The first time I found out I loved craft beer, I didn’t know it was craft beer.
It was just “beer.” And it was good.
I had moved beyond the BMC days of high school and found out there was more beer readily available than the Hoegaarden or Guinness I became fond of in my late teens. While I loved Sam Adams and their variety packs, everything changed my senior year of college.
I found myself with a minimal disposable income, a growing interest in what I drank and a bottle shop a few miles away. All of a sudden, new beers and flavors were within easy reach.
My roommates and I – all 21 or 22 – made trips together. We once bought a case of Saranac Caramel Porter to share among the three of us, which was the best beer I’d ever had. I drank it cold or warm. From the bottle or out of a somewhat clean shaker pint glass. I didn’t care.
It was sweet and candy-like, but not annoyingly so. A mix of malt, caramelized sugar and natural flavors. I had no idea Saranac wasn’t actually the name of the brewery (it’s Matt Brewing Company) nor did I know what “craft” was or how the business fit into it.
It was just “beer.” And it was good.
Which makes me wonder about today’s young drinkers. My experience with Saranac was about eight years ago, an entire era in our modern craft beer boom. For those transitioning out of youthful habits and into new maturity based around the presence and idea of “craft,” how does that impact their decisions as consumers?
Firstly, we know that for college-aged drinkers, price point is the top factor influencing purchase behaviors. But somewhere along the line, that changes. Perhaps it’s worth considering that Millennials, who represent almost 50 percent of the craft beer market and include that group of college students, believe what you drink “says a lot about you.”
“Craft beer is not only a beverage choice; it appears to be a lifestyle choice,” said Mintel’s food and drink analyst Beth Bloom.
So what we have here is a case of maturity – both as a person and a consumer. But how does this circle back to our binging college students?
On most campuses, there are offices or organizations focused on cutting back unhealthy alcohol use. There are even national organizations focused on the issue. Drinking less, or at least more responsibly, has direct correlation with simply having such a program in place.
Which leads me to wonder, if we think more about what we drink, as evidenced by Millennials who believe it defines you, will it impact how we drink? From a social and biological standpoint, the answer seems like yes.
Let’s go back to the original crux of this discussion: those college students.
Are we “wired” to care about craft?
We know that price means a lot to take the initial action of drinking a beer, but why go after another and another? Some alcohol-based studies have pointed toward the brain’s ventromedial prefrontal cortex, which associates with our reward-based choices. Not only is its matter less mature for young people, but it’s also tied to the potential of allowing binge drinkers to process what “reward” means differently than others.
In the short-term for young drinkers, the ventromedial prefrontal cortex associates with judgement related to pleasure. But on a long-term scale, that part of the brain also has a key role in constructing one’s self identity.
This aspect is important, then, as it coincides with social signals we rely on to display levels of conformity, especially as we grow and mature as both a person and a consumer.
What does craft say about us?
Would you consider “craft beer” more mature than macro options like Keystone, Coors Light or Natty Light? My assumption is that we all do (to some degree) due to a connection between the belief that enjoying a better product (no matter the price) equates to greater maturity as a consumer. So as these young drinkers are moving from one stage of “drinking maturity” to another, I wonder: in addition to taste, do people adjust to craft beer simply because it’s more “grown up”?
From 2011 to 2013, 80 percent of craft beer growth came from new customers, the majority of which were 21 to 29. This group – on the tail end of an undergraduate collegiate career and beyond – find themselves in a market swarmed with new beer choices, but also discretionary income, maturing societal pressures and their own biological maturity.
If these are the people who believe that the kind of beer you drink defines you, they’ve essentially hit the perfect trifecta to become a new craft beer consumer. Not only are Millennials ready to be marketed to, but the collective buying power of this age demographic is rising. It’s expected to hit $200 billion annually starting in 2017 and is spurred on by increased job growth, a prospect that also impacts drinkers just above the Millennial age range.
At some point in their late teens and early 20s, young drinkers are making the conscious decision that price isn’t as important as quality. More important, they’re flocking en masse to craft beer options as Big Beer struggles to figure out what to do.
Even though I wasn’t acutely aware of what “craft beer” was eight years ago as I tipped back Saranac Caramel Porters, that feels like a generation ago in today’s craft-centric beer culture. To today’s young drinkers, labels may be important. Hell, they may even define who they are.
But what seems clear is they’re looking for “craft beer.” And it better be good.
Later this week I’ll delve into this idea of demographics one more time, with the hope of better defining who our drinkers are and why it’s important to look beyond the numbers associated with them.
More in this series:
“Don’t drink to get drunk. Drink to enjoy life.” — Jack Kerouac
Disclaimer: I am not a neurologist, nor do I have a background in brain sciences. I just have great curiosity and access to the National Institutes of Health website and its supported studies. Additional information or context to add to the biological discussion of this post is welcomed.