Too many breweries? I’ve heard enough convincing arguments to believe that’s a regional issue at most. Sure, keep an eye out for excess capacity and less than high quality beer. But let’s think about another kind of bubble for a minute.
In college, we would sometimes refer to the small liberal arts school I went to as a bubble. Students could operate with little connection to the outside world, which became particularly evident in what classified as news: what stories we valued and what information we needed to survive the next day or week. I was a sophomore when Facebook arrived on campus. Immediately, it digitized this bubble.
That’s an early, personal example of how the Internet can “fracture the world into lots of tiny little niches,” as Alder Yarrow, founder of the Vinography wine blog, told the audience at iBev, a digital and social media conference for the beverage industry earlier this year. Google, Facebook, Twitter—they all cultivate user experiences by showing us more of what we already like to see, guiding us deeper down the rabbit holes of our own interests. Finding like-minded folks takes a click, regardless of geographical boundaries or how few folks like you there may be. Likes and follows and grams and pins revolutionized fitting in and finding community.
And beer marketers get it. Large companies invest in harnessing digital connections and harvesting data about their fans to make every dollar count, sometimes twice. Twitter can “make your TV dollars work harder,” the platform’s director of revenue for the beverage industry, David Pattillo, said during the same conference. A clear social media plan, including slicing up a longer spot into shorter web-ready videos and the hashtag #UpForWhatever, extended the already wide reach of Bud Light’s Super Bowl presence, for example. The platform can also maximize dollars spent on celebrity partnerships and event marketing, Pattillo noted. Indeed, Mark Anthony Brands, makers of the Mike’s Hard family, recently announced it would devote its entire advertising budget to digital.
Twitter and other platforms obviously also appeal to those marketing on a shoestring. Brewers with small marketing budgets entertain, educate and engage beer drinkers digitally every waking hour (and some nonwaking hours), largely for the cost of labor. Brands, communities and beer drinkers regularly carve out ever-smaller new niches in which creators of consistent quality content (or beer) gain authority. The saison guru and Omaha’s beer authority establish themselves, as do a saison-only brewery or one with no plans to distribute outside Omaha.
But how does the saison guru keep from snubbing a perfectly delicious Belgian pale ale? When does Omaha’s beer authority stop visiting an excellent brewpub in nearby Lincoln? And how small can the niches become? At what point do we have an Omaha saison authority or a saison-only brewery with no plans to distribute beyond Omaha?
Take Netflix categories, created by a blend of human and artificial intelligence and creating a huge set of data about what users like to watch, as Alexis Madrigal wrote for The Atlantic in January. “The data can’t tell them how to make a TV show, but it can tell them what they should be making (i.e. House of Cards),” Madrigal determined. There’s an economic incentive to accurately measuring human predilections.
Now take a minute to geek out over a theoretical Netflixlike beer buying experience, with suggested categories like: Draft-Only Double/Imperial IPAs with Mosaic Hops from a Nanobrewery Producing Less Than 1,000 Barrels Per Year in Portland, OR.
We can dig into the difficulties of such a platform another day, but consider how many House of Cards watchers said they “binged” on the show. Could a similar platform encourage the same behavior for beer consumption? Should it? Importantly, though, social media provide inherent remedies for would-be bubble-builders. Just as Facebook re-created my college campus’s existing bubble digitally, friends from high school began reconnecting. It linked our bubble to others. Small brewers have become very successful at (or is it that they’ve been very successful because of?) connecting themselves to communities other than beer lovers. Finding points of intersection can strengthen individual niches, make them less like individual bubbles floating in space and a lot more like the foam atop your beer. And it seems likely that brewers woven into the fabric of multiple communities stand a better chance of survival should we ever reach a point when that other bubble comes into play.