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Beer is Suffering from Seasonal Affective Disorder

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Since 2009, Oregon’s Ninkasi Brewing has been producing Maiden the Shade, a “summer IPA” created to help celebrate an annual fair.

It recently received a new look, bringing it to my attention for the first time, thanks to East Coast selection bias and that peskiness of distribution. I can say nothing for the beer, having never had it, but the forethought of that brand sure caught my attention. In recent years, the prescience of the Pacific Northwest in regard to beer and love of all things hop seems like a future that had long been planned, but perhaps America’s love affair with IPA wasn’t always a guaranteed thing.

Either way, the idea of a “summer IPA” sounds pretty damned smart right about now.

In the most recent issue of Beer Advocate magazine, I have a story that had long caught my attention: consideration of the “death” of seasonal beers. It’s safe to assume that unique brands made solely for winter, spring, summer and fall will never go away, but the place and purpose of these kinds of beers is certainly changing. As noted in the Beer Advocate piece, a recent way to combat declining sales of seasonal brands has been to simply diversify IPA offerings. California’s Coronado Brewing was one example, this year introducing a New England-style IPA as one of its four seasonal products.

Depending on which market research company you choose, 2016 was either a bad or slightly worse for seasonals. IRI’s channels had seasonal beer down around 8% through nearly all of 2016 vs. 2015. Nielsen tracked seasonal decline at 11.6%. A fun note: IRI, which has a category of “Specialty Release,” had that segment up 18.2% 2016 vs. 2015.

Comparatively, here’s how IRI tracked 20 beer styles and dollar growth through the first 11 months of 2016:

IRI-Tracked Style % of $ Sales Growth ’16 vs. ’15
Golden Ale 48.2
Saison 44.1
Rye 30.3
IPA 27.1
Stout 26.9
Scottish 21.2
Pilsner 19.3
Porter 15.4
Fruit/Veggie/Spiced 15
Belgian Ales 5.8
Brown 4.6
Bock 4.3
Belgian Wit 2.7
Pale Ale 1.9
Amber Ale 0.6
Wheat Beer -4.3
Red -4.6
Strong Ales -4.9
ESB -17.2
Barleywine -39.3

Of this bunch, the declines came from styles that have a distinct seasonal feel (barleywine, strong ale), a root in tastes not popular in America right now (ESB) and one that often gets extra hopping because it’s easier to explain that than what its name means (red). Wheat beer, with a decline of 4.3% year-to-year, likely suffered from a dip in sales for Blue Moon. Otherwise, 15 of 20 styles all saw an increase, with some larger growth likely attributed to the sheer fact that many styles simply got a boost in volume from breweries making the beers for the first time and/or new breweries making beer, period. Hundreds of breweries are opening every year, and in a pure, quantitative sense, they’re the most successful.

According to data from the Brewers Association and reported by Brewbound, microbreweries (less than 15,000 barrels per year) saw sales increase by 27% and were responsible for 78% of total craft beer growth in 2016. For all breweries larger than that under the BA’s “craft” umbrella, a little more than a third saw flat or declining sales – including regional and national names like Yuengling, Boston Beer, Sierra Nevada, Gambrinus and Left Hand.

How might this seemingly random sales outcome be tied to seasonal beer sales? The business model is different. The smallest, most nimble breweries are thriving off the variety they can create on a daily basis. They can make what they want, when they want. A larger brewery like Sierra Nevada takes about nine months to create the final version of some beers, like Otra Vez. Meanwhile, a brewer like Jason Alexander at Charlotte, North Carolina’s Free Range Brewing, pumps out batches that would be test size for larger breweries as his normal releases.

Ultimately, the decline of the seasonal category isn’t about seasons themselves, it’s about variety and how often and easily that’s available to us. Seasons and food choices, for example, have a strong correlation. But perishable food isn’t an option year-round, like styles of beer, which can be made anytime, anywhere – and often is. Variety in beer is constantly churning alongside all its static options, which are already plentiful. One-offs and specialty releases sit next to core beers that span all kinds of flavors. When we have this level of choice, it no longer becomes about how we feel on a quarterly seasonal basis. It’s about what we want to drink in that moment.

Or, to put it plainly, what’s new and niche is popular. And that says nothing of the value drinkers place on rare and specialty beers that are available, which also take up mindshare from the space in which seasonal beers used to sit.

In a recent issue of Craft Beer & Brewing magazine, Melvin Brewing co-founder and brewer Jeremy Tofte noted that seasonal IPA releases hit on all of the above:

“They’re just as good as 2×4 [‘the best damn DIPA in the world’], and they’ll rotate every three months so beer lovers will have a new beer to try, and then they won’t see it again for nine months.”

The evolution of this category is something of an epitome of the industry itself. So many breweries, so many options. For every action, a reaction. What means “new” now has taken from what was “new” of old.

Read more about seasonal beer in this story from Beer Advocate.

Bryan Roth
“Don’t drink to get drunk. Drink to enjoy life.” — Jack Kerouac

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What If You Don’t Have to Make ‘Good’ Beer Anymore?

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Earlier this month, Brian Grossman, the son of Sierra Nevada’s founder, Ken, and a leader at one of America’s pioneering breweries, said something that may raise an eyebrow.

“We all know it’s a dying art,” he opined at the act of brewing, a curious statement captured by Good Beer Hunting’s Dave Eisenberg.

In some ways, one could argue brewing and many other acts of production have been on life support for centuries during humanity’s slow march forward with machinery and automation. Our innovation and ingenuity has dwindled romanticized approaches we hold dear, as “artisans” shift from laborious hands on work to efforts that require more button pushing than muscle straining.

But art doesn’t “die,” it merely evolves with the times. The same can be said about brewing. Just because computers can do more work in the process of creating a fermented beverage doesn’t mean human beings are suffering from a lack of creativity. It’s likely to be a successful argument that rather than dying, brewing has never been more alive.

So perhaps the issue Brian Grossman brings up isn’t a life-or-death scenario. Rather, it’s a worried thought about what it means to be associated with the “craft” of brewing and the quality of what comes from it.

Here’s a grandiose statement once uttered in hushed tones around fellow beer geeks: you don’t have to make good beer to succeed in the industry.

When we talk about “good” beer, it’s valuable to consider that word outside the context of all the “best of” lists that beer enthusiasts so often rely. “Good” itself is a subjective term and when applied to the full mass of American beer drinkers, finds such a wide swath of definitions it seems a fool’s errand to pigeonhole the statement.

Certainly, otherworldly beer will attract devotees, but so will perfectly fine, enjoyably drinkable beer that doesn’t knock the socks off of every long-bearded craft beer evangelist. There’s a reason that a realtor’s mantra is “location, location, location,” after all.

Beer is a business and if we’re to fairly determine the worth of a company, the most unemotional path is in their numbers. If you pull yourself out of the “red,” and become a profitable brewery, does it matter if your beer is “good,” “bad” or downright ugly?

Like so many other industries, there are many sides to this broader question:

It’s no longer enough for breweries to just deliver great beer. Customers have a growing insistence for brands that represent something bigger than them, and they attach themselves to brands that are aligned with their beer drinking preferences, lifestyle and beliefs.

For example, the simple act of bringing politics into your business – while creating the chance you may ostracize some customers – can be a good thing that connects many to your beer and brand. The quality of a product doesn’t necessarily have to do with it, although it can certainly help, but people do make purchasing decisions on many factors outside of perceived quality.

The importance of Good Beer is clearly important to the Brewers Association, who, in recent years, have brought on its own “quality ambassador” in 2015 and 2017. A decision by beer store franchise Craft Beer Cellar was even made to use a list of “approved beers” to sell in stores, based on judgments of quality from company administrators and other employees.

“Whether it is a local brewery, or one from further afield, one thing is true: it should stand up as the most positively reputable beers that are available in any market a Craft Beer Cellar is located,” Craft Beer Cellar Co-Founder Kate Baker said in a statement on the company’s blog.

The backlash was swift, with a banned brewery considering a lawsuit. What if “good” and “popular” don’t have to be the same thing? There are plenty of examples of that throughout business and society. We don’t have to look beyond the Man Bun for a terribly off-putting example.

“Survival as a brewery over a certain size … is not going to depend simply on beer quality,” Jordan St. John recently wrote. “It needs marketing, logistics, sales reps, quality control, packaging, design work, accounting, and a business plan that doesn’t suck. A lot of the time beer isn’t about beer. At this point you’re better off poaching an excellent sales rep than a talented cellarman.”

There have been many conversations I’ve had where myself and others openly ponder, “I wonder how [INSERT BREWERY] does it” because our perception of their product is decidedly “meh” and best, but are a wild hit with others, especially casual drinkers.

If anything, let’s not forget that when we talk about “good” beer, we can also look at it in the context of our modern movement, in which our “bad” beer would likely be well ahead of many brands made a decade or two ago. Not only do we live in a Golden Age of American beer, but we’re also all experts. The democratization of opinion as worth means that “good” and “bad” and everything in between brings an array of outcomes. It’s easy to heap praise on singular breweries or beers, but does that kind of action have significant impact when we can so easily polarize ourselves on social media, rating sites and with friends real and digital?

To some degree, this discussion surrounds the credo and soul of “craft beer,” as pointed out by Ryan Moses:

Eventually, even if you have a great story, you are a local brewery and represent something greater than yourself, you must make good beer to be successful long-term. One of my core beliefs about craft beer is the liquid in the glass is all that matters.

What that liquid is and presents to the success or failure of a business is wide open to interpretation.

“Where we’re at today, there are not a lot of barriers to entry,” Brian Grossman mentioned in the Good Beer Hunting inteview. “Five thousand bucks, you can get a warehouse, you can get a brew system, and you can be making beer. And that’s happened all over the country.”

Perhaps there’s a reason for this ubiquity.

Bryan Roth
“Don’t drink to get drunk. Drink to enjoy life.” — Jack Kerouac

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Making Snowflakes: An Exploration into Rarity, Beer Quality and Industry Authenticity

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We find ourselves in a unique time as beer lovers. Everything and anything is available to us. Whatever we want, whenever we want it.

With a record number of breweries nationwide, more than 5,000 businesses are creating a vast array of styles and flavor experiences, often nearby where we live. According to the Brewers Association, roughly three-quarters of drinking-age adults in the U.S. live within 10 miles of a brewery.

The flip side of this freedom of choice is the natural competition that comes with it. Keeping an IPA on tap is important to satiate American drinkers’ love for all things lupulin, but today’s brewery faces challenges presented by all the other entrants into the industry, roughly two a day. Finding a niche, or, at least, creating one, is a pivotal part of the business, whether it’s as a brewery as a whole or simply providing novel experiences every time someone walks through taproom doors.

Increasingly, the process of creating something “rare” is playing a larger role for brewers. This could be a celebrated one-off beer with limited quantities or a dedicated tap on-location that serves creations never to leave the premises. As businesses grow, evolve and consider how best to position themselves, the use of rarity in all its varieties has potential to impact breweries, industry tastemakers and drinkers.

What’s in a Name?

While naturally assumed, whether through practice or thought exercise, beer as an experiential good has great power to affect our emotions, both through its alcohol content and the psychological reaction of consuming something that simply tastes good. In a 2017 study published in Food Quality and Preference, researchers found that information related to ABV alone may have enough impact to activate positive emotional responses. Using “regular” and non-alcoholic beer, researchers found that “liking” scores among Dutch participants were more closely aligned with the real thing, especially when non-alcoholic beer was actually labeled as “real” beer.


Chart via Dutch research project.

“This change in liking seems to be a reaction to the product name rather than to the flavour of [non-alcoholic beer]. As an extrinsic attribute, the product name is a powerful tool in the communication between products and consumers, creating specific sensory expectations through prior associations and experiences of consumption,” they wrote in their findings.

This point emphasizes the power of our expectations. Because we have to taste and experience beer in order to judge it, our assumptions play a strong role in perception. Choice impacts not only our purchase decisions, but potentially perceived outcomes, too. “When choice is involved, emotions can play a deeper role,” researchers noted.

If you have the full ability to make selections based on personal criteria, your choice can lead to a stronger emotional connection, which in turn may create a deeper appreciation for what you consume, particularly if it’s something special or rare. Our preconceived notions can impact our reactions if and when it’s around the social construct of beer. The psychological, sociological and emotional connections made over a person, brewery or brand are nothing to scoff at, especially when the essence of what “craft beer” stands for – authenticity – means so much.

The ‘Real’ Thing

At the core of what has helped drive the “craft beer movement” in recent years is the abandonment by many of the set of experiences macro beer once monopolized. While accounting for just 12.2% of American beer sales by volume in 2015, craft beer isn’t only seen as a product, but a statement in consumer choice. The idea of “industrialized beer” has made way to the romanticized process of artisanal development, our brewers toiling away over a steaming mash tun or testing hundreds of barrels, “hand crafting” every batch just for us.


Taste testing a barrel-aged beer at Allagash.

That’s a little tongue-in-cheek, but only half so. “People buy products not only for what they can do, but also for what they mean,” Sidney Levy wrote in 1959. To many, craft beer represents the antithesis of mass produced lager. No matter how much truth is in our Hero Brewer working hard for our small-batch IPA, it still represents the thing we’re after: authenticity.

In recent weeks, research and opinion presented on this blog have worked to tackle this topic through the lens of rarity, a connection that, at least anecdotally, only seems to be getting stronger. Audiences value authentic goods for what they represent, explains Pierre Bourdieu, and observations of the beer industry suggest the most authentic beer, and therefore most valued, just happens to be the kind very few can get.

This connection can be found elsewhere, with restaurants (higher ratings) and movies (higher demand) impacted by levels of interest and the amount each is deemed “mass market.” The same has been suggested with beer, hinting that products made by breweries such as AB InBev or MillerCoors are devalued because they aren’t as “authentic.”

“Consumption and evaluation are, fundamentally, social acts,” Justin Frake writes, highlighting a pivotal point in the evaluation of beer: the experiential and physical component of rating can be as important as the nonphysical, mental portion.

Appearance, aroma and taste influence the perception – and, ultimately – rating of a beer, but there is plenty of evidence to suggest that the ethos of craft, setting itself aside as an oppositional force to macro beer, hits its apex with the limited and one-off beers that perform so well among “best” beer lists. These are often the epitome of time and labor (barrel-aged sour/wild, imperial stout, etc.), or present a wholly unique experience unavailable on a large scale (NE IPA).


As a popular source of one-off and limited beers, does barrel aging provide an advantage to brewers?

These qualities of rarity – also perceived as truer examples of authenticity – have ranging impacts. “If a beer’s quality is not perfectly observable to the consumer,” Frake writes, “then they may use the commonly perceived association between authenticity and quality to make quality inferences.”

This also relates to taste expectation, which has shown to influence perception and consumption, but also assimilation to expected norms. The prestige of a product – not necessarily counting its actual level of quality – can force a cycle in which authenticity equates to quality.

In October 2016, BeerGraphs explored this idea, asking the question of whether Ballast Point’s acquisition by Constellation Brands could have altered the scores of its flagship IPA, Sculpin, on Untappd. The range of scores varies from pre- to post-acquisition and demonstrates a downward trend in consumer appreciation.


Two conversations around possible answers arose from this:

  1. The acquisition did, in fact, influence how drinkers thought about Ballast Point, therefore impacting their scores.
  2. Because Sculpin became more widely available, it was no longer as “special” to find and also faced issues of sitting on shelves longer than usual, perhaps impacting flavor.

In both of these cases, the underlying argument is based on the authenticity of the business and brand. Regardless of which train of thought may be more applicable, ratings still appear to have declined, or, at least, demonstrated a wider range of potential scores, most notably in the lower end of the spectrum. This is important, as Frake found that RateBeer users who were aware of a craft brewer’s corporate ownership reduced ratings after an acquisition to the factor of about a 3% penalty.

“These results suggest that consumers devalue inauthentic organizations (craft breweries owned by corporate breweries) because they perceive them as having lower symbolic value,” he writes.

Similar findings were presented in the Journal of Wine Economics, where researchers showed ecocertified wine – a product set apart by sustainably-certified production and the difficulty that comes with it – sees its ratings change depending on availability. Researchers at UCLA concluded that an ecocertified wine increases its expert scores by 4.1 on average, but as cases produced increases, scores go down. “A 1% increase in the number of cases will decrease the scaled score by 0.019 point,” they found.

Even with an honest approach to business – something I do not doubt – a craft brewer has a built-in, psychological way to game the system. In fact, it’s long played an important role to tell the story of craft beer. As we’ve all likely seen and experienced, the “us vs. them” scenario is a large part of the industry. And, “if small organizations are considered more authentic, then authenticity may be one of the few competitive advantages that entrepreneurs have over large incumbent firms,” Frake proposes.

Connecting all the dots above, we can then assume that not only does the organization (brewery) benefit, but also the product it provides (beer). It’s a trickle-down effect: an authentic brewery creates an authentic product which is able to reach its most authentic state as a limited or special product.

But that’s not the only way we judge the value of a beer, consciously, subconsciously or even biologically.

Paying the Price

By nearly all measures, the cost for limited or rare beer is high, not just in actual dollars, but time and effort devoted to obtaining it. This alone has an ability to make something seem to have higher quality.

If we accept that rarity and authenticity go hand-in-hand to influence our perception of beer, then we must also consider how those aspects impact the price of the product and what it does to us. In previous research, it was shown that for many consumers, there is a threshold of how much they’re willing to pay for certain flavor experiences. However:

Humans are irrational, capable of leading with our heart as much as our brain. Even more, financial decisions can be heavily influenced by past decisions – old habits die hard whether actually good or bad in the long run. When discussing the potential for beer prices and what’s to come, we need to keep in mind the established marketplace and what behaviors are already the norm.

In this case, the effect of rarity on ratings can also impact price and what we’re willing to pay.

“…higher consumer ratings are associated with higher prices, such that a 10-point increase in an average consumer rating is associated with about a 50-cents increase in the price of a unit (i.e., a six-pack) of beer,” a group of researchers wrote in Agricultural and Food Economics.

With limited research performed with beer, it’s worth looking to wine to better gauge what price does to perception. One study found that “a 1-point increase in the personal opinion (the difference between score and objective quality) raises price by approximately 8% on average.”

And what price does to us – in all its forms – matters: “…perceptions of quality are known to be positively correlated with price.” The higher the cost, the better our brains perceive something to be.

In 2007, a group of researchers from the California Institute of Technology and Stanford University put this to the test, looking to match the business and marketing of wine to our body’s reaction. What they found indicated that the willingness to rate something highly isn’t just a sociological cue, but a biological one, too: “…increasing the price of a wine increases subjective reports of flavor pleasantness as well as blood-oxygen-level-dependent activity in medial orbitofrontal cortex, an area that is widely thought to encode for experienced pleasantness during experiential tasks.”

The assumption of quality creates an actual, chemical reaction in our brains.


Two experiments were run, the first showing subjects reacted positively when presented with information about wines of higher price points, and the second, presented with no price information, exhibited no reported differences. It’s a classic example that mirrors the beer blind taste test – the kind seen so often in the beer community where Pliny the Elder is dethroned as the country’s best IPA once you remove the name and hype around it.

Together, the ideas and assumptions around authenticity, cost and what it means to be “rare” bring into focus characteristics of what it takes to potentially be “best” among thousands of other options. As we’ve seen in the beer world, that list is continuously narrowed not only based on those traits, but what kind of beer is made, too.

Beer’s Ruling Class of Styles

For years, we’ve known that imperial stout, IPA and double IPA have dominated rating lists. Going back to 2013, it’s been tracked on this blog over and over with prominent online sites like RateBeer and Beer Advocate. For example, here’s the averaged weighted rank of styles from data I pulled in late October 2014, a dataset that included 507 beers comprised of the top-10 beers (or fewer, if less than 10) from all 50 states and D.C.:

beer advocate - avg WR of 3 styles vs full list

In case you’re wondering why “regular” IPA may have been lower than the average of the 507, it’s worth pointing to 2013 research from BeerGraphs, which found a difference in Untappd ratings based on ABV levels:


Most recently, the success of these styles was tracked on this blog in terms of their characteristics and – to an extent – rarity, which showed a strong preference toward big stouts and hop-forward pale ales as seen on the top-250 from Beer Advocate:


Chart from an analysis of 250 top beers. For details on process, see this post.

…and BeerGraphs:

Chart from an analysis of 175 top beers. For details on process, see this post.

Chart from an analysis of 175 top beers. For details on process, see this post.

In my own analysis from this fall and looking back to past years, the prominence of these styles is impossible to ignore as preferred representatives of what is typically cited as “best.” In just about every case of inclusion in lists and rankings, brands of imperial stout and IPA variants feature aspects of authenticity and rarity previously discussed, suggesting that there may be a correlation between the perceived quality and how beloved some brands or styles have become.

This was recently demonstrated by two researchers analyzing online beer ratings by drinkers in Finland. In a paper published in December 2016, Petri Niemela and Niels Dingemanse aimed to determine the accuracy and value of online ratings, but also provided a finding that emphasizes stylistic bias of drinkers which we’ve seen before. The styles of beers with highest scores, according to participating Finns, were imperial stout, baltic porter, imperial porter, eisbock, barleywine, double IPA and black IPA:

trustworthiness of online ratings-styles-beer

Click to enlarge. Highest rated styles on right.

Without knowing the collected beers presented to participants, it’s hard to draw specific conclusions aside from basic aspects of these styles: they are high in alcohol content, adhere to specific flavor groupings, are among the most labor and ingredient intensive styles, and, because of all these things, have higher potential to be rare or limited as well. Of note in their findings:

“…styles that include heavily roasted malts such as stouts and porters, which are typically black or almost black in colour, and have chocolate, coffee and roasted tastes and aromas are rated highest by the Finns. Generally, types of lager like malted liquor, pale lager and helles, all of which include relatively small amounts of malts and hops and use brewing techniques and yeasts specific for those styles, were rated below average.”

The researchers neglect to discuss other style-specific aspects, but in general, these findings adhere to outcomes I have found that point at style and alcohol content as being a driving force in perceptions of quality and ratings.

As the American beer industry has grown and matured, another addition to this segment has been sour/wild and saisons. These styles of are particular interest in this case not for their alcohol content, but specifically their rarity. Because of the time (sometimes years) and effort (high cost) to create these beers, it gained my attention while compiling my annual analysis of “best” beer lists. As noted in a follow-up post on the topic, the inclusion of one-off creations made from barrels or unique processes took a step forward in 2016:

2015 % of Total Beers 2016 % of Total Beers Change
Sour/Wild 11.9% 14.2%  +2.3%
Saison 5.2% 7.7%  +2.5%

This example is worth noting because of its impact on “tastemakers” within the industry, many who had best beer lists that contributed to my collection. And, as shown in recent research published in the Journal of Wine Economics, “…experts’ ratings have both a statistically and practically significant impact on prices after controlling for the effects of other known detriments of price. Thus, expert opinion has significant value in this setting.”

Given what we know about price and assumption of quality, it may be relevant to consider Robert Ashton’s research as it pertains to beer. As he points out in “The Value of Expert Opinion in the Pricing of Bordeaux Wine Futures,” the positive ratings of two prominent wine critics, Robert Parker and Jancis Robinson, can directly influence price, and therefore perception of quality. If that is the case, it would do us well to consider how ratings from prominent beer magazines, personalities, and even rating websites could do the same. It might be safe to assume that the future inclusion of barrel-aged sour/wild and saisons among “best” beers created in the U.S. is already secured, thanks to the slew of characteristics that align with what makes a rare beer a quality one and the time and attention required to make those styles.

The results from reviewers and tastemakers may only reach (and influence) a small percentage of the beer drinking population, but this is also the group from which trends are solidified or sometimes created. Plus, we know that any kind of expertise has potential to impact behavior and assumption of quality. A key takeaway from Ashton’s work: expert opinions may not necessarily mean the opinions are valid – taste is subjective – but they are valid by social-psychological standards previously discussed, “which maintains that expertise is socially conferred by constituencies that rely on analyses and opinions provided by the deemed experts,” he writes.

Which puts beer in an interesting spot. Not only do industry tastemakers matter in terms of bias and preference that might influence others, but they’re impacted by the psychological cues that make rare beers so good in the first place. Ratings and decisions are based on quality, but there is more to the final score. On top of that, the social nature of beer and an increasing value placed on online interactions means that more people can become an “expert,” or, at least, an influencer. When considering the sum of research presented so far, all this comes back to the power that authenticity – and rarity – wields over us.

Authenticity to ‘Uniqueness’ and Back Again

“… from a product marketing perspective, a unique product is one that is highly differentiated from all other products in its category. Such differentiation is known to be essential to product and brand success, because it both minimises direct competition and the likelihood that any other product can serve as a suitable substitute,” a team of New Zealand researchers wrote in a 2016 paper for Food Quality and Preference.

Price and access have proven to have the ability to impact assumptions and perceptions of quality, but increasingly, factors of “uniqueness” and authenticity rise to the top. As we consider what this means for beer moving forward, we should try to be more cognizant of how our perceptions of quality are affected.


For example, by testing participants with collections of beers that would be classified as “familiar” versus “non-familiar,” a team at The New Zealand Institute for Plant & Food Research found, “…beers classified as ‘familiar’ were highly correlated with responses to descriptive statements that they were ‘ordinary’, ‘simple’, and ‘boring’ beers, while those classified as ‘novel’ were correlated with statements that they were ‘unusual’, ‘intriguing’ and ‘complex’ beers.”

Liking or disliking beers, they discovered, had to do with “how familiar or novel they are to the consumer.” Sound familiar? Even more to the point, “novelty and complexity are associated with high levels of arousal.”

One caveat that is offered by the research, however, is that the appeal of beers is more complex than just familiarity. Situation and setting, for example, also play a role. But given what we know about the social aspects of rarity and its own influence, along with previous highlights of price, production levels and authenticity, these may be the missing pieces to complete the puzzle. American drinkers are seeking aspects of authenticity, found through craft beer.

The phenomena we see in relation to these characteristics have been shown across multiple countries, drinking cultures and types of alcohol. To find connections through all suggests the psychological and sociological effects of authenticity and rarity have a universal ability to impact us.


Does this mean we have road map to create a successful brewery or beer? I wouldn’t go that far, but the framework offered through this collection of data and academic research feels compelling enough that areas of brewing, marketing and branding can overlap to create something powerful or useful.

None of this may be wholly groundbreaking to our collective anecdotal experience and findings from a variety of other luxury goods, but with every new brewery that comes online and every piece of data we can collect – from ratings to narrative stories – we find ourselves smarter and more understanding about what’s going on, and, in a way, what’s at stake.

Searching for good beer takes us to all sorts of places, whether digital, physical or emotional. Perhaps it’s also making us think subconsciously about what that means, too.

Bryan Roth
“Don’t drink to get drunk. Drink to enjoy life.” — Jack Kerouac

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How to Win ‘Best’ Beer and Influence People

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Along with all the data parsed from my recent analysis of 2016’s best beer, there was one particular trend that caught my eye.

Beyond the use of specific hops and the never-ending stronghold IPAs have on our collective consciousness, more than ever before, I noticed that some of the beers deemed “best” by amateurs and experts alike were also products I would never get to try, let alone see with my own eyes in real life.

This makes sense for two reasons:

  1. With the sheer number of breweries increasing, let alone focusing on local markets, unobtainable beers should be happening more often.
  2. As more breweries grow and diversify, the potential to include barrel programs and make beers unique to each business also goes up.

But those aspects may not tell the full story. Of the 155 beers I collected for my 2016 best beer analysis, 75 (by my own subjective review) would likely be classified as “rare” for the sake of release and quantity, and an additional 20 would be “rare” based on the need to travel to the brewery or an area directly nearby to actually get the beer. By my own account, 61% of the “best” new beers released in 2016 and included on my collective list aren’t going to be available to nearly all beer drinkers – even card-carrying beer geeks such as myself that might try harder to find certain brands.

Which made me wonder. First, what are rare beers doing to us? Second, is this a paradigm shift that will continue to influence our expectations going forward?

To answer the first question, there is sure to be plenty of insight in last year’s post on “The Power of Scarcity“:

In an era of Untappd badge one-upmanship, bottle shares and limited releases, the Whalezbro culture of beer thrives because our brains are attuned to it.

There is an amount of psychology at play when it comes to rare and one-off beers, an area additionally explored by Aaron Goldfarb and his analysis of Beer Advocate’s top beers as well as recent posts on this blog, looking at how attributes of beers may influence scores for lists on Beer Advocate and BeerGraphs. In each case, the conclusion is the same: the “specialness” of a particular product weighs on our mind when we’re subjectively deciding its quality.

Which raises an interesting scenario for the “tastemakers” who have the ability to drive consumer curiosity and tell us what’s good and trendy in beer. Do they go for what’s most special or find balance in what satiates their curiosity, considering what impact those choices have on others? Generally speaking, the use of ratings will influence perception and most of all, experts have a statistically-determined impact on value and price.

Determining “best” beer is a problematic cycle: the most unique or rare ales (lager being forever a bridesmaid) are bestowed on a select few or made hard to come by, creating a hierarchy of not only who gets one of these high-end brews, but ultimately what others are seeking to create as brewers or enjoy as drinkers.

For example, consider the growth in barrel-aged specialty beers, as found for my 2016 collective list. One-off creations made from barrels or unique processes took a step forward in 2016:

2015 % of Total Beers 2016 % of Total Beers Change
Sour/Wild 11.9% 14.2%  +2.3%
Saison 5.2% 7.7%  +2.5%

It’s a long-winded way of saying: we may be underestimating the power wielded by the growing number of one-off programs and specialty releases. Emphasized through last 2016’s collection of best beer, there should now be a growing expectation that the most celebrated beers are often going to be ones we can’t enjoy ourselves. When there are over 5,000 brewers across the country and a business has to separate itself from everyone else, it makes sense to seek market efficiencies to stand out.

At this time, it’s not necessarily about making a killer flagship. It’s about what’s rare, too.

Consider notes from this interview with Jeff Griffith, head brewer of the 4-year old Fate Brewing:

  • “At any given time, Griffith has up to 25 house-brewed beers on tap at Fate.”
  • “To fill the demand for IPA in a city like Boulder, though, Fate will have as many as five hop-forward offerings on tap.”
  • “Griffith also pushes the limits by aging his Gose in tequila barrels, creating a kind of sour, salty margarita beer.”

A decade ago, at the initial boom of this latest craft beer craze, “extreme” was all the rage as breweries worked to see how high an ABV could go or how bracingly bitter a beer could become. Rare is our new “extreme,” a way to differentiate products with unique attributes, but with rules lax enough to allow anyone to play the game, so long as you have a barrel or some adjuncts. (I kid, sort of)

For many reasons, this change is a good thing. Creative boundaries are being pushed in all sorts of ways, as expectations of flavors evolve and hard definitions of styles fade away. But as more attention is paid to unique experiences that can be had on-location, breweries young and old are also finding ways to make sure those visits can’t easily be replicated, whether at their own business or elsewhere.

Which, ultimately, leaves me with more questions: will this change our perception of value for all beer? How will prominent voices address this? If it becomes clear what ranks as “best,” do we start considering more styles or brands in a spectrum? (“This beer is good, but not as good as barrel-aged X”)

Because, finally, we’re starting to have a clearer, more definitive picture of what specialty characteristics mean for a beer and its quality. As the industry continues to become more specialized, these are things that can offer additional context and understanding.

And maybe help us think, with more consideration, what it means to be “best.”

Bryan Roth
“Don’t drink to get drunk. Drink to enjoy life.” — Jack Kerouac

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135 days ago
As usual @BryandRoth gets us beer drinkers thinking. What does make for a desirable experience?
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Examining the Value of ‘Best’ Beer

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As we close in on the end of the year, it means we’re soon to be swamped with a variety of “best of” lists. This website is no different … although a little.

In the last two years, I’ve created my own unscientific, objective-as-possible best beer lists analyzing the compiled efforts of others scattered across the internet. You can still read 2014 and 2015 results to find out which “best” beers you might’ve missed.

With my attention shifting in that direction in recent weeks, I’ve decided to get a head start in another corner of “best,” taking a look at ratings, style and rarity. As we’ve seen in the past, all three seem to be linked, and I’ve turned to two popular beer rating websites to gain a better understanding. First up: Beer Advocate.

What follows is a breakdown of Beer Advocate’s top 250 beers based on the status of the list on Nov. 12. While RateBeer tends to have a mostly static group of their best beers, Beer Advcoate seems a little more ebb and flow, often based on trends of the day. You can see my analysis of New England IPA as an example.



As you’d expect from such a list, it’s almost completely dominated by imperial stouts and variations of IPA. In fact, 170 of the 250 are imperial stout, IPA or double IPA, a number that grows to 181 if we care to count the 11 beers that drink like IPAs but are simply masquarading stylistically as pale ales. The “other” category includes 11 styles of beer that had six or fewer beers on the list, including Eisbock (1), Berliner weisse (2), quad (4) and gueuze (6).

ABV Breakdown

Alcohol content is often discussed (including on this blog) as part of consideration when it comes to “best” beers. Typically, that’s because it’s connected to other aspects of a beer, whether it be style, as seen with the prominence of high-ABV stouts and IPAs above, or rarity.

To further analyze the set of beers from Beer Advocate, I took all of the top 250 beers and placed them into seven ABV ranges. Of note, five beers on the list did not have ABVs listed, nor could I easily find them online. In each case, it appears it’s because of being a one-off beer with the content not being publicly shared.


An interesting curve, mostly driven by IPAs and DIPAs in the 6.1 to 8 and 8.1 to 10 range. No surprise here, as New England IPA (specifically, Tree House) dominate those portions of the chart.

The Value of ABV

A more interesting way to take this data is then to add in the ratings provided by Beer Advocate users to find out where the truly “best” beers are found. For each ABV section mentioned above, I averaged the weighted rank of all beers, which offered this result:


For the most part, all the beers across every ABV category are essentially perceived at the same quality.

But when we’re discussing best beers, we better use those examples, right?

From there, I took the top-10 rated beers in every ABV section – the best of the best – and once again pulled the averaged weighted rank for each set. Now we have some differentiation:


Once again, it’s those New England IPAs that are pushing up the scores for beers between 6.1 and 10 percent ABV, likely aided by the rarity of actually getting a Tree House beer in your hands. Based on this singular analysis alone, you’d think Tree House was the best brewery in the country, uncontested. Maybe they are, but as we’ve seen before, the idea of rarity and difficulty of getting a beer is an important aspect to consider.

To that end, I did a quick “WHALEZ” check for the top 10 of each section, which revealed that eight to 10 of each list of 10 were beers that require standing in a line for hours or, at a minimum, a blood sacrifice. Some brands like Pliny the Elder or Heady Topper are certainly able to be procured, but some effort is still needed.

The Value of Style

The stranglehold of imperial stout and IPA is emphasized when you compare these styles to others on Beer Advocate’s list.

From the total 250, I pulled a collection from the 245 that had their ABV listed. I then used the averaged weighted rank for any style that had four or more beers, leaving me with 232 beers across 10 styles. For the purposes of this example, I put IPA, DIPA and those hopped-to-heaven pale ales in the same category – the weighted rank actually stayed the same whether they were all in one or separated between IPA/DIPA and pale ale.


Again, the ratings of these beers are evenly split with four quads (St. Bernardus Abt 12, Westvleteren 12, Rochefort 10, Firestone Stickee Monkee) actually scoring the highest  averaged rank. That might be expected, however, due to the effort one would have to go through in order to acquire those beers.

But this type of listing is somewhat expected when the imperial stout (79) and IPA/DIPA/pale ale (99) categories represent 76.7% of all the beers included in this data set.

To try and “normalize” a bit, I then took the top-10 beers from both the imperial stout and IPA/DIPA/pale ale categories to even out the number of beers included in each grouping. The chart changes quite a bit afterward:


Not even close.

For reference, here are those top-10, best beers American breweries can offer, as determined by Beer Advocate users:

IPA Imperial Stout
Alchemist Heady Topper Tree House Good Morning
Tree House King Julius Toppling Goliath Kentucky Brunch
Tree House Very Hazy Toppling Goliath Mornin’ Delight
Russian River Pliny the Younger Cigar City Double Barrel-Aged Hunaphu
Tree House King JJJuliusss 3 Floyds Bourbon Barrel Aged Vanilla Bean Dark Lord
Maine Beer Dinner Founders Canadian Breakfast Stout
Tree House Julius Bottle Logic Fundamental Observation
Tree House Juice Machine Perennial Barrel-Aged Abraxas
Russian River Pliny the Elder Goose Island Bourbon County Coffee Stout
Tree House Very Green Founders Kentucky Breakfast Stout

What Does It Mean?

This analysis is rather timely, as writer Aaron Goldfarb recently wrote this article asking the question “When Did Rarity Start to Equal Greatness in Beer?

Aaron found that beginning around 2003, the top beers listed on Beer Advocate started to share the trait of rarity, an aspect that hasn’t changed since:

The greatness of rare beer became self-fulfilling. Drive all the way across the country to Munster, Indiana, or queue up for hours in Vermont to land some Heady Topper, and how could the resulting beer not be stellar? Fetishization quickly became a fast-track to the top.

A similar conclusion was recently reached by Eno Sarris at Beergraphs when examining the potential impact of brewery acquisitions on perceived value.

Even though Beer Advocate’s list of 250 best beers may fluctuate with new additions here or there, it’s still compiled of brands that take time, patience and, quite often, a bit of money to procure. The raters on Beer Advocate aren’t Average Joe or Jane Drinker, which can lead to the inclusion of so many beers a normal beer lover would never even see with their own eyes.

It also reinforces what kind of beers people will go crazy for, with high-ABV stouts and orange juice-IPA leading the charge. Would a limited release lager get as much love? Not likely. It may be fair to assume that only rarity isn’t enough. Obviously a beer has to be good, but the act of obtaining any kind of uncommon object could be psychologically pleasing enough to boost the assumption of quality. Even still, brewers can start loading up bourbon barrels and buying oats in bulk, as those kinds of stouts and IPAs really seem to push things at the moment.

Bryan Roth
“Don’t drink to get drunk. Drink to enjoy life.” — Jack Kerouac

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183 days ago
Once again @BryanDRoth has compiled the data so we don't have to and we can enjoy the result.
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Carlos Brito and the Fallacy of Too Much Choice

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What a terrifying world we live in. Two breweries opening up each day. Stores stocking week-old beer. Shelves lined with bottles and cans as far as the eye can see.

“Our customers are thinking, ‘how much more of an assortment can you carry?'” AB InBev CEO Carlos Brito recently told Just Drinks, adding that consumers are “a bit tired of choice and go for fewer brands.”

The end is nigh. Or, at least, that’s how the leader of the world’s largest beer company would like you to see it. Because let’s be honest, beer drinkers aren’t taking to the streets to protest the volume of what’s available to them. In many ways, they’re embracing it.

There are specific problems facing beer sales, from maintaining flagship brands to warding off wine and spirits, but the idea of choice seems more like a welcomed challenge than worrisome threat. Brito’s belief that “[t]here’s only so much shelf space that you can share and cold box that you can split,” is a factually accurate representation of store layout, but presenting an array of options isn’t as cut and dry as he’d like you to think.

Instead let’s focus on what’s getting the most attention: the brunt of Brito’s assertion. Are consumers “tired of choice”?

Evidence suggests he’s wrong.

When discussing variety of choice and what it does to consumers, the most popular study cited is this one, about jam. The TL;DR version of that study is that when shoppers were presented with a collection of jams to buy using a coupon, fewer options (six jams) tallied more sales than more options (24 jams). Sheena Iyengar, a professor at Columbia University who oversaw the work, has done other experiments in this realm and evenwritten a book.

But what if the reality of choice wasn’t as simple as Iyengar’s studies suggest? Additional research and commentary suggests that at worst, more choice may create a neutral impact, and with some further analysis, may even be better for beer drinkers.

Sorry, Carlos.

A key part of Brito’s comments – whether purposeful or not – is something of a brilliant psychological maneuver. His claim that consumers are tired of too much choice can be left to the subjective reaction of anyone, but it is indeed fact that we have never had so much choice. Stockholders or Average Drinkers alike may hear this comment and think to themselves, “yes, the grocery store does seem to have way more beer than ever before,” but it’s action that counts. The volume of brands wouldn’t be rising if people weren’t interested, let alone if distributors thought they couldn’t sell them.

sku for distribs

Brito’s claim of consumer fatigue, not backed by specific examples and data, falls more into the realm of pseudoscience than hardened fact. Instead, we can likely find a truer middle ground of what is applicable when it comes to consumer choice.

That’s exactly what Benjamin Scheibehenne, a psychologist at the University of Basel, set out to explain in this 2008 paper, “The Effect of Having Too Much Choice.” The incredibly in-depth research parses a variety of studies on the topic and comes to a conclusion that “having many options to choose from does not automatically lead to choice overload.” Instead, the threat of options is more of an individualized issue dependent on person, environment and other variables unique to each decision.

To Barry Schwartz, professor of psychology at Swarthmore College, excessive choice leads to “choice paralysis” and can decrease satisfaction with whatever choice is made. In today’s language, that can be parlayed into “fear of missing out.” Schwartz writes that the time and effort associated with too many choices can lead to “anxiety, regret, excessively high expectations,” but again, this all depends on what the decision is.

In the case of a grocer or bottle shop, presentation and packaging options completely change what a consumer can do. At a store where you can buy a single bottle/can and create a mix-a-six, the negative impact of choice is mitigated by an ability to have as much choice as your wallet allows. Best of all, time and effort can easily be minimized with today’s technology. According to marketing and advertising agency XenoPsi, nearly 60 percent of craft beer drinkers use a smartphone to aid purchase decisions. RateBeer, Beer Advocate, Untappd and more are at our fingertips. As needed, an abundance of choice can be impacted by qualitative and quantitative reasoning that can provide real-time education.

“People are always interested in what experts think, whether it’s from a website or magazine,” Jack Soll, associate professor of management at Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business, told me for a 2015 story for All About Beer. His research focuses on psychology of judgment and decision making. “Taste is very subjective, so if a rating is very high, you might think of that beer as more special and perceive it as better, too.”

From the get-go, the argument of “choice is bad” for beer is threatened:

It is hard to find much evidence that retailers are ferociously simplifying their offerings in an effort to boost sales. Starbucks boasts about its “87,000 drink combinations”; supermarkets are packed with options. This suggests that “choice demotivates” is not a universal human truth, but an effect that emerges under special circumstances.

Most important, as Scheibehenne points out, “[t]aken together, there are convincing arguments that prior preferences can prevent choice overload.” Because beer is an experiential product, people have the chance to create their own expectations and assumptions about breweries, brands and styles. In some sense, they’ve decreased the potential number of options they might choose from, making selection easier. Even if a beer drinker is faced with a cooler stocked with beers they’ve never tried, chances are they’ll be able to pick out keywords and qualifying phrases that will match with past experiences. Suddenly, that choice is a bit easier.

Even still, beer enthusiasts may flock to the perceived “threat” of too many choices. Millennials are certainly keen to this, as they try 5.1 different beer brands a month with 15 percent of craft beer-drinking Millennials choosing 10 or more brands a month. Nearly half of craft beer purchases made by Millennial men include brands they’ve never heard of or seen advertised.

There is clearly joy to be found in the potential of too many choices for some drinkers, who ultimately seek new experiences. This doesn’t even consider the attitude shown toward smartphone apps like Untappd, which reward portfolio drinkers who can fill their profile with badges and bragging rights.

Or, as Scheibehenne notes:

Despite the growing body of empirical evidence in favor of the too-much-choice effect, its theoretical explanation is still sparse and thus far, promoters of the effect have put little effort into developing a coherent framework that explains when and why an increase in the number of options leads to negative consequences. This lack of theory is in sharp contrast to the numerous explanations for the opposite effect—in which decision makers benefit from an increase in assortment size…

There are certain facts of the current beer industry we can’t ignore, which include the rise of a record number of brands being sold and finite space from which they can be sold (except maybe taprooms, that is). As drinkers continue to let their curiosities lead their wallets, it seems we still have a way to go until we become “tired of choice.”

Bryan Roth
“Don’t drink to get drunk. Drink to enjoy life.” — Jack Kerouac

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203 days ago
Choice is a good thing for the drinkers! (maybe just not the big brewers) @BryanDRoth has insights
North Carolina USA
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