The variability and nuance in craft beer
The revolution of craft and microbreweries has been well documented by beer enthusiasts around the world. It has mirrored the local food movement by extending a sense of community around food and drink. This has provided consumers with a way to express their desire for unique and niche products.
It is safe to assume that novelty is something that craft consumers seek out. In general, they are looking for something they haven't tasted before whether that’s in a lager, an IPA or something funkier. Beer consumers tend to be divided in that some want a consistent product and others want variability. There are those who are looking for something tasty and consistent, as opposed to those who enjoy a certain amount of mystery in their beer. Craft breweries must therefore contend with both types of consumers by trying to appeal to a broad audience. Although there is likely a self-selection bias in regards to who visits craft breweries, they are likely the second type of consumer who is open to something different. While core brands tend to be fairly consistent, seasonal and one-offs or “series” beers tend to attract the more adventurous individuals perusing the bottle shop.
The novelty of being adventurous in craft beer typically lends itself to smaller specialized breweries. The consumer has a certain expectation of how these beers may differ from mainstream beer. This allows the brewers to offer a more unique and niche flavour profile. The balance is trying to be different while also putting out a beer that primarily tastes good (every brewer tries to put out a good tasting beer). Within craft, experimental breweries have a more distinct flavour profile which may turn off some customers and fail to shift their preferences.
Some of the Food Focus team interviewed 18 breweries across Ontario to understand the more experimental nature of craft breweries. We were mainly interested in a specific type of yeast, brettanomyces (brett), but we were also interested in gaining a general understanding of how the craft beer market works. There is a consumer market for experimentation within the ingredients and brewing process of beer to produce new and interesting flavours. However, the market for these products remains small. Distinct tastes are always going to be a tough sell as the majority of consumers have a love-it-or-hate-it sentiment towards certain flavours. According to the brewers, while the experimentation portfolios of the breweries will not necessarily become a large part of the brand, it is an important aspect of their brand and arguably the fun side of brewing. None of them expressed regret or interest in walking away from the more experimental aspects of brewing. This signals that there is a potentially small consumer market that enjoys these products and sustains their creation.
Typically, craft breweries have their core brands, which are consistent traditional beers, as well as some rotational and one-offs that are a little different. These could be sour beers or different kinds of stouts (chocolate stout anyone?). The experimental side is usually more of a pet project driven by the brewers themselves. The experimental yeast strain that we were investigating tended to change the flavour of beers based on the amount of ageing allowed. This creates a large degree of variability in taste across batches of the same beer. A tweak in the process can result in a wildly different flavour. I tried a quick taste test with my brother on two different beers, the only difference being that they were part of different batches. He could not believe that they were essentially the "same" beer. This variability scares away some consumers but attracts others.
Part of the novelty of craft beers and brewers is that they are different, and not something you can easily get from the LCBO or the beer store. To a certain extent, the flavours may sound unappealing. One yeast in particular can create flavours ranging from barnyard or horse blanket to tropical pineapple. Although I have been assured many times that a little barnyard or horse blanket is a good thing. Personally, when I began the interviews about brett yeast I was not a fan of sours (brett yeast is usually used in sours as it matches the usually souring flavours and agents). Towards the end, I realized it was mainly the traditional sours which I tended to dislike as they are not dry enough for my taste. The brett tends to create a dryer beer that's more pleasing to me. What’s more, I am all about the variation across batches and am intrigued by how the taste can change so drastically with little deviation in the process.
In my experience, each craft or microbrewery that pops up has at least one beer that they hang their hat on to promote and set them apart. This “house beer”, for lack of a better term, helps to shape the identity of the establishment. By creating this beer, they are saying we are specializing in stouts, lagers, sours etc. and this is the quality and experience you should expect. These smaller batch brewers have the flexibility to tinker with each batch.
Personally, my favourite beer is a vanilla porter from a brewery that promotes it as being their flagship beer. When they first started, each batch was different with varying ratios of ingredients creating a unique batch every time. As they've become more popular, they have standardized the formula which has taken away the novelty in my opinion. That doesn't mean I don't still buy it, but I enjoyed the more artisanal aspect of the beer.
Recommended citation format: Baynham, A. "The variability and nuance in craft beer”. Food Focus Guelph (57), Department of Food, Agricultural and Resource Economics, University of Guelph, September 12th, 2019.