Craft beer is not like other markets. Consumers don’t purchase beer the same way we do socks, a commodity largely detached from manufacturer and retailer.
The craft beer industry is interactive, with fans following brewers and breweries more like sports teams than commercial goods. We are invited into their places of design and production with entertainment and dining opportunities crafted as much as their products to create an image and feel for the brand. We follow labels and personnel as they move through other brewers and third-party retailers (who create their own strata in this market), and cheer on the businesses through beer festivals and competitions. No one does this for socks, even good ones.
Which makes the necessary physical separation from craft brewers and retailers especially troublesome during an active, widespread pandemic. Whether enforcing official restrictions or just personal safety concerns, there is a huge disruption in the consumer’s relationship as the ability to visit, interact, or just hang out is limited, sometimes severely. It has moved from an experience of being at the game with field-level seats to watching the game broadcast on a television, and not a good one.
The distance is essential, of course, and no amount of social satisfaction is worth the risk to personal health, public welfare, or the safety of our families— but it is a separation nonetheless, especially for those with careers or social centers in the craft beer scene. It is certainly not comparable to separation from family and loved ones during this holiday season, but our lives have now become somewhat smaller without the usual contact we once enjoyed with local brewers and retailers.
We miss the experience of local craft beer, not just the beverages themselves.
Most craft breweries and brewpubs have done their best to remain vital and open, often with business and revenues that have declined significantly. State regulation by the TABC has been imperfectly accommodating but combined with the hard-fought direct-sales measures won only last year, every hurdle removed helps. Many brewers have had to pivot their business models, partnering with or building food service into their once taproom-only places. It is an interesting type of forced evolution in the market, one that may have lasting (even beneficial) effects once the current crisis has passed.
As vested consumers, we naturally want to help. Our beer fridges are stocked a bit more full than usual. We purchase gift cards and branded swag, hoping that our small contribution can somehow assist a favorite local business shedding staff and watching its bills accumulate. We engage on social media with both the brewery front and personally with brewery employees themselves, trying to maintain that heartbeat of a live connection. We try to support efforts to reimage beer and music festivals as online events, willfully overlooking the new isolation of these once communal events.
Fans miss the sights, the smells of an active brewhouse, the tastes of fresh, days-old beer off a clean tap line. We miss the light banter with staff and fellow regulars, both eager discussions with the craft-beer knowledgeable and taunting the noobs with our own overvalued experiences and insight. We miss the road trips to visit new breweries, the genuine discovery of familiar brands and unfamiliar names in the unlikeliest of places. We miss the experience of local craft beer, not just the beverages themselves.
Unexpectedly, the most difficult moments turn out to be the new and recently opened local breweries. With business ventures like these months or years in the planning, many brewers have had to push through pandemic downturns and continue with new construction or brewery openings regardless. Consumers want to eagerly rush to see a brand new place, inspecting the wares and rating everything online, but we hesitate with concerns about crowds and public gatherings.
We still enjoy craft beer but from a distance, necessarily separated from its source and from familiar others in the local subculture. For us it becomes like a zoo or museum visit, where once we were participants now we are removed, watching craft brewers like exhibits in static displays. Communities of art, music, and charities once hosted by brewers have vanished, unable to comply with local capacity restrictions. At most, we enjoy a midday pint only on a distanced outdoor patio, if available—and if the weather permits.
And so, like the rest of the nation and many other industries, we wait. Craft beer consumers watch the news and the calendar, hoping there is enough of an industry to enjoy when this current dread eventually ends. We hope our locals and favorites not only remain safe and healthy but that their businesses also outlast the virus, so that someday we can all rejoin the community once again.