There's nothing sacred in the beer business anymore.
Corporate craft breweries masquerading as locally owned businesses. Wholesalers that are either wholly or mostly controlled by Mega-Brew and their associated subsidiaries. State-funded investigations into pay-to-play antics are ramping up across the country, and of course, the sheer number of people drinking beer is actually decreasing as wine and spirits broadens its appeal to the well-educated, slightly cynical, and highly discerning millennial consumer. Lager isn't as sexy as it used to be. Whiskey and soda...that's the good stuff.
Total Alcohol Market (Volume) - 2011
Total Alcohol Market (Volume) - 2016
This situation looks bleak. There's no room for beer anymore. It's all falling apart.
But let's remember that most people, including you, don't usually get a substantial peek behind the curtain of the beer industry, nor would I argue, do they care. In fact, I'd posit that most people don't even think about it when they belly up to to counter and send a drink order to the barkeep. The consumer experience, in 2017, stands in stark contrast to the fight happening behind the scenes.
Restaurants, specifically the ones that are truly focused on a great consumer experience, are keenly aware of these consumer trends, and their bottom line is directly impacted by how they cater the experience to their patrons and regulars. Beer's mindshare in fine dining has only increased in recent years, and restauranteurs across the country are building knowledge, experimentation, and choice into their beer programs with an almost universally positive consumer response.
I spoke with Brahm Callahan (pictured above), Beverage Director at the Boston-based Himmel Hospitality Group, which includes Grill 23 & Bar, Post 390 and Harvest Restaurant. Brahm is a Master Sommelier, one of only 149 professionals in North America who hold the title Master Sommelier, and the sort of person you'd want in charge of the beverage program at three of Boston's nicest restaurants.
I caught up with him after his recent trip to the PNW, a trip that included quite a few brewery visits. His love of beer, according to him, has blossomed in recent years, and his focus on the beer program at each restaurant showcases his interest.
"Himmel has three restaurants in Boston. All are completely different concepts, with each beverage program based on the goals of the restaurant." said Callahan, "In the end, it's always a question of how we turn that into a unique guest experience”.
Each restaurant is, in fact, quite distinct. Grill 23 offers a wine-focused menu with a few carefully chosen draft lines available. Harvest is a little more beer focused, with an esoteric and well curated bottle and draft lists. Post 390 is the most beer focused of the three, with 12 draft lines and over 100 bottles of beer available. Each experience has a tailored ambience that keeps you engaged in the moment and focused on the conversation at hand, a refreshing change of pace from the full-throttle lifestyle associated with a lot of local beer these days.
"That bottle list at Post 390 doesn’t include what's "off the list". We started with 40 bottles and now have over 100. The list is laid out with every major style of beer and some suggestions." Brahm continued, "We also created a “futures” program…a test program where we age beers that we think should age well. Taking beers that wouldn’t be normally be aged but seeing what they taste like at 3,6,9, and 12 month increments."
Callahan, like many forward-thinking beverage directors in the restaurant business, has a keen eye for consumer trends and long-term outlook on how they're going to build on the momentum behind the growing interest in beer as a suitable and elegant addition to any restaurant's drinks list.
"We do a lot of research on our own" says Callahan, "Massachusetts has a lot of great local distribution, and we’re big enough that if we commit to it, we can talk one of our vendors into bringing in a brewery that catches our eye".
For my own part, I would commend this approach. Beer has been, for most of human history, the beverage that fundamentally brought us together as a community. It's the only alcoholic beverage present in literally every society on earth, and not to get too existential, but the present industry is symbolic of the aging millennial consumer frequently patronizing restaurants like these ones...diverse, unique, and extremely hard to slot into a strict definition. Business must adapt, and those businesses focused on customer experience (like restaurants) are particularly susceptible to the whims of a changing audience.
So you might be asking...why did I start this article with the all-too-common rhetoric you hear from the beer industry these days? The doomsday of permanently declining beer sales are not, in fact, here to stay, and I would use fine dining as a rather apropos canary-in-the-coalmine. Restaurants like Post 390, and beverage directors like Brahm Callahan, are a sign of the times, and from where I'm sitting, the signs look positive. Yes...we're drinking less domestic light lager than we used to, and yes, that's probably not going to change. Consumers are still drinking a LOT of beer...it just happens to taste better than it used to, and they're drinking it less binge-like quantities as a result. Wholesalers will lament this, and marketers will continue to find more clever ways of positioning their products, but at the end of the day, I love that great beer has finally, in 2017, come to table.
Wine, beer, and spirits have co-existed together for thousands of years in one form or another, and like everything else in the world, they're subject to ebbs and flows of a changing consumer landscape. Great beer has finally matured in the eyes of the modern American consumer, and as such, we'll continue to find it in more interesting, and less common, places.
Chris McClellan founded The Brew Enthusiast, a consultancy and editorial site focused on maximizing a brewery's storytelling potential across digital, social, and editorial strategy. He also works as a Guinness Brewery Ambassador, educator, strategist and digital marketing professional for the beer industry. He's a Certified Cicerone®, and as a native Vermonter, he's a firm believer in great beer and the amazing story behind each sip.