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Hitting the Mainstream, Learning to Swim — Chicago Craft Beer Week Draws a New Crowd

It only takes a committed, incorruptible 10% of a population to win over the rest with a new idea. 

According to scientists at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute's Social Cognitive Networks Academic Research Center (SCNARC):

“When the number of committed opinion holders is below 10 percent, there is no visible progress in the spread of ideas. It would literally take the amount of time comparable to the age of the universe for this size group to reach the majority. Once that number grows above 10 percent, the idea spreads like flame.”

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Craft beer has barely broken the 10% seal in terms of market share. That's different than mindshare of course, but it's a sign that things are picking up. What we need is for that 10% market share to become a committed, unwavering audience demanding more. Many sizable markets, Chicago included, are a bit behind the curve, clocking in at around 5% in the city vs mass domestics and imports. Our friends out west, notably San Diego, Portland, and Denver, have forged ahead, winning over craft beer geeks, then mainstream audiences in quick succession. And they didn't do it by creating more and more exclusivity and insularity for craft beer geeks. They did it by using their knowledge and passion to attract and embrace the rest of their community.

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So what constitutes that 10% marketshare if it's not all craft beer geeks and champions of the cause? To explain what's happening in the battle for ideas, I'm going employ another market philosophy — one constructed around the consumer electronics market and user adoption rates by Geoffrey Moore, called "Crossing the Chasm." In order to sell a meaningful innovation to consumers, Moore argues, there are three stage-gates to success:

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 1. The Innovators — these people will get their hands on anything new within the respective industries as a way to stay current and inform their own ideas. For beer, think homebrewers, brewers and anyone thinking of starting a new brewery with a point of view. They'll trial just about anything in order to educate themselves and share experiences with others in the industry ongoing. You don't have to work hard to attract this audience. You don't have to work at all. And this gets you 2.5%. 

 2. Early adopters — people who get excited, pay attention to the market, but are largely consumers rather than industry insiders. These are aficionados and hobbyists. In beer, these are your craft beer geeks, Rate Beer and Beer Advocate users, bloggers and such. At worst, they're hangers-on. At best, their brand and market ambassadors. This is a critical audience that you can grow. This gets you another 13.5%.

At this point, you have a major hurdle to overcome, what Moore calls "crossing the chasm." How will you grow beyond your core audience of industry people and early adopters, and connect with the mainstream? What does this audience demand that's different than your early fans? Who matters more in the growth of your company, beer geeks or a mainstream beer drinker? The answer is not the same for everyone. 

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If you can get beyond the chasm, making the leap from obscure, counter-culture innovator to a provider of a meaningful, mainstream product experience, you're able to tap into what's called the "Early Majority Pragmatists" — people who making a decision to buy something that's better, even if it's more expensive or requires critical thought. This front-end of the mainstream curve spends money, a lot of money, to buy things that are proven, reliable and reflect their values. In craft beer, we're starting to see this audience more and more, and they have the numbers that could make or break a brewery's future. These people have very different expectations for what craft beer should be, and in case you're not following, it's not a craft beer geekdom. 

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For a brewery like Goose Island, one of the early pioneers from '88, it was a long, slow road to the mainstream. It wasn't until the invention of their 312 Urban Wheat Ale that rapid growth really began. And it's no surprise that after the sale to Anheuser-Bush, it was 312 that was first lined up for production out of New York and to roll out nationwide. That's how you target a mainstream breakthrough — figure out where the momentum is, set yourself up for scale, redesign and reconfigure to attract a new, massive customer base with a credible, recognizable brand, and start appearing everywhere as quickly as possible to win mindshare, as well as market share. The roll-out has been astonishing. 

If you have any doubt that the Goose Island brand has crossed the chasm, look no further than the 25th Anniversary block party at Fulton and Wood this year. Elbow to elbow in lines snaking throughout the street like underwater rivulets, the vast majority of these festival goers were mainstream craft drinkers. As someone who's been to uncountable craft beer festivals the past five year, I can attest that these were new faces, and new converts — "I really like their IPA. I think I like hoppy beers." I heard, "This is that 312 my buddy in Boston told me about."

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For many of these fresh faces, this was their first beer festival. For others, it was their first time in the hands of a brewery rather than a promoter event like The American Beer Classic at Soldier Field. And that's where things get dangerous for a mainstream audience. Leading up to the "chasm," beer drinkers value innovation. They look for unique recipes, new processes, and access to rare and stunning beers. However, beyond the chasm, beer drinkers value quality, reliability and convenience over anything else. They're willing to pay more for a better product, but they're not willing to wait 30 minutes in line for   a 4oz beer they can get a six pack of for $8 at a 7-11. And the worst thing that can happen for a mainstream drinker, is to inspire them to consider the price they pay for a ticket against the number of ounces of beer they have access to. Once you're catalyzed that thought, you've lost a potential craft beer convert and created a skeptic instead. 

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If you think this is a problem for breweries turning 25 years old, think again. Solemn Oath turned one this year. One. And to celebrate, they put on their second annual Oath Day, inviting customers in for tours of the brewhouse. Last year, they conducted some laborious, but entirely unique experiences, demonstrating how keg spiking is done, allowing customers to choose ingredients, create humorous names, and ultimately drink their own concoctions on tap a week later. The place was packed and wait times were high, but so were spirits. 

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This year, with demand continuing to outpace their production and a larger and larger suburban audience showing up at the taproom consistently, they tweaked the plan. Instead of the keg spiking, they focused instead on the easy, fun parts of the process by letting patrons generate beer names and inspire the artwork that will eventually accompany a beer later this year. Still creative, but more efficient, and far less beer geek focused. There are other times for geekery. But demand still surged throughout the day, and for newcomers this posed the convenience and value equation. Despite having The Salsa Truck in the parking lot to serve street food, lines became impatient after 30 minutes or so waiting to get into the taproom. Many suffer the inconvenience for the chance to try some new and cellared beers, participate in the brewery's celebration and join a community of early adopters they feel in community with. But for many mainstream drinkers coming online to craft, this seems impractical and inspires some backlash, treating staff poorly or walking away. It's hard to please everyone when expectations cover such a spread.

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A brewery that's 25 years old, and a brewery in its infancy, are dealing with the same general market conditions. Craft beer is navigating the chasm, and it's pulling in mainstream audiences whether you're ready or not. But a new brewery is playing at two levels — the mainstream drinkers that read about the brewery in the Tribune and decide to try something local for the first time, and the brewery's core craft geeks looking for a fresh point of view and some innovative beers. It's easy for a new brewery to focus on the geeks first, before they even realize the mainstream is already at their door. 

If the Rensselaer study is correct, and it only takes 10% of a committed, unwavering group to win over the rest of the population, then we should be encouraged because it seems like it's working. We're pulling in new converts, sharing a different world view through beer, and growing our market share in double digits every year. However, with increased marketshare comes new challenges. Companies like MillerCoors and Anheuser-Bush will continue to target the Early Majority we've helped create by appealing to the needs that mainstream drinkers express, in faster and more convenient ways than craft breweries can. But I maintain that at this early stage, craft is its own biggest hurdle to market growth and mindshare. If we're not good stewards of the culture. If we're not greeting new converts with open arms. If we're not paying attention to the little things that create a positive impression of the industry, from wait times to ticket prices to code dates. Then as quickly as we can create a craft beer ambassador, we can create a skeptic. 

This is Chicago Craft Beer Week. Not Chicago Craft Beer Geek. That's the point of the movement. Get familiar.


photos of Solemn Oath's Oath Day by Jeff Cagle, a Good Beer Hunting contributing photographer


Michael Kiser