Craft brews comprise a growing share of the U.S. beer market. According to the Brewers Association, 24 million barrels of craft beers were sold in 2015, a 12.8 percent increase when overall beer sales are stagnant or declining.
Andre F. Maciel, an assistant professor of marketing at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, recently published a study examining one aspect of this growth: the way in which former brand-name beer drinkers teach themselves to become craft beer aficionados. He interacted with more than 115 craft beer drinkers during his qualitative research, observing how they read about beer, learned from experts, conducted tasting experiments and shared information. In the process, he gained insights into how new markets might develop for food, fashion, music and home furnishings when consumers systematically train their aesthetic sense to recognize subtle differences in products.
Maciel’s study, published in late October in the Journal of Consumer Research, was co-authored by Melanie Wallendorf, a University of Arizona marketing and sociology professor. This journal is one of the top research outlets in the field of business. More of his findings will appear in a chapter of “Untapped: Exploring the Cultural Dimensions of Craft Beer,” a book coming next year from the Western Virginia University Press.
Q: How did you conduct your study?
A: The focus of the study is to understand how people acquire new tastes and become experts in particular markets. Due to all the growth of craft beer in the United States, I studied how craft beer aficionados develop their taste for beer as way of addressing this issue. Aficionados are neither casual drinkers nor connoisseurs; they are in between, working toward connoisseurship. I spent about three years studying craft beer aficionados in multiple ways. I became member of a craft beer club, interviewed craft beer aficionados, and also brewed beer with some them. I took brewery tours and attended craft beer festivals. I also became a beginner aficionado myself, taking notes of my perceptions and joining other people to discuss beer taste.
Q: Describe the craft beer culture you observed during your field research.
A: Most aficionados are middle-class white males. They are typically married, have a college degree and hold somewhat liberal views on social issues. These people typically work in fields that develop and reward methodical, systematic thinking. They often work in engineering, business and information technology. Whereas you might think that these people are seeking to refine their lifestyle across the board, I’ve found regular guys wearing T-shirts and jeans, living in typical suburban houses, driving regular cars and trucks. They work to develop taste mostly in craft beer. So, they are not the typical – or stereotypical – highbrow that comes to mind when thinking about wine connoisseurs or other taste-makers. In addition, whereas one may think that these people engage with a more expensive version of beer (craft beer) to signal status, most of these guys are very careful not to judge other people’s tastes. Also, there’s a lot of cooperation in the craft beer world. Aficionados don’t keep their knowledge for themselves. If you want to learn about craft beer, there will be plenty of aficionados to teach you.
Q: What lessons does the craft beer trend teach us about how people train their aesthetic sense?
A: I see two major insights. One is laying out some major practices that lead people to change their tastes. There’s this popular notion, often supported by research, that taste is kind of innate: one either has or does not have. But people can shift their tastes when they combine resources provided by the market with their own creativity and help from others.
The other is that it’s simplistic to look at taste development as a status-seeking project. There’s a lot of pleasure in learning, in mastering a field of knowledge. And markets are fields of knowledge, too. For aficionados, taste development is a project of self-development that connects language and senses, mind and body.
Q: How does a drinker of mass-produced beers turn into someone who can identify the chocolate notes in a craft vanilla porter?
A: Aficionados typically describe a sense of epiphany when they first tried a craft beer. They report thinking, “Why did I spend all my life drinking mass-produced beer?” But this epiphany is not random. For example, beer has this democratic connotation, which appeals to middle-class males in the United States. Also, breweries and craft beer bars typically put forward an industrial look, with red bricks, exposed ceiling, and cement floor. This industrial look fits well with middle-class males, too. So there are several elements in this market that resonate with the conventional values of U.S. middle-class males. Once they fall in love with craft beer, they engage in a quite systematic pursuit of taste expertise. They read voraciously about brewing processes and beer styles, and they often take courses. In addition, they perform some practices that are not about having corporeal pleasure while drinking. Quite the contrary, they often taste things they don’t like, just to learn more about craft beer taste. For example, there’s a style called sour beer. The first time someone tastes sour beer, it’s nasty, it dries the mouth and pulls the cheeks. But because sours are a recognized beer style, aficionados taste it anyway until they develop a taste for it. So, sometimes aficionados’ tastes are just one step away from most people’s revulsion.
Q: What is the difference between a beer geek and a wine snob?
A: I haven’t studied wine connoisseurs, so I can’t say a lot about them. But for craft beer aficionados, “snob” is not a nice word. They use the term beer geek, which refers to the pursuit of knowledge and is often connected with their typical professions. And it’s true that aficionados tend to be quite respectful of other people’s tastes. At least at this stage of this market, they tend to be very inclusive of anyone who shows a genuine interest in learning about craft beer.
Q: Famed Chef Anthony Bourdain recently described a tasting at a brew pub as something out of “Invasion of the Body Snatchers,” lamenting that analyzing beer detracts from the bar-going experience. Did you find that beer aficionados are so obsessed that they no longer enjoy their drink?
A: Right, and he describes a bunch of people drinking flights and taking notes, having no fun. I have never seen that. It’s a different kind of enjoyment. Aficionados enjoy drinking and learning about the intricacies of the product. It’s a combination of pleasures. Learning gives people endorphin bursts. So, having a good time and learning are not exclusive things. They co-exist in the craft beer world.
Q: If you were offered a cold mass-produced lager right now, would you drink it? Why or why not?
A: If not drinking would mean being rude, of course I would drink!