sample population because it has a large beer-consuming base and none of its small craft breweries distribute outside the state.

Case #1. In 2004, the Rahr & Sons Brewing Company began brewing operations in Fort Worth with three flagship beers: a Münich helles, a Vienna lager and a schwarzbier. The schwarzbier, named Ugly Pug Black Lager, was a tremendous local success and remains so today. Even in a state with a large historic German settlement and brewing tradition, this was the first U.S. commercial schwarzbier in the Texas market, a market that barely had any imported schwarzbiers at all.

To celebrate their upcoming centennial, a few years ago Spoetzl Brewing began a limited-run annual series of beers of various Bavarian styles. Released in 2006, their Shiner 97 edition was a “Bohemian Black Lager,” or a schwarzbier. This particular beer proved so commercially successful that it was resurrected a year later and added to their current product portfolio as the Shiner Bohemian Black Lager, the only one of the series so far to make this permanent jump.

Case #2. Each spring, the Houston area homebrewing clubs host the Big Batch Brew Bash, a statewide homebrew competition with a twist: it only has one style category. That style changes from year to year, and in 2008 the designated style was weizenbock, a dark German wheat beer full of yeasty banana and clove flavors.

In an agreement with the competition, the Saint Arnold Brewing Company of Houston purchases the top beer from the winning homebrewer each year and uses that recipe to develop the odd-numbered beers of their special Divine Reserve limited edition series. And in 2008, the Divine Reserve #7 was that championship weizenbock, which enjoyed an improved and wider distribution throughout the state than previous beers in this series.

Again as far as I am aware, this was the first U.S. commercial weizenbock available in the Texas market, aside from the rare European import. And what happened later that year? The Live Oak Brewing Company of Austin releases a new fall seasonal beer named Primus—a weizenbock. A few weizenbocks also start appearing among the Texas brewpubs, where they never had entertained that style previously.

Are these cases of petty copycat brewers or savvy businessmen identifying and pursuing profitable popular trends? Do Texas craft brewers large and small keep one eye on the competition and plan products competitively, or are style ideas and preferences planted in the population’s psyche that somehow spread virally and bubble just beneath the consciousness? Is this a case of convergent evolution or is the market larger than the sum of its parts?

No craft brewer wants to be labeled as a follower, and all claim to have developed similar beers only coincidentally. All in all, trends like these do turn out to be very good things, especially in a rather contained market like Texas. Multiple versions of similar beers foster competition and the craft beer consumers become a wonderful test bed for comparing and contrasting individual interpretations of the same styles.

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