We are entering a phase of the craft beer revolution in which beer is beginning to look more like Starbucks coffee than, say, your local bakery’s specialty cinnamon rolls.
There’s an online company offering “liquid beer enhancers,” meaning syrup pods that are meant to make light American lager taste like craft beer “at a fraction of the cost.”
A pub in Australia is experimenting with flavored “beer pods” that fit on a tap like an espresso handle and “infuse” the pour with the selected flavoring.
A-B InBev and Keurig want to make some kind of one-cup beer dispensing system for your countertop.
What’s going on here?
A Sign of Maturity?
You might say, “Hey, that’s innovation. That’s how markets grow.” But I have to wonder if it doesn’t signal just the opposite.
The industrial life cycle goes like this:
Introduction ⇒ Growth ⇒ Maturity ⇒ Decline
Now, for it to be a true cycle, there has to be something new introduced that changes things, something that recreates the marketplace and puts us back in the introduction stage.
Craft beer was that something for the U.S. beer market. We can’t stop talking about how it’s growing, so we’ve clearly hit that stage. In fact, there have been reports of slowing growth that have already had people talking about the end of the craft boom, meaning it’s possible we’ve already entered the Maturity phase.
IF (and it’s a big “if”) consumers really want beer pods and beer Keurigs, that could mean we’re reaching the end of the maturation of the market for craft and may possibly soon see signs of decline–at least as regards the industry as we’ve known it for the last 20 years.
See, these innovations suggest that craft as a category is beginning to become commoditized, that is, at least some base of consumers are viewing craft brands as more or less equal, such that they’re attracted to fun gimmicks rather than to a specific brewery or region or style. I mean, the whole concept of the “liquid beer enhancer” is to take one generic beer category and make it taste like . . . another generic beer category.
But how should we feel about it?
At some point, your and my feelings are irrelevant. The fickle, impulsive, and easily impressed market will do what it will do.
And we wouldn’t have the craft beer we have now if we didn’t also have innovation–not only in ingredients and methods but in recipes and packages. I’m as happy as the next guy about all the nitro beers hitting the shelves. It’s a pleasant way to enjoy a beer. I am fascinated by some of the flavor combinations breweries are exploring, or the way they are highlighting specific hops. I’m curious what the new interest in yeast will yield us.
Why, then, does this business of flavor pods and enhancers feel so wrong?
I think it is because commoditization means craft beer is becoming “just beer.” These inventions seem to focus less on the craft and more on the novelty of the thing. What beer you begin with is less important than what you do to it–after the brewer has brewed it for you.
Obviously, you can experiment with different combinations of beer and flavor. Even Starbucks’s Espresso Cloud IPA doesn’t have to be an IPA (and, incidentally, I was surprised by how much I liked this innovation).
One can imagine one of those touch-screen Coke machines allowing you to put together your own combo of hops, malt, and flavoring. (Seriously, someone is probably already working on this.)
Those of us feeling queasy may one day come to accept and embrace all this change, but if it goes the way it seems to be, that is, if it comes at the cost of craft itself, then it will be okay to mourn the loss of something wonderful, even as a brave new world emerges from its ashes.
Image created by me with source files from pixabay.com.