The Evolution of Beer Drinkers

ZX Ventures Innovation Brewer, Thomas Hartman, has noticed a change in the way beer drinkers approach brewers and beer subject matter experts. What’s behind the change? Check out his views here!

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What questions do you normally get about beers and how are they changing?

I used to hear a lot of basic beer style questions. For example, what’s the difference between an ale and a lager? (In case you don’t know: it’s all in the yeast. These two styles use different types of yeast that prefer to be fermented at different temperatures and therefore take more or less time to do their job of converting wort into beer.) Now, though, while I’ll occasionally get a softball like that, I’m often asked much more sophisticated and nuanced questions that are truthfully difficult to answer.

Today’s questions often focus on differentiating between very similar types or styles of beer. What makes these questions hard? As experimentation has blossomed within the craft beer world, the lines between styles are blurring. Definitions are either unclear or are no longer strictly applicable (if they ever were).

What are some examples of those more nuanced questions?

I’m frequently asked about the difference between a porter and a stout. (Are they even different types of beer or just two points on a spectrum of dark beers? Is the real difference, if there is one, in their treatment of barley?) Why is a particular beer labeled as a session IPA and not a pale ale or vice versa? (It’s arguably a matter of balance and intensity: a pale ale should have a good balance between its different component flavors, whereas an IPA, even a lighter session IPA, should be more hop-forward.)

Another big area of questioning relates to specific ingredients. Which hops are represented in this beer, and what does each do for the flavor profile, individually or in combination? And, especially recently, where were these hops grown? I just sampled several batches of a beer that were made with the same hop variety but with the hops in each batch sourced from several different countries and climates. The resulting beers were wildly different in flavor and character. This is a fascinating area for future development!

What do you think is behind the changing questions you’re getting in the industry?

People who are drinking beer today definitely know what they’re talking about. Compared to other industries, these people are intensely passionate and have made the effort to educate themselves on beer. They’ve been exposed to a lot of different things, and have both a wider and deeper knowledge about beer in general. All of this is now reflected in the types of questions I get as a brewer. Craft beer has always waged this battle to educate consumers, both to justify the higher price tag of craft beer and to engage people with a deeper experience of beer. The growing education we see today results from several sources.

First, the internet is critical. Craft beer represents 12 to 15% of the beer market by volume and 20% by dollars spent, and these drinkers want to appreciate what they’re paying for. Fortunately, if beer drinkers want to know the difference between the flavor profiles of specific hops, they need look no further than Google. More and more they’re asking questions—smart questions too—and then researching and looking into the answers.

Second, there’s a growing recognition of beer-drinking as an acceptable hobby, accompanied by substantial resources for hobbyists. Paralleling the wine world and its sommeliers, the Cicerone program has developed a training and certification course for enthusiasts. To join the ranks of the 2,500 certified Cicerones worldwide, an applicant must pass a four-hour exam that includes taste tests and a written portion. Other large organizations are similarly dedicated to educating drinkers about their beer.

Finally, the homegrown local beer industry has contributed to the education of beer drinkers. With a whopping 5,000 breweries in the U.S. today, every community has some form of small brewery or local taproom where people gather. As people spend more time among their kindred local beer enthusiasts, they are learning what they like (and don’t like) and how to talk about beer in a nuanced and specific way.

It’s exciting to see the evolution of beer drinkers here in the U.S. and around the world. In terms of beer as a hobby, I can’t wait to see where we go next.