As more and more breweries pop up across America, new trends are emerging that point back to more traditional, European ways of drinking and enjoying beer. The insight: drinkers are increasingly drawn to the taproom of hyper-local breweries.
Since the 1980s, American craft breweries have often set up shop in industrial, lower income neighborhoods of a city or town, due to the abundance of affordable, large warehouses. These vast spaces provided ideal workshops to craft beer, and the breweries then distributed that beer to other towns, cities and states. Slowly, local breweries grew into national and international American beer brands, exploding in popularity—there are now over 5,000 craft breweries in the U.S.
“Craft brewers have charged into the market, seeing double digit growth...,” said Bart Watson, Chief Economist with the Brewers Association.
With all this growth, American consumers have no shortage of choice, and by 2017, we’ve all come to expect that any grocery store beer aisle is awash in beer selection. But one of the more interesting cultural side effects of this market expansion has been the new role the brewery plays within the neighborhood itself. Local craft breweries have become brick and mortar testaments to neighborhood values, often forging the bedrock of new communities by providing a hub and comfortable gathering place for residents.
When Dan Kenary founded Harpoon Brewery in 1986 in Boston, MA, his team’s goal was to “make brewing and beer part of the culture again, because that’s what you saw in Europe – there would be the brewery in the center of town and a beer garden, a gathering place for people.”
This trend has driven a major shift in consumer habits, and many people who used to frequent the neighborhood bar are now frequenting the neighborhood taproom instead. With so many local breweries, we’ve noticed two key trends as brewers redefine the look, feel and meaning of the neighborhood watering hole.
1. Breweries Are Becoming Hyper-Localized
Taprooms and breweries are opening in the center of both old and new neighborhoods and crafting beer that is unique to that community, often with a specific community’s tastes in mind.
Braven Brewery, located in the trend-setting neighborhood of Bushwick, Brooklyn, home to Roberta’s Pizza, HBO’s Girls, and numerous other restaurants and DIY performance art venues.
For example: Braven Brewery co-founder Eric Feldman feels that drinking culture is becoming increasingly neighborhood oriented. “Brooklyn and Manhattan have different brands,” he says, “and parts of Brooklyn have different brands—Bushwick and Red Hook are completely different brands. So regionality is becoming much more focused.” Kelly Taylor from Kelso Brewery, agrees. “When there are 50 breweries in a city [drinking] starts to get more and more local. People call it hyper-local.”
Seattle Met magazine’s article ‘Ballard Hyperlocal Beer Bars’ explains: “And then there’s Ballard, a rare locale where breweries proliferate, but so do residents. It’s perhaps the only zone in the United States where neighborhood bars can limit their taps to what’s made in the immediate vicinity.”
Part of this shift is due to generally less restrictive alcohol laws across the US. These reductions in regulation have lowered barriers to entry, enabling brewers of all means to enter the market. This new wave of hyper-local breweries has given communities a reason to celebrate and take pride in their neighborhood. After all, that tasty beer they’re drinking is brewed just down the block.
2. Breweries Are Opening More Taprooms
For brewers, taprooms have become one of the most critical elements of their business, representing an ideal location to sell, test and market beer direct to consumers, as well as an opportunity for increased profits on sales. Scott Vaccaro, owner and founder of Captain Lawrence Brewery in Elmsford, NY, says, “This taproom has produced more than 50% of our sales…” And the Brewers Association estimates that taprooms can generate as much as $400 a keg in gross profit.
Dan Kenary, founder of Harpoon Brewery, says their taproom has changed the game: “[The taproom] was our founding equity. Our beer hall was something that we had in mind forever. We want to bring people together around beer. We have 24-25 taps and we serve pretzels. That’s it. We are not a restaurant. We are not out to compete with people. We consider these communal tables—a gathering place for the neighborhood to come and be comfortable, around beer.”
For consumers, taprooms have become a strong alternative to the neighborhood bar, perhaps playing a role in the slight decline in on-premise (traditional bar) sales over the past few years. Part of this shift is because consumers are seeking more comfortable places to gather. According to Phear Creative’s 2017 Craft Beer Drinker survey, consumers view a taproom as a more casual/comfortable experience compared to a traditional bar.
“I enjoy the environment of the local taproom—and I enjoy drinking local beer,” said one consumer participating in the survey. “It is very laid back and has a community-based focus.” Another consumer added, “Every time you go into a brewery or taproom everyone around is very enjoyable. Families are always welcome, including dogs, which is awesome. Hanging out with friends and family in a low-key environment with good beer is great.”
Lauren Kosteski, Director of Kosteski & Co., a Brooklyn-based brand strategy consultancy, says, "I've been researching the craft beer and spirits industries since 2013 and recognized, early on, the changing dynamics in after work and weekend drinking rituals—the places where craft-loving millennials gather have become more comfortable, more food-centric, and much more inclusive of both male and female drinkers. Local brewery taprooms, much like the brewers themselves, are a friendly and welcome addition to the more traditional neighborhood bar scene. We've also heard people talk about how proud they are of locally-made products, and a great taproom space gives people a physical place to experience that sense of local pride along with their local brews."
In 2017, it’s not just the beer that’s different, drinking culture itself has started to shift. Consumers are finding a new drinking experience in the taprooms of breweries, and brewers are discovering their taprooms have become the central gathering place for those in the community. It’s a symbiotic relationship that seems to only be in its early stages of development.