I love craft beer bottle shares. Many of the parties and events I go to now include a large group of serious beer fans, and because of that, I get to taste some really rare beers on a pretty regular basis. The concept of a bottle share is nothing new, but the term “bottle share” is becoming more commonplace as a way to describe what happens. It will be interesting to see how the bottle share concept translates into buying practices of craft beer drinkers as we move forward.
So basically, what happens during a bottle share is that everyone pulls select beers from their own personal collections and brings them to the party. And the bottles are opened sequentially and passed around so everyone who wants to taste can get a bit. It’s an awesome way to share great beers with like minded people. I enjoy these sessions, it’s a lot more fun to taste these beers with others as opposed to drinking them solo.
It’s interesting to think about your own beer buying practices and how they have changed over the years. If you are as old as I am, your beer drinking habits when you first started drinking beer may have been like mine: to get with your buddies, go to a grocery store (in CA) or liquor store and pick up a 6 pack, 12 pack, or case of whatever wasn’t the crappiest , cheapest beer there, but always with an eye on price. If you were celebrating, or had some extra cash, you might spring for an import beer like Moosehead or Lowenbrau, or a higher end American beer like Michelob or Henry Weinhards Private Reserve, but in general, Bud, Miller, Coors or the occasional malt liquor all worked. When I was in college and had no money, I remember $3 12 packs of Hamm’s were the standard in our house.
In the mid 1980′s as I entered the workforce, I became more discriminating, but my routine usually included buying a 12 pack of some standard American Lager (by then I was starting to favor Budweiser), and supplement it with something special, like some single bottles of Bass, Beck’s, Guinness, or the occasional Sierra Nevada Pale Ale.
Then, as craft beer started to boom, the pattern stayed the same, but I began to seek out brewpubs when looking for on-premise beer, and though discriminating liquor stores had a decent selection of craft beer, high end beers were still a celebratory luxury item for me. Even when I worked at San Andreas Brewing Co., and could take 5 gallon corny kegs of our beers home with me, I still had some mainstream beer in my house, but by then my consumption of it was dwindling significantly.
When I worked for Anheuser-Busch, I always had plenty of Budweiser at home, and to this day, I still think Budweiser is the best American Lager out there, but my tastes really shifted into the craft realm, and by the late 1990s, my craft beer selection was crowding Budweiser out of my refrigerator.
When I moved to New Hampshire in 1999, and throughout my time there, I became heavily involved in homebrewing again, so most of the beer I drank was homebrew. And fortunately, I lived close enough to Massachusetts to be able to visit great beer stores and stock up on 22 oz bottles or 750 ml bottles on a regular basis (New Hampshire now has a few places that carry a great craft beer selection-my friend Bert Bingel owns a store called Bert’s Better Beers that is amazing).
We started having our annual Superbowl Party and Chili Cookoff when I lived in New Hampshire, and since many of my friends in New Hampshire were part of the Brew Free or Die Homebrew Club, everyone always brought a nice selection of craft and homebrewed beers for group sampling. The same thing happened at the monthly Brew Free or Die club meetings-everyone brought bottles of cool beers to share. This is where I first experienced the bottle share concept, though no one called it that back then. To this day, our annual Superbowl party involves a pretty nice bottle share, and I save some very special beers each year for it.
As the craft brewing industry evolves, one of the things I am seeing is that the bottle share experience is manifesting itself in the way craft beer fans buy their beer. It appears to me that our society is evolving from the mode of buying a 6 pack or 12 pack of any single beer, and going towards drinking something different unique with the opening of each and every bottle. And maybe my viewpoint is biased, because of where I work and because of the people I hang out with, but I question whether the 6pack of IPA or Pale Ale is moving from the staple, supplemented with unique beers, to being a dinosaur. I say this as 6 pack and 12 pack sales of our Stone IPA are booming-so I may be way off-base, but I do think it’s worth pondering.
Take a look at IRI data, which is a tabulation of statistics for the kind of beer being bought in grocery chains and conveneience store chains. The old mainstay for craft beer, the Pale Ale, is sinking, while IPA is rising, But the top selling packages for the last several years have been seasonal offerings and mixed packs-usually mixed 12 packs. That’s indicative of craft beer fans’ desire for variety in what they drink.
So what does this mean for craft brewers? Well, it certainly means that new and unique beer choices are an increasingly important part of any craft brewer’s portfolio, and it may mean that relying on a flagship beer may be an outdated business model. I’m not really sure what is going to happen, but I know there are an increasing number of craft beer bars that refuse to carry flagship beers, and insist on pouring only those beers that are rare and/or unique. This is great for craft beer drinkers, but in all honesty, for the brewers, it’s a real challenge. While we all enjoy creating new beers, once you start distributing outside of your home state, the logistics of getting new beers approved by the governments (both state and federal) becomes quite time consuming and expensive. And every new beer requires label approval and abv certification-depending on what state the beer is going to. So if we’re going to a model that includes a lot more special releases or one-off releases, we need to pay very special attention to the timing of getting the approvals done, so we can release the beer when we want to, and when the beer is ready. And we need to have ample supplies of a variety of ingredients, primarily hops, which are getting increasingly difficult to secure. In short, it’s a ton of work, but it certainly keeps things exciting, fun, and challenging. We say frequently that this is the most exciting time in known history to be a brewer, and it certainly is exciting to be a craft beer fan, with all the variety and unique beers that are available.