Resources

2020 Beer Branding Trends

A Decade in Review + What’s to Come

A brief prelude: 

We wrapped up our 2020 craft beer branding trends review the first week of March. Leading up to that week, in the background since early January, was the steady drumbeat of COVID-19. It wasn’t an issue though. Like some horrible disaster that befalls the other side of the world—it was heartbreaking to hear about, but ultimately hard to empathize with because it was so. far. away. But it drew closer and closer, eventually posing a very real threat to—if not your life—likely the life of someone you love, as well as all of our livelihoods and the ability to provide for our families. 

I know you didn’t come here to read about COVID-19, and I definitely don’t want to talk about it any more myself. But the thought of publishing this year’s beer branding trends piece when so many of our close friends and clients in the industry are fighting for survival without even mentioning the current state of affairs could seem tone deaf.

We had considered rewriting this piece entirely to focus on the cool pivots we’ve seen over the last few months—the breweries-turned-grocery-stores, the hand sanitizer being produced, the relaxing of distribution laws and home alcohol delivery seen around the country. But we just don’t have the energy. 

This has all been disheartening. As a father, and a husband, and a son and a small business owner. It has been terrible. I don’t need to tell you—it’s been bad for all of us (the fact that I’m sitting in my home office writing about craft beer branding, of all things, should be sign enough that I shouldn’t complain too much).

Anyway, back to the point. Aside from this brief prelude, we’ve decided to publish our 2020 craft beer branding trends review completely as is. It’s frustrating that as of just 10 weeks ago, everything we say here was accurate and actionable. Now? Who knows? Consider this a time capsule from the before times? Or, if you’re more optimistic (like I’m trying to be), consider it a high mark that we can all work together to regain once the world is back in order.

Stay safe out there. Stay strong. And stay positive. 

Isaac Arthur, CODO Design ( 5/11/2020 )

We first started writing about and defining craft beer branding trends back in 2016 as a natural extension of the work we were doing every day. We began working with breweries in 2010 and have been on the road ever since, helping brewers, owners and operators with their foundational branding and rebranding. This field work gave us a macro view of the industry—on a daily basis, we were surveying (and drinking) our way through hyper-local, regional and national competitive sets in markets all across the country. All of this work, coupled with well-curated beer-centric design blogs—as well as attending and/or speaking at dozens of state brewers’ conferences—made it fairly easy to pinpoint the different aesthetics that would arise each year.

It was gratifying to see a rise in the overall level of branding quality as the industry began to flourish, hitting its stride somewhere between 2014 and 2016. The space was growing so fast at that time that one year, most of the new packaging you’d see would be heavily illustrated and story-laden. Then, the winds would shift, and ultra-minimal packaging would become the norm the following year. One group of breweries would release ultra premium beers while another group was doing everything they could to be positioned alongside cheaper macros. Through all of this, branding and packaging were shifting to communicate to consumers exactly what a brewery is about, and exactly why you should drink their beer.

Beer branding trends used to be easy to call out. But with 8,000 breweries open at the start of 2020, there really is too much beer being packaged to identify clear cut visual trends like we have in years past. There are, of course, still cool things that pop up from time-to-time, but these aesthetics no longer rise to prominence and influence the rest of the industry like they did even four years ago.

So instead of a yearly trend roll call, this year, we thought it would be valuable to review the last decade of craft beer (it is 2020, after all). We’ve decided it would be best to identify the most staying and pervasive branding and packaging trends of the era. These are the ones that have been there since the early days and spawned hundreds (even thousands) of lookalikes as the years went on. They are the aesthetic markers that define the craft category.

After that, we’re going to walk you through the broader movements, branding and otherwise, that are shaping the industry today from our perspective. And to wrap this up, we’ve reached out to clients, colleagues, friends and thought leaders from all three tiers of this industry in the United States and abroad (including China, Argentina, Australia and Canada) to find out what they’re seeing in their neck of the woods.

Let’s kick off by reviewing the most important branding trends of the last decade.

Nostalgic Regional

Then was better than now

This branding and packaging trend stems from the earliest days of the craft beer boom as breweries were bringing back the well-worn romance of locally-produced beer. All across the country, people were rehabbing old warehouses, auto shops, and various other buildings (sometimes, even spaces that had, in another life decades before, housed a brewery) that had sat dormant for years. Visually, this was all wrapped up in nostalgia to speak to the brewery’s authenticity, or to lend a sense of provenance.

We view this movement in line with the zeitgeist; large swaths of Millennials (and their older, like-minded counterparts) are boycotting the globalization and offshoring practices that come with supporting Big Box stores, faceless corporations and macro beer itself. This movement, coupled with one of the longest periods of economic prosperity in American history (following the 2008 housing crisis), have set the stage for craft beer to flourish.

Visually, this can take any number of directions, but the key point is that it looks “old” and established (though we’ve predominantly seen 1940’s through 1970’s as the main period of influence). It can look like an authentically old brand, or a contemporary reimagining of something old. It tends to be tactile and blue collar, often evoking a mostly bygone industry, e.g. automotive, manufacturing, lumber and agriculture.

This positioning works because beer is, historically, a blue collar product. It also works because of nostalgia: it harkens back to a “Golden Age” (real, imagined or both) where deals were done on a handshake and good breaks came easier. Logically, we know that the past wasn’t perfect: but this aesthetic addresses the nagging feeling that things used to be just a little bit better.

1. Big Lug Brewing by CODO Design, 2. Braxton Brewing by Neltner Small Batch, 3. Sycamore Brewing by Shepherd, 4. Strap Tank Brewery by Helms Workshop, 5. Red Hook Brewing, 6. Transmitter Brewing by Jeff Rogers, 7. Shiner by McGarrah Jessee

Regional Powerhouse

Using branding to punch above your weight

In the early days of craft beer, the very notion of investing in any sort of professional branding was anathema. It meant that you weren’t “authentic” or “craft.” We even had one brewery-in-planning tell us that “branding is for people who can’t make great beer” (ouch; shockingly, they never opened). The misconception that appearing too “professional” or “corporate” would risk credibility amongst the diehard craft fan took hold in this era. This stigma created an opportunity for larger regional and nationally-distributed craft breweries to start investing in their branding, packaging and marketing—and to reap the sales and ROI that came with it. 

Today, this approach is table stakes.

We first defined this trend in 2016 as simply having a cohesive, consistent packaging system on shelf. I think this is indicative of how far then craft beer industry has come since then. Like clockwork, our start-up clients would point to breweries like Rhinegeist, Ballast Point, New Belgium and Modern Times as brands they revered and to some degree, wished to emulate. These brands served as the ultimate examples of the regional powerhouse aesthetic on shelves. These days, even small outfits founded on shoestring budgets know that they need to hire a designer for their foundational branding. New breweries are coming out of the gate with thorough go-to-market strategies, often building their portfolio around gaps in the market. Overall, the industry is getting much, much smarter on matters of design and branding. 

1. New Belgium (~2014) by Hatch Design, 2. Austin Beer Works by Helms Workshop, 3. Great Divide Brewing by GRIT, 4. Ballast Point Brewing by MiresBall, 5. Prost Brewing by CODO Design

Bifurcation 

Color for SKU differentiation

This has been one of the most pervasive design trends of the last decade, rising to prominence as more breweries-in-planning embrace branding as a competitive advantage out of the gate. And it’s so ubiquitous that no one brewery really “owns” the look. 

In that sense, it overlaps with the “Regional Powerhouse” trend in that it emphasizes a clear design system for customers to look for in off-premise settings. From a pragmatic standpoint, it makes sense for production breweries who are building portfolios around flagships and a few seasonal/specialty beers throughout the year. You start with a base template (logo, beer name, typography) in a consistent layout across each SKU. To differentiate between these, you simply switch a color out for each brand (IPA is green, Porter is blue, etc.). This is an effective approach because it pushes the brewery brand more than specific styles, ensuring that no matter what SKU people see on shelf, they’ll be presented with your brewery’s brand first and foremost.

It’s cheap and easy to reproduce across multiple SKUs (you can often kick out new cans in-house without paying heavy design fees after the fact), and it lends itself to billboarding , where the consistent packaging creates a contiguous “band” of space on shelf. This is particularly valuable if you don’t use an over-box or carrier for your beer (e.g. 6-pack of cans in a PakTech), because it gives beer buyers a big area to draw their eyes, versus a 6-pack that has been shoved haphazardly into a cooler, where facing issues are already a problem.

Some downsides of this approach? It has been done by hundreds (and hundreds) of breweries across the country. To be fair, your local competitive set should dictate just how negative this “negative” really is (two similar cans in different states that will never overlap in distribution aren’t that big a deal). Additionally, if you don’t properly iron out how your seasonal/specialty beers relate to the flagship packaging, and instead just make them all fall under the same template, you risk undercutting what makes a seasonal beer special in the first place. They’re new, rare, and they might not be here tomorrow—so they likely should stand out from your flagships in some fashion.

This approach is so emblematic of craft branding that we often have clients in other industries want to adopt it for their portfolio, including cannabis, kombucha, RTD cocktails, craft soda and seltzer.

1. Rhinegeist Brewery, 2. Big Bend Brewing by Guerrilla Suit, 3. New Sarum Brewing by Big Bridge Design, 4. Atlanta Brewing by CODO Design

Bright White & Minimal

Less is more

These were initially two different trends (to wit, you can be minimal without having an all white can), but have increasingly blurred together over the last few years. 

As a general rule, it’s important to look at your immediate (local) competitive set when developing your branding and packaging. Or, whatever context makes sense for your brewery, be it regional, national or beyond. All this said, a stark white can does tend to cut through the visual noise of today’s beer shelf. This doesn’t mean it’s going to automatically sell. But getting noticed is a crucial first step to the overall beer-buying experience.

There’s a fine line here—too minimal and you come across as generic or store brand. Not minimal enough and you lose the clean design that stands out from busier packaging in the first place. The power of this trend comes when you combine it with other important elements (a beautiful brand identity, a deliberate use of color and typography, tactile production techniques, a delightfully classy gold top, etc.). In these cases, it can be a magnet for people’s eyes.

1. House Beer by Colony, 2. Modern Times by Helms Workshop, 3. Blackberry Farm by Helms Workshop, 4. Colonial Beer by Alter, 5. Miller Lite, 6. Balter Brewing

Thickly-Illustrated

Lush and detailed

Calling out illustrated packaging as an all-decade trend is fun because it actually stems from the earliest days of craft beer—think Flying Dog or Sierra Nevada in the 90s. A lot of this early packaging isn’t necessarily “good” by today’s design standards. More often than not, these early illustrative examples evoked the idea that your “nephew who can draw good” made your packaging. Authentic? Yes. Bad? Who cares? It was the nineties—this shit didn’t matter back then.

Over time, this approach became a way to showcase your brewery’s personality and world view. Lifestyle and visual style-wise, it doesn’t have one distinct flavor. It can lean on death metal iconography, tattoo culture, outdoorsy stuff, frilly and ornate, simple, low-brow, high art, and everywhere in between. The main point is that illustrations are core to the package design. 

When done well, this look can be arresting. It can just as easily become a hot mess. It’s been interesting to watch over the last five years as more and more breweries began leaning more towards clean, minimal packaging, heavily-illustrated packaging would go from blending in on shelf to standing out again. This back-and-forth swing will likely continue as long as there are breweries putting out new packaging. 

1. Breckinridge Brewing by VSA Partners, 2. Backward Flag Brewing by CODO Design, 3. Warpigs Brewing, 4. Almanac Beer Co. by DKNG, 5. Fort Point Beer Co. by Manual, 6. Prodigy Brewing by CODO Design, 7. Mikkeller by Keith Shore

 

Maximalism (& Minimal Branding) + Pressure Sensitive Labels 

Is scarcity an adjunct?  

The “minimal branding” look was pioneered by a few popular breweries (e.g. Other Half, Cloudwater, Omnipollo) and is almost always identified by a 16oz bright can wrapped in a colorful pressure sensitive label that is, in some cases, completely devoid of branding (namely, a big brewery logo).

This was kicked into high gear as “Rotation Nation” gained steam and Juicy NEIPAs became the style du jour (~2017). Now, you don’t just have a beautiful can to boast on Instagram, but you also have a gorgeous glass of what appears to be extra pulpy orange juice (or, beet juice?). This trend soon gave way to the oft-confusing world of hype beers, whale hunting and the ISO secondary market. 

Pressure sensitive labels played an important role here as well. What started out as an affordable (and often necessary) way of bringing cans to market, a label slapped on a can soon became canon for these sorts of in-demand beers. It was beer as art and spoke to the ephemeral nature of the release—this is a limited run, possibly only available at the brewery. And once it’s gone, it’s gone. For our favorite example of how this look is so emblematic of juice bomb IPAs, look at Sam Adams’ New England IPA can that is printed to look like the pressure sensitive labels that define the style.

Will this aesthetic approach work for every brewery? No. But as the industry matured over the last few years (and shifted, and hit growth spurts and road blocks all in the same period), this style is indicative of an entire era of American craft beer where shelf space is never guaranteed, consumer attention is fleeting and there’s no one-size-fits-all branding approach.

1. Other Half Brewing, 2. Sam Adams, 3. Overtone Brewing by Thirst, 4. Commonwealth Brewing by Thirst, 5. Halo Brewery by Underline Studio

Can Boxes

An important indicator 

Why are can boxes an all-decade trend and not just a format change? Here, we’re focusing exclusively on 4/6-pack can boxes for a few reasons. Number 1: they’re more expensive to produce (cutting into an already tight packaged beer margin), and 2: we’ve worked with dozens of breweries-in-planning who were dead-set on using can boxes as soon as they launched. What does this mean and why is it important? 

Similar to how the “Maximalism & Minimal Branding” trend is a direct outgrowth of evolving consumer demands, can over-boxes are an indicator of how crowded the craft space is becoming. Over-boxing is more expensive. But it’s also an effective way of achieving billboarding (a big solid block of your branding) in an off-premise set, which can lead to more eyes on your product and more sales. They work particularly well in floor stacks.

Another reason breweries are moving to over-boxes—counterintuitively, they’re more environmentally friendly (recyclable or compostable) than a plastic solution, and can eschew the frustrating product facing issues (where a can may spin around so that you can’t see the branding) that come with PakTech or similar binding.

1. Fort Point Beer Co. by Manual, 2. Thornbridge Brewing by Thirst, 3. KettleHouse Brewing by CODO Design, 4. 21st Amendment Brewing by TBD Advertising, 5. Dogfish Head Brewing by Interact

A word cloud, but it just says “Hard Seltzer”

Let’s get this one out of the way now

I’m tired of hearing about White Claw. I don’t have anything against hard seltzer, or the people who drink it, but it’s just—I get it. Hard seltzer is here to stay. It’s not a trend, but a category in and of itself. Etc.

Will it slow down at some point? Yes. But if the big players in the market are any indication, there will be several more years of freight train growth before it levels off. CODO can’t add too much to this conversation because it’s been dissected and written about by every major business and brewing industry outlet ad nauseam for the last few years.

What we will say is that if you’re considering releasing a seltzer, you should consider the brand architecture ramifications of this move within your portfolio. Should it fall under your brewery’s parent brand and live alongside your beer as another offering? Or, should it take on its own brand name, styling and positioning to flourish without the risk of gutting your primary positioning (as, you know, a craft brewery)? Whatever you do, be sure that your identity as a brewery remains intact no matter which direction the product goes.

Micro trend within this trend:

IRI and industry reports are saying there’s a lot of room for growth in this category and we’re seeing small and big craft alike launch lines. We think the real opportunity here is for larger (or even smaller, though firmly established) consumer packaged goods (CPG) brands (whether traditionally alcoholic, or non-alcoholic) to launch extensions and leverage significant equity and distribution—think Topo Chico, La Croix (shocked this hasn’t already happened) and Faygo (even more shocked that this hasn’t happened. whoop whoop.) to quickly carve out a piece of the market. Yes, you’ll never beat Truly or White Claw, but being sixth in a $2.5 billion market isn’t the end of the world.

1. White Claw, 2. Truly, 3. Wild Basin from Oskar Blues, 4. Vive from Braxton Brewing, 5–7. Who cares?

Major Brewery Rebrands 

Staying top of mind and competitive

There are now 8,000 breweries open in the United States a majority of them with a few years under their belt. And there are thousands more in-planning, slated to open over the next few years. 

With this much competition, it’s not just that shelf space or coolers are crowded—they are. Or that landing a consistent spot on a tap list is hard—it is. It’s that there are so many options available to beer drinkers that what used to be nice-to-haves have become have-to-haves—compelling branding and beautiful packaging topping this list (shortly after dependable, quality beer). 

As a branding firm working heavily in the beer space, we’re on the front lines of what’s happening as breweries reach out to enlist our help (canaries in a coal mine, if you will). And somewhere between 2017 and 2018, seemingly overnight, the brewery branding inquiries we were receiving shifted from breweries-in-planning to established breweries looking to rebrand. We’ve worked with folks who have been at it for nearly 30 years all the way down to breweries who have been open for just a year or two. 2020 shows no sign of this slowing with news of craft stalwarts like Oskar Blues, Left Hand, Ska Brewing and Ale Smith all announcing major brand refreshes. 

It’s a little early to call 2020 the year of the rebrand (and we think the next several years will be full of high profile ones—including a few huge ones that we can’t speak about just yet…), but we think you are going to start seeing hundreds of breweries refresh their story, identities, positioning and packaging over the next few years in a bid to stay relevant and competitive. 

 

1. Oskar Blues Brewery, 2. KettleHouse Brewing by CODO Design, 3. Highland Brewing by Helms Workshop, 4. Atlanta Brewing by CODO Design, 5. Prost Brewing by CODO Design, 6. Uinta Brewing by Coel Studio

Shameless plug from your friends at CODO: We believe that rebranding is such a competitive advantage that we’ve spent the last year writing our new book bundle, Craft Beer, Rebranded, to help breweries navigate this process. If you are even remotely considering an update, your team should check this out.

Growing Non-Alc

Another round of Synthehol for the table? 

We first started seeing N/A beers pop up last year. Now, there are major entrants in the category, from large craft to the upper reaches of Big Beer. My unscientific take—I have a hunch that the Millennial cohort that drove the explosive growth of the craft beer category over the last ten years is feeling the collective strain of that effort: fatty livers, not always being mentally present (particularly bad if you’ve got a growing family), and the magic line that was crossed when we turned 30 and hangovers became preternaturally painful. We’re growing up and, while we love craft beer, can’t justifiably drink it 4 to 7 days a week like we did in our twenties. Moderation may be in order here, but there is something to be said for the idea that N/A beers allow you to indulge without such deleterious effects.  

Non-alcoholic beers will never replace traditional beer, but there are a lot of indicators that this is moving beyond fad status. As many as 1 in 5 adults (a staggering figure) have reported giving Dry January a shot. The “Better For You” beer category continues its rise, and you could even argue that hard seltzer is a sign of today’s beer consumers being more mindful of the alcohol and calories they consume (which is funny, because most of the leading hard seltzer brands actually have a similar ABV as a typical macro beer. But they have the perception of being lower alcohol because of the lighter taste profile). 

 

Better For You marches on

Beer’s healthy now. What a time to be alive. 

The Low Cal and Lite trend rose to prominence last year and is seemingly becoming a category unto itself. Bumping up against the rise of hard seltzers and the (fantastic) resurgence of expertly-made, quaffable lagers, start up breweries, established regional breweries and Big Craft alike are all jumping on this bandwagon. What’s interesting is that they’re not just offering “Lite” American lagers, but positioning them along the lines of the big American macros—you know, the “weak,” “tasteless,” and “the like having sex in a canoe” ones the industry has spent the last 20 years deriding. 

Health-mindedness has spread beyond lagers to include IPAs and various other traditionally craft styles in a lower-cal format. Among these, we’re still seeing the interesting categorical differentiation plays with terms like “Recovery Beer,” “Functional Beer,” and even the ambitious moniker of “Wellness Beer.”

1. Bell’s Brewing, 2. Big Lug Brewing by CODO Design, 3. Oskar Blues, 4. Boston Beer Co., 5. Sufferfest Beer Co., 6. Dogfish Head Brewing, 7. Harpoon Brewing

Micro trends within this trend

1. It seems like 100 calories (or in that neighborhood) is the benchmark for this space, whether you’re making a “light” beer or a seltzer.

2. Watch for more breweries to start canning these offerings in 12oz sleek cans to better connote that it’s a healthier option. This is also good for a lifestyle positioning play.

3. “Better For You” beers lend themselves to lifestyle positioning—beer for runners, ultra marathoners, mountain climbing, cycling, CrossFit and so forth. It’s also perfectly positioned for those who like to slap aces all day with their boring neighbors.

1. Saint Archer Gold, 2. Braxton Brewing

Experience as differentiator

Your taproom as an immersive brand experience

We’ve seen an uptick in breweries focusing on improving their customer experience itself (service, staff training, professional development, cicerone training, furniture, design, music, ambiance) over the last year. It’s been fun for us as we get to work on more interior design, murals, wayshowing, merch programs and menus. 

People don’t have to go to a brewery to enjoy beer. They can drink it at home while watching Netflix. So you need to give them a reason to come in. This can manifest in traditional and more contemporary programming—beer and food pairings, new beer releases, live music, a family-friendly venue, goat yoga, pig yoga and yoga-yoga.

Assuming you make great beer, your tap room ambiance can be a huge differentiator. More than simply getting people through your doors to buy higher margin draft beer, you’re grounding customers in an immersive, tangible experience. This carries over to off-premise. Now, someone who can pick from hundreds of breweries on shelf has a memory to pull from and a reason to buy your beer. They were there. They drank your beer there, interacted with your staff and other customers there and (hopefully) had fun there. These types of experiences can cement a strong and lasting relationship. 

 

Vintage IP

Presto! Instant provenance.

This trend started years ago with the reemergence of PBR and High Life, and has seen more development recently with Hamms, Ranier and Narragganset (stuff you’d drink while fishing with grandpa). On the smaller craft side, we’ve seen fun programs across the country where a brewery obtains Intellectual Property (IP) for a defunct (usually pre-, or just post-prohibition) beer brand and faithfully reproduces it, branding and all. 

This works because it brings an instant story to the table. It’s an opportunity to lean into all that real authenticity and history to create a connection with customers. And from a portfolio and product mix standpoint, it can also create a strong one-off brand to help bolster sales.

1. Shiner Beer by McGarrah Jessee, 2. Champagne Velvet by Upland Brewing, 3. Sig Luscher Brewery by Durham Brand & Co., 4. Narragansett Beer, 5. Ranier Beer by Parliament

Brewery Franchising 

Two McBeers, please.

As the market continues to mature and more breweries focus on tap room sales to bolster profits, franchising becomes a logical tangential model. It combines the “Hub and Spoke” concept (flagship brewery that sells through to its satellite taprooms) with a decentralized management opportunity. Plus, there are a lot of people who have wanted to get into craft beer for a long time but haven’t been able to ditch their former career, or lacked the know how, funding or confidence to completely do it on their own. 

And if that’s not enough, we’ve been approached by five different franchises (in-planning) over the last year. We think that’s enough to call this a trend (or at least, an impending one).

 

Branding = Sales  

That’s cool. Will it help us sell more beer? 

In our first 7 or so years of working with breweries, most of our project goals revolved around long term brand building. We were tasked with defining a brewery’s differentiator and creating beautiful branding and packaging to tell that story. We would then, half jokingly, take credit for big increases in YOY sales that almost always occurred after the project.

Now that industry growth is slowing, it’s become apparent that these big jumps in sales weren’t any great feat on our part. Or, you could even argue, the brewery’s itself. The last ten years of craft beer (excluding maybe the last two), have seen astronomical growth. Assuming a base level of quality, beer would sell itself. And while branding was, and will always be important, it served as jet fuel for an already fast moving rocket ship of sales and expansion. 

Now when a brewery partners with us for a rebrand, they often come to the table with the very specific goal of selling more beer. Yes, we want to build our brand, and yes, we want to further enmesh ourselves in the community, and foster an amazing culture, (and brew amazing beer), but this project, this branding project, is being carried out with the express purpose of selling more beer. Full stop. 

This has lead to a shift in our strategy and thinking. We’re always concerned with brand building because you need to understand the lore and stories upon which the entire business is built before making any sort of impact. But now, we’re spending just as much time working with field marketing teams, sales teams, distributors and chain retailers as part of our brand strategy work.

This is a stark difference from 5 years ago. And we think this shift in conversation—this renewed focus on measuring every single aspect of a branding project—is one more indicator of how tight the market has become.

 

Catch you on the “Innovation Pipeline” 

Evolving from a brewery to a “beverage company” 

We’ve worked within the “Innovation Pipeline” of several  global CPG beverage companies over the last few years. In one of these instances, we were in a board room with their marketing and product development team literally creating a matrix of popular beverage categories to see what could be combined and hybridized for market testing (no one liked my “smoked brisket seltzer” idea, if any VC’s are reading this). We’ve been privy to a few of these explorations in larger craft breweries over the last year as well as folks shuffle to gird their portfolios against declining beer sales with anything they can dream up.

There’s this self-imposed (or perhaps market-imposed?) arms race to find the next hard seltzer with companies rolling out Hard coffees, harder kombucha (this is the next big thing, after seltzer’s shine wears off, FYI), non-alcoholic offerings, RTD canned cocktails, cannabis-infused this and CBD-infused that.

Does this say anything about the current state of the craft beer industry? If anything, it brings up an interesting conversation around what it means to be a craft brewery. When the largest craft breweries in the country are selling more seltzer than beer, or are introducing hopped water and RTD canned cocktails, or are opening coffee bars and juiceries, what does that mean for the smaller breweries? If the goal posts are constantly being moved, and the idea of “craft” is always being redefined to keep people on our team, then who’s to cast judgement on a brewery who can—or has to—do whatever they need to to stay viable? 

Jeff Alworth

Author, Beervana Blog

It’s no secret that the beer industry is feeling anxious right now. I’d describe the posture as one of a defensive crouch. Unless you’re selling a mass market lager, the sky hasn’t fallen yet—but with the incursions of seltzer, dropping consumption rates, a slow bleed to other drinks, and the overwhelming proliferation of choice, it may feel like it to folks. 

Given all that, I’m expecting retrenchment. I’ve seen a number of breweries’ release calendars, and they show less experimentation and more reliance on solid, perhaps even stolid, offerings. This isn’t too surprising—it’s what happened in the late 90’s and early aughts when the last slowdown happened. We went from a phase of wild experimentation, excess, and a general land-grabby atmosphere to a focus on doing things well, right, and just surviving. 

These are all very speculative guesses, but in terms of beer, I would expect to see a return to what works and a period of refinement rather than experimentation. People are getting tired of gambling on mediocre beer, so they may reward consistency and quality. It’s not sexy, but brands that highlight these elements might weather the storm more easily. Everyone does the colorful, geometric can labels, but their punch may be wearing thin. I also wonder if bottles might enjoy renewed support (which means less breweries who use cans returning to bottles than bottling breweries defecting to cans). 

In terms of beer, I expect hoppy ales to continue to be the main driver of interest, but I also expect brewers to back off the ledge at the extreme edge and move back toward a little bitterness and balance. Craft lager will continue to grow and I would expect most breweries will have to make one in the coming year or two. 

I do expect there to be more churn and failures, and that will result in panic. We’re seeing the mass-marketification of craft fueled by excess capacity and anxiety, and that will certainly continue. Breweries will be spinning off side brands of FMBs, can cocktails, seltzers, etc. Regional breweries will have slicker, more corporate branding. I also expect Mexican lagers to recede somewhat.

There will surely be some unforeseen development that will rock the industry, but as such I cannot foresee its nature. Alcoholic milk? Calvados spritzers? Who knows. Beyond those things, about which I am surely more wrong than right, I’m just prepared to wait and see.

 

Bart Watson

Chief Economist, Brewers Association 

So the first thing to say is that I think it’s harder to neatly summarize trends than in the past. With more breweries in more markets, you’re seeing lots of contradictory indicators, showing places where the market is going in multiple directions. This starts at the most basic level. The segment has never been stronger–more breweries, higher market share, more innovation, etc. but the market has never been so competitive. We’re still seeing demand grow, and along with it production, but it’s getting sliced more ways than ever before.

In general, growth is still strongest the smaller you are and the more local you are. While some regional craft breweries are still growing in broad distribution, that’s now a zero sum game more or less–collectively that space isn’t growing too much. Local is still a part of the demand and so there is space for smaller, nimble local players.

Moving into specific trends, I’ll highlight a couple. In packaging, as you already know, cans continue to gain share, in pretty much every format, though 12oz 6-packs are still the biggest chunk of the market. I have lots of data on this in a post that went up recently.

In styles, we see growth at both ends of the flavor/ABV spectrum and a hollowing of the middle. IPA is still the strongest growth style in craft, buoyed in recent years by the hazy/juicy variants, which appear to be bringing some new demographics into IPA. At the other end, there are signs of growth in a collection of lighter styles—lagers such as pilsner, but also things like blond ales, golden ales, and Kölsch. To me, this is the result of craft’s aging demographic (millennials shouldn’t be a synonym for young anymore) as well as the desire of more craft brewers to tap into the biggest part of the mainstream beer market that is more about crisp refreshment than it is about big bold flavors. Side diversion: that’s where seltzers play, but with some added things like low calorie, low carb, and gluten free that appeal to many drinkers. We’re going to see lots of brewers explore that space in 2020 and we’ll see if local has an opportunity there or if seltzer is more a brand (White Claw) than a true category. Session sours I think also play in this space in a way that may be more authentic for many craft brewers.

We’re going to see a lot of craft brewers try to put those trends together in 2020 in the form of low-cal IPAs. Will they work? No clue. It’s a hard balance to get flavor in a low ABV package, but hazy versions have a chance. Second side diversion: I wonder if calling a bunch of IPAs “low cal” is going to make some consumers question how many calories are in their existing IPAs, so I wouldn’t be surprised to see IPA growth take a hit in 2020 (though let’s be honest, it’s still going to grow).

This space isn’t just about ABV or calories, and I think more broadly reflects a desire on the part of beer drinkers to feel better about their choices and so I think there are growth opportunities here in ingredients and ingredient quality as well (local sourcing, etc.). That’s a smaller space, but it’s one that I think will grow, along with other niches like low/NA beer, organic, etc. They aren’t going to be huge, but they will all grow in 2020.

 

John Holl

Editor of Beer Edge: The Newsletter for Beer Professionals & host of the Drink Beer, Think Beer podcast

It’s Time to be Making Seltzer

If your brewery isn’t thinking about offering a hard seltzer, you’re missing out on the chance to bring new customers through the door, keep existing ones within your confines a little longer, and, oh yeah, making a few bucks along the way.

The amount of jokes heard batted around during the recent Great American Beer Festival about how it could soon be all about hard seltzer were a mixture of annoyance, astonishment, but not quite reassignment among the masses. There are still too many people who see the low-calorie, low-carb, clear fizzy sugar water as a flash in the pan, a fad that will come and soon go away.

It’s unlikely that hard seltzer will become a gateway beverage to beer. They are too dissimilar and reside in different parts of the occasion brain. But having one on offer for the customers who walk through your door and might ask for a hard seltzer means money in your pocket and someone who might stick around for longer than intended.

In this competitive marketplace if you’re not at least staying current you’re already behind.

Low Cal and Low Carb

As beer became a lifestyle over the last decade, it also became parts of other lifestyles. Even though big boozy IPAs and imperial stouts are still popular, there was a rise, especially over the last two years, in low-calorie, low-carb options for beer. Larger players like Michelob Ultra gained ground by talking to the fitness crowd and smaller breweries followed suit. Samuel Adams rebranded a Gose they had originally made for the Boston Marathon as 26.2, offering it as a post-race refreshment.

Other breweries like Deschutes began to offer 99 calorie lagers. And Avery got into the action with Pacer IPA, a hop forward and full-flavored Hazy IPA with 100 calories and 3.5 carbs. “Pacer IPA’s big flavor profile joins a growing lineup of lower calorie, lower carb options from Avery Brewing, like the recently released Rocky Mountain Rosé,” the brewery said when announcing the beer. “Pacer IPA brings a hazy and flavorful IPA to this functional category the brewery has named the Avery 100s. Adam Avery hopes to expand this exciting portfolio in the future.”

Walk into a brewery today and you’ll see yoga classes happening in the morning, cycling clubs showing up after a ride in the afternoon, sign-up sheets for hikes or athletic events and more. Whereas beer was once considered the beverage of choice for dudes with guts, they have been replaced by new generation of drinkers who want moderation and have a thought towards being health conscious.

This last decade also saw a shift to craft producers releasing non-alcoholic beers. In step with the low-calorie and low-carb options, non-alcoholic beer makers are refining the process that had existed for years (and often turned out beers few wanted to drink willingly) and creating IPAs, Stouts, and even Gose with little alcohol to be found.

Sales in the United States are still virtually non-existent against the rest of the category, but if we look to Europe where it’s currently 2 percent of the marketplace, there’s clearly demand and room to grow.

Expect More Breweries to Open and Close

Each year at the Craft Brewers Conference, an industry focused event, there are numbers produced about all the breweries-in-planning that have announced an intention to open. At the end of decade there were more than 1,000 that had announced desires to open. This might seem like a lot, but with 10,000 plus wineries operating in the country there’s obviously still room to grow, especially with so many small towns (and some major cities) lacking breweries to meet a population’s needs.

It’s true that most of the breweries that open from this point on won’t become large brewing companies in the scales of say, Sierra Nevada Brewing Co. or New Belgium Brewing, but by producing a few hundred or even a few thousand barrels per year the owners can carve out a nice niche and be an important part of a local community.

The question many have been asking, especially those who pay close attention to the beer industry, is if there is a bubble or glut of breweries and will it soon burst. While it’s impossible to know, it’s important to note that businesses closing is not uncommon. It happens with restaurants all the time.

In some cases, like with Boulder Beer, which has been open since 1979, breweries are choosing to shrink rather than grow their footprints to keep the bottom line strong.

Because beer fans are so passionate, when closings happen it feels more acute. It’s just common sense to realize that with so many breweries there are going to be some that close. Some will be because of financial hardships, while others will simply decide to move on from the industry. Businesses will change hands from one generation to another and the successors might find that they didn’t have the same passions as their parents or grandparents.

Still others might decide that when it’s time to retire–and remember there’s a whole generation of craft beer pioneers that are hitting that stage–they want their legacy to remain with them and they’ll simply close their doors rather than pass a brewery on through a sale.

The end of the last decade saw a lot of closures. Beer writer Jeff Alworth dubbed October 2019 as “black October” after a good number of breweries shuttered their doors for good, many unexpectedly. For the next few years we can expect much of the same around the country.

 

Taylor Williams
Brand Manager, Craft Roads Beverage (craft distributor)

Evolving Distribution Strategy: Short and Sweet

From a wholesaler standpoint, 2019 saw the emergence of an abbreviated distribution model that will shake up the market moving into 2020. This short and sweet strategy allows breweries to enter a new market for a short duration with a limited number of offerings, giving retailers a constantly rotating tap list of fresh beer and satisfying the insatiable consumer demand for new beer. This means the “rotation nation” mentality of the craft beer industry won’t be losing any steam in 2020. 

The Guest Brewer program from Kwapil’s Brew Pipeline and Craftroads Pioneer Series are successful examples of the limited distribution model. 

In this same vein, as the already saturated market crowds further, we expect to see an uptick in mergers and acquisitions as established brands scramble to maintain their foothold in the industry. Brands like Avery, Founders and Platform, who were bought out in the previous year, can now weather the storm of over-saturation under the comfort of a large financial umbrella. Big beer buy-outs and international investments become increasingly tempting as more brands and alternative beverage options clamor for the limelight. 

Old Dogs, New Designs

In 2020, we’ll see more brands dedicate time and resources to not only owning a great tasting beer but owning a great looking beer. If we learned anything in 2019, making great beer isn’t enough. 

Sun King Brewing refreshed several of their can designs and expanded packaging options within the past year, Avery Brewing premiered a brand overhaul complete with new can designs in 2018, and Oskar Blues just debuted their first major redesign in more than a decade. 2020 will put to the test the selling power of a well-executed brand makeover. 

The Sparkling Elephant in the Room

Seltzer. Spiked seltzer. Spiked seltzer EVERYWHERE. Combine low calorie and low carb with a reasonable 5% ABV, and you have the 2020 triple threat of alcoholic beverage.

While Truly and White Claw will dominate the category across the country, we’ve seen national and regional craft breweries key in to the potential consumer growth of adding a little boozy bubbly to their line-up. Brands like Platform and Avery, as well as the big beer brands, wasted no time creating and distributing what is likely to be the biggest beverage trend of 2020. 

New Year, New Beer: Healthy-ish Beverage Growth

Our number one requested brand in 2019 was not a hazy IPA or milkshake stout, it was our gluten-free option. Along with the low-cal seltzer option, the demand for gluten-free and alcohol-free beer, and even spiked kombucha, will increase as the craft consumer population grows more health conscious. 

 

Juan Matias Zubillaga

CEO, Cerveza Ocaso (Buenos Aires, Argentina)

It’s an exciting time in Argentine beer. Regarding beer trends, many NEIPAS to be found, many using locally-grown hops like Victoria, Mapuche, Cascade and Nugget. Also a trend on fruited beers, like our Tropical APA with pineapple.

It is a very ale-focused market, not so many lagers in sight. We have 2 lagers of 5 beers in our year round portfolio which is more than the average. There are some wild things going on with Brut yeast, some IPLs and also some beers being made with wine grapes. Aging beer in wooden barrels from our wine region—Mendoza being the most common because of their availability. Not so much in liquor barrels.

Of the 2,000+ microbreweries around, there are no more than 5 with a canning line (including us). This number will grow over the next several years. 

 

Mandie Murphy

Co-Founder, Left Field Brewery (Toronto, Ontario) 

The Hazy IPA and Fruited Sour trend doesn’t seem to be slowing down as far as we can tell. We see them both in their own way, attracting new drinkers to craft from other categories like wine and cider. This is especially true with sours, where you can now find at least one sour on tap in most corporately owned chain restaurants.

We are seeing a resurgence of well made clean, crisp lagers including a number of new Pilsner releases, some with a terroir focus such as the Italian Pilsner. More recently, some examples of lager hybrids are showing-up, making drinkers think about lagers in new ways.

Low ABV offerings are very on trend and some wine-beer hybrids have started popping-up more commonly in our market as well.

Corinna Steeb

CEO and Co-Founder, Prancing Pony Brewery (Totness South Australia)

1. Breweries and price of product

We now have close to 800 independent breweries, some without stainless steel, gypsy brewing and others are very small and may not have much in the way of packaged product in the market. The market here is getting competitive and some breweries have changed to lower ABV’s to avoid the hefty excise so they can bring a lower priced product to the market. This has in turn translated to a change in pack size, with 4-packs becoming more prominent and even 12 or 16-packs as the outer cartons start to show up.

2. Styles

The most significant trends was the search for the holy grail. To some breweries, this was a never ending stream of new beers. Never drink a beer twice. To others it was to venture out into the never-never creating new styles of beer or simply using what was available to them to create a buzz. Unusual ingredients range from native botanicals to doughnuts and cranberry & orange sours to spiced Saisons, sour NEIPA’s, using all sorts of fruit or IPA’s with any amount of chili, and other spicy additions. Limited releases and Collab brews are still high in demand. Basically anything that appears to be rare.

3. Packaging

It has gone wild. While last year saw a trend towards white, clean uncluttered, now the focus is stand out colors, loud design and playing with texture as much as making a statement with the name. Most breweries have resorted to include the name of the brewery dominant on the packaging, name of beer followed by style. Cans are starting to overtake bottles in all outlets with the exception of perhaps the chains, where many beers, in particular imports are still in bottles. 375ml cans are the most common size. 330ml are appearing less and less.

Rebranding and brand refreshes are common with everybody wishing to predict the best way to cut through the noise, so merchandise items have become super important, such as tap handles, signs, lights and t-shirts.

4. Story telling in branding

Having a real identity and knowing what it is and being able to tell the brand story has never been more important. Authenticity, using sustainability principles and ensuring that the brand has a massive community input are all very real.

  

Joel Hueston

Director of Commercial Strategy, First Key Consulting

The movement towards local neighborhood taprooms will continue. It taps directly into the essence of craft beer (hyper-local, face-to-face socialization, supporting local businesses, etc.) and is the most profitable way to go to market. Right now, all the craft growth is coming from the smaller players.

The middle-sized to bigger guys will continue to get squeezed and some will get swallowed up by mainstream and venture capital. They will continue to slug it out at retail with AB and MC which will put pressure on their margins and wholesalers will have huge influence over determining their level of success. New Belgium won’t be the last acquisition of a major craft player.

That said, I am still optimistic about the future of craft beer due to generational trends. The younger end of Gen X and subsequent generations have all been raised on craft beer and it’s become a permanent part of their landscape. While mainstream beer will always fit volume-based drinking occasions and will never go away, it will play less and less of a role over time as the Boomers and older Gen Xers gradually die out. I think we’re going to see some strong craft growth kick in after 2025 when the oldest Boomers reach 80 and the youngest Boomers reach 60. They are the last of the loyal mainstream beer drinkers.

What I am really curious about is how craft will be defined in the years to come. As the larger acquisitions like Lagunitas, Founders and New Belgium continue to be supported by large marketing budgets and potentially global distribution, they will likely control an increasingly larger slice of the craft pie. While craft diehards may not consider them authentic craft, most beer drinkers will not get hung up on that and they may well become the “mainstream.” In a decade it’s possible that craft may be 25% to 30% of the beer equation in the U.S. but because of evolving definitions it’s viewed differently than it is today.

 

Jason Smith

Co-founder, Prodigy Brewing (Beijing, China)

The craft beer scene in China continues to develop and expand. While Beijing is still the city to fully experience craft beer (especially any type of hoppy beer), others cities are beginning to develop. Imported beers from around the world are readily available in beer bars but not in many other settings. Smaller city beer bars have giant glass coolers containing beer from around the world. Simply walk up, grab what you want, pay and take your seat.

Beijing continues to have craft brewery growth. Established brands are expanding and in some instances building multi-million dollar manufacturing facilities. Currently Slow Boat is very close to opening its third location in Beijing, Great Leap has opened a new location, and so has JingA. JingA even recently partnered with Carlsberg allowing them access to Carlsberg technology. Although, US beers are easily obtained in China there still has not been much migration from US breweries. Stone being the notable exception with a location in Shanghai and a forthcoming one in Beijing.

In the next few years, China should see large growth in craft beer. More foreign breweries, foreign tap takeovers, and imports will be found. Chinese people will always care about the brewery narrative and the quality of food, drinks, and atmosphere, but beer options and interest should increase for the foreseeable future.

Ben Hunt

Bar Manger, Tomlinson Tap Room (Craft Beer Bar)

Hazy. A few do it well, but overall most are just mimosas masquerading as IPAs. I’m not saying you can’t enjoy that, but let’s be honest about it.

Sours. My favorite “trend” that doesn’t seem to be letting up.  Whether they are complex & barrel-aged, palate busters, or subtle kettle sours, we know sours will always be around, but their general popularity doesn’t seem to be waning.

Lagers. A well made lager / pilsner is how I know the rest of your catalog will be solid. I’m so happy that lagers are trending up. They pair well with bar grub and your shithead uncle will drink them without putting up any fuss.

Seltzers. Cool, it’s bartles & jaymes/zima/mike’s hard/smirnoff ice all over again… just packaged for youngsters who already have a bottomless metabolism. This shit can get lost, but it will get found again in another form.

Branding. The quality of your beer is more than important than your can art. We all know who needs to hear this.

We need more neighborhood brewpubs and craft focused bars and less mass-production facilities… please.