California’s rich craft beer market sees an uptick in sales during the holiday season and competes well with wine as a choice for gifts and meal pairings, the state’s craft brewers say.
“Some people prefer wine, some people prefer beer, some people like both,” said Scott Ungermann, brewmaster at San Francisco’s Anchor Brewing. “The complexity of flavors in many beers have opened a lot of eyes — and mouths — to the concept of rich and flavorful beers that are suitable for all occasions.”
Craft brewing executives declined to share holiday-specific sales figures, but agreed they see sales jump around winter festivities.
“We do see a boost in sales around the holidays, specifically with single-serve big-bottle formats,” said Todd Karnig, vice president of sales for Stone Brewing of Escondido. “While we can’t say for sure if that’s tied to gift-giving, we can assume that it’s related to the holidays.”
“It is a combination of gift-giving and holiday parties,” Ungermann said of sales at Anchor. “More people entertain during the holidays and well-made handcrafted beer like our Christmas Ale is a great choice for any gathering.”
Hilary Cocalis, vice president of marketing for Ballast Point in San Diego, said consumers generally “trade up” for more sophisticated and unique beers during the holidays.
“We see that for sure,” Cocalis said. “I think that happens across all alcohol categories.”
Cocalis said she’s not sure that craft beer competes directly with wine as a gift choice, but is certain that it has become a gift of choice for many consumers.
“We see craft beer as being a giftable option, especially to those that seem to be drawn to collectable, sellable offerings — barrel-aged beers and things like that,” she said.
Because they can be shared, specialized beers sold in large bottles compete nicely with wine as a gift choice, Ungermann said.
“Large-format beers, seasonal brews and limited-edition beers are always a great gift for beer lovers,” he said. “The large-format bottles, especially magnums, are perfect for sharing and therefore make great gifts for any drinker, since they will not feel obligated to drink it all themselves.”
Just as wine is often paired with food, craft beers also pair well with a variety of holiday dishes, Ungermann said. For example, Anchor’s Christmas Ale is smooth and creamy with tastes of cacao, toffee and roasted nuts, and hints of honey and herbal spice, he said.
“It pairs quite well with holiday fare, whether it is a roasted turkey dinner, sweet potato pie, or roasted chestnuts,” Ungermann said.
Beer vs. wine
Recent data shows an overlap in buying among wine, spirits and beer drinkers, said Karnig, from Stone Brewing.
According to Nielsen Homescan data from 2016, 63 percent of beer consumers also buy wine and 69 percent of wine consumers also buy beer, he said.
“That’s beer in general, not craft beer, but it’s safe to assume that craft is getting its share of that,” Karnig said. “Half of those aged 21-34 drink from two or more categories while on a typical night out at a restaurant or bar. And for millennials, specifically, the holidays are the No. 1 craft beer occasion.”
Cocalis said it’s difficult to assess whether wine aficionados are entering the craft beer market, but anecdotally among friends and fellow employees at Ballast Point, she sees consumers open to trying other alcohol categories.
“When you look at barrel-aged craft beer or the sour beer program we’re developing, you have beers that start to take on wine characteristics,” she said. “We’re finding those as good opportunities to bridge the gap with the wine consumer who is probably not going to jump into an IPA but is curious about beer flavors.”
Traditional vs. craft
Meanwhile, the craft beer industry is beginning to win over an increasing portion of older and more traditional beer drinkers, Karnig said.
“That’s a fact, absolutely. Lots of older or more traditional beer drinkers are getting into craft beer for the first time,” he said. “Tons of craft breweries are making more approachable beers — pilsners are a growing category, for example. Craft is proving that it’s not just a gimmick, not only super-high (alcohol by volume) offerings. The industry is offering more approachable bridge beers that have increased the number of fans willing to give the category a try.”
Local brewpubs play a big role, Karnig said.
“People are exploring what’s local and making an entry into the craft beer world via that local push that brings people in to try beer, taste food and experience the craft beer movement,” he said. “These people often have purchasing behaviors that are more aligned to craft when they then go into the store.”
Interest from older and more traditional beer drinkers is part of a larger trend across all food and beverage markets in which people want to know more about how the products they consume are made, including the ingredients and processes used, Ungermann said.
“Traditional brewers like Anchor, with our hand-crafted beers, take extra care to use exceptional ingredients and time-tested techniques to create beers that tell a story and are deliciously drinkable,” he said. “Traditional beer drinkers are most likely looking for something that tastes good and feels good to be drinking, and a well-made beer that has unique authenticity should fit that nicely.”
Craft beer has caused a “line blurring” of the traditional generational influence on beer drinking, Cocalis said.
“This is anecdotal but people used to drink what their parents were drinking. Now it’s a little more that parents are getting exposed to what the younger generations drink,” she said. “This is inherent in the tendency among younger consumers to try and share different flavors. It’s about experimenting and exploring. There’s not necessarily one beer kept in the fridge and we don’t stray from that.”
During tours of Anchor, Ungermann said, visitors are often “pleasantly surprised” by the variety of flavors and styles of beers available.
“I have often encountered the person who leads off with ‘I don’t like dark beers’ who suddenly becomes a fan of Anchor Porter once they taste it for the first time,” he said. “The main perception shift that I see here is that people seem much more willing to try new styles of beer that they have either never encountered before or that they thought they’d never like, and then they like them and they come back for more.”
Anchor Public Taps, the company’s new pilot brewery and bar, is scheduled to host several holiday events, including Throwback Thursday on Dec. 14, which features a vertical flight of Christmas Ales from 2014, 2015, 2016, and 2017. On Dec. 15, which is National Ugly Christmas Sweater Day, the brewery will host First Taps Friday, featuring the first-ever Imperial Wassail from Anchor.
Ballast Point on Dec. 17 is scheduled to host Victory at Sea Day, highlighted by several versions of its coffee and vanilla imperial porter. A variety of events will be held at Ballast Point tasting rooms throughout the country during the week surrounding the winter solstice. The brewery just released its first barrel-aged Victory at Sea for retail sale, Cocalis said.
Stone is scheduled to host two New Year’s Eve events and release several holiday beers, including Xocoveza, a mocha stout inspired by Mexican hot chocolate; its popular Enjoy By 12.25.17 Unfiltered IPA; and several barrel-aged, large-format beers from its Small Batch series.