November 25, 2009

Mug Shots: Thanks for craft on draft

Hectic?

Tell me about it. Yesterday was Easter Sunday, and tomorrow will be Groundhog Day. That’s how late autumn and the arrival of winter always seem to me, especially as Thanksgiving arrives, and with it the opportunity to drink Doppelbock with leftover turkey sandwiches on Black Friday morning, with the caveat that I’ll be working and not participating in the strange, mad ritual of the Yuletide shopping kickoff. 

(As an aside, consider good beer as the accompaniment to your Thanksgiving feast. Steer away from hop bombs more appropriate to watching football, and dabble in Belgian styles. Save a massive Imperial Stout or Old Ale for dessert. Remember next year that if you have Mr. and Mrs. Mug Shot over for Thanksgiving dinner, I’ll provide the matched beers.)

With the hectic holiday season about to break loose, every amateur economics geek is sifting through retail sales figures in an effort to fathom the direction of a recession-scarred economy. Beer business analysts are surveying the same cratered terrain, and their findings to date are mixed. Not unexpectedly, some parts of the beer biz are doing well, and others are not. But the specifics might surprise you.

Premium-priced brands and many imports are flat-lining at best, and often plummeting, while “popularly priced” budget choices and America’s craft beer segment are headed up, up, up.

In other words, Budweiser and the vast field of taste-alike Euro-lagers are tanking, while Pabst and (fill in the blank with the name of your favorite micro) are rising.

Much of this can be explained by price point, and the tendency to trade down during tough economic times. However, this appeal to the pocketbook doesn’t tell us why craft beer, almost all of it higher-priced, continues to grow. Obviously, consumer perceptions of value matter, too, and old notions of value don’t always correspond with the world as it is today, even if many people living in it continue to operate under old assumptions.

In keeping with the Thanksgiving holiday, I say this: Blessed are those who moisten a finger to take stock of the wind’s changing direction, for they act as role models for the rest.  

Last weekend I was chatting about beer with the legendary Ken Pyle, owner and operator of The Rudyard Kipling, a Louisville institution like few others. Like the venerable jazz guitarist who no longer plays as fast, just better, Pyle and the Rud keep chugging along, devoting weekend evening hours on Fridays and Saturdays to musicians, films, theater and poetry, retaining a timeless dedication to art as accompaniment to pints and pub grub.    

Earlier this year, Ken took his own long look at the marketplace and made a conscious decision to provide a conceptual update for the Rud’s draft beer selection. While the old standby Guinness remains in place, the Rud’s six other taps now feature Louisville Metro-area craft beers from Bluegrass Brewing Company, Cumberland Brews and my own New Albanian Brewing Company.

Fairly priced at $4 or $5 per pint, these local beers are dearer to the consumer because they’re more expensive to produce, but as national sales figures clearly illustrate, drinkers are considering other factors when choosing a beer.

A growing number of beer drinkers are drinking less beer, and fresher, better beer. They’re drinking beer that resonates with the personal quality of lifestyle choices, as in healthier habits, seeking locally sourced foods and being pro-active in reducing the carbon footprint. Traditional forms of marketing carry far less weight among this segment of the Rud’s patrons, and they’re far less likely to be influenced by big-brewer strategies like saturation advertising during the frequent breaks in televised football games.

That’s because these beer drinkers ignore the televised hyperbole and use the commercial breaks to text, use Twitter and Facebook, and exchange information in ways that traditional consumers do not.  

By clearing the decks with his draft program and promoting local craft brewers, Ken Pyle is going with the hot hand. What’s more, he’s going with the hard evidence that clearly indicates craft beer has not only survived bad economic times, but excelled during the downturn. He feels craft beer in his heart, and sees the truth of the numbers in his head.

Me, too. Enjoy your holiday, and thanks for reading.

 

Roger Baylor is co-owner of the New Albanian Brewing Co. in New Albany. Visit potablecurmudgeon.blogspot.com for more beer.