Channeling his inner Justin Timberlake, Founders Brewing co-founder and CEO Mike Stevens told hundreds of industry professionals attending last week’s Meeting of the Malts gathering in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania that “America forgot how to make beer sexy.”
Stevens — who successfully avoided a wardrobe malfunction while participating in a panel discussion about the state of the beer industry alongside Victory Brewing co-founder Bill Covaleski, D.G. Yuengling & Sons chief administrative officer Wendy Yuengling, Yards Brewing founder Tom Kehoe and Cigar City founder Joey Redner — wasn’t calling for a return to the days of provocative advertising, however.
According to Stevens, Anheuser-Busch InBev, MillerCoors and other large beer corporations lost their connection to American consumers as they shifted their focus toward global markets. As a result, he believes that consumers have turned their back on those companies and, in turn, given a new generation of breweries an opportunity to fill the void.
“If we can bring the sexiness back to American beer, beer survives,” he said.
Redner agreed, but cautioned that “there’s a fine line between sexy and tawdry.”
“Beer went too far in that direction,” he said, adding that beer companies should focus on “substance” and stories.
Following the discussion, Stevens clarified his definition of sexiness during a conversation with Brewbound.
“Our dads connected with those brewers, and they connected in an emotional way,” he said. “Sexy to me is more about that authentic connection with your consumer.”
During the panel, Covaleski said one way Victory is connecting with consumers is through its taprooms, which the company uses as a way to solicit feedback on new offerings.
“It’s full-on participation between brewer and audience in that situation,” he said.
Nevertheless, panel emcee, industry consultant Bump Williams, shared a gloomy view of the beer industry’s possible future. He predicted “a decade or so of decline” due to threats from wine, spirits and cannabis while the industry struggles to connect with new legal-drinking-age consumers.
“I think beer is in for a very, very hard road ahead of us,” he said.
Stevens said he’s betting on continued volume declines from the largest beer companies, which have lost about 11 billion servings to wine and spirits over the last two decades. The opportunity is among the largest in the industry’s history, he said.
“We in craft, who are the entrepreneurs who are bringing the new age of beer should become the next wave of what American beer represents,” he said. “Bud, Miller and Coors had their time. Fuck ’em. Let’s go get it.”
To “win the hearts and wallets of the American consumer,” Stevens said beer companies need to look beyond the so-called craft bubble. In fact, he said the distinction of “craft” could someday become irrelevant and just be considered “American beer.”
“We’ve got to start looking at it as beer is beer is beer, and not put boundaries around it,” he said.
According to Boston Beer founder Jim Koch, who briefly appeared on the panel, beer companies have the freedom to play outside of the category — into areas such as hard tea, cider and seltzer — unlike “poor winemakers.”
Covaleski added that brewery owners need to realize that “responsibility comes with disruption,” and cautioned that playing in areas close to other alcoholic beverages may be “dangerous territory.”
“We were all just patting ourselves on back for creating a revolution in beer,” he said. “I like to say there are no brakes on a revolution. You can’t control such a thing”
However, Covaleski believes the future of the industry lies somewhere in the middle ground of offerings.
“Something we can all own and it can be distinctly beer,” he said.
Yuengling added that innovation must be about “authenticity,” and pointed to her company’s Golden Pilsner, which was released earlier this year.
Meanwhile, Kehoe said that experimentation is what brought consumers into craft beer, and he believes it’s also what’s led them astray to spirits and other beverages. However, he believes it’s a temporary fling.
“Beer is going to be where everyone returns to,” he said.