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Beer Bubble

One of the most-interesting parts of the Wine Market Council’s annual trade presentation in New York last week was about beer.  One set of facts particularly caught my attention:


• While craft beer sales in the United States have been impressive and grabbed a lot of attention, overall beer sales have been flat.


• Craft beers are not expanding the beer market, but rather have just been stealing share away from traditional beers.


• But not from wine.


• While wine drinkers are actually one of the biggest consumers of craft beer, they are not abandoning wine to drink more beer.


What are we to make of this?  There are several possibilities, but I like to go back to what I think are the basic natures of wine, spirits and beer.


Although there are flavored wines, specialty wines and fruit wines (other than grapes), mostly at lower price levels, most wine has been made for generations using the same basic set of ingredients.  Winemakers challenge themselves to make the best, most-distinctive wines they can within this tradition, realizing there are still hundreds of possible decisions and combinations to be made.  At the end of the day, their almost universal goal is for a beverage that goes well with food – wine essentially being a companion for meals.


Spirits – the stuff of relaxation – can always be consumed neat, whether we are talking about vodkas, gins, rums, whiskies, tequilas or whatever.  But spirits have always embraced the huge category of cocktails, which are simply combinations of alcoholic and non-alcoholic flavors.  They can be drunk with food, of course, but that is not their primary strength.  As a result, flavored spirits – vodkas or, now, whiskies – are a fairly natural development.  They are in essence mini-cocktails already mixed for us to drink as they are or to be mixed further.


Beer at its essence is about refreshment, and that has been the traditional brew master’s goal.  When we’re hot and thirsty or fatigued from work, let’s have a refreshing beer.  It’s cool, has cleansing carbonation and its flavors are crisp with a tangy finish.  Craft beers add the pluses of being fresh, which appeals to our palate, and often local, which appeals to our pride.


I’m less convinced that the experimental and often zany side of craft beer, with its exotic flavors and ingredients, won’t be just another marketing bubble.  While these creations are amusing, they are somewhat expensive and are really just beer cocktails with a chaser of adventure.  Beer with kumquat flavors, six oriental spices and 10 per cent alcohol – way cool!


Here’s my point.  While these exotic beers have captured a good share of the beer market and held it for a few years, I can’t see what in essence are beer cocktails replacing spirits cocktails or taking over a big share of wine’s dominance as a food beverage.


Of course, I may have to drink my words.  Flavored craft beers may permanently change the market mix, and sommeliers may one day be more concerned with the provenance of hops than those of grapes.  And total beer consumption may become more than just a lusty burp.


Or is could be a big beer bust.

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