Thursday, March 3, 2011

Poll: What do people want in a local brewery?

In a recent blog post (HERE), I welcomed Port City Brewing to the community of beer lovers, particularly those of us in Alexandria. I described the brewery and the beers and gave a brief assessment, which concluded like this: "The beers are well-made, with a focus on balance and moderation. They may not be overly exciting to my jaded palate, but they are certainly good and very drinkable." 

As thrilled as I am to have a craft brewer in my back yard, I must admit my comments about this new brewery are not exactly a ringing endorsement. Why not? What is the source of my disappointment? This question got me thinking about what sort of a brewery I would have preferred. Or, to put it more bluntly, what kind of brewery would I create myself, given this market and my own dreams and desires?  

My $0.02 on the Port City business plan: Bill's brewing for the portion of the craft beer market that has been left behind in the push for extremes. That’s a clear mission statement, but it makes me wonder: is it an accurate reading of the market? Extreme beers generate curiosity, but what are people buying the most? Are people who like craft beer so tired of variety and novelty that they long for a good, old-fashioned beer? 

I personally love the wide variety of great beer that we can already get here in the DC area. When people visit from out of town, they are amazed by the variety at our fingertips. We rival places like Portland for variety available. Yet visitors are stunned by the dearth of home-grown brands in the mix. With Port City open and others opening soon, that situation is changing! 

Brewers are definitely responding to this gap, and I am so excited about the burgeoning local brewing scene.  As I reported in a recent post, there are 31 currently open local breweries and brew-pubs within 100 miles of the Capitol, plus an additional 15 non-local brew-pub chains and "tied house" brewery outlets with no brewing on premises.  Added to these 46 establishments, we have 9 more breweries and brew-pubs coming soon to this area. Lots of choice, and more on the way! I am excited about the possibility of even more great beer, especially great locally-made beer at our taps. 

At the same time, I am not so excited about good beers just because they are locally made. Bill's brewing for the portion of the craft beer market that has been left behind in the push for extremes. Perhaps I am caught up in the chase to the extremes? Does that put me in the market or out of it? Am I so overstimulated by the awesome variety that I have lost my taste for the merely solid? What does the market want from the new brewers that are arriving on the scene?

Here are the results of a poll I commissioned on BeerPal to help shed some light on this issue. The results indicate that people want variety. They like their variety to come from local sources if possible. They want reasonably priced beers. Now and then, they will pay more for unique or great beer.  

Bill is realizing his vision for balanced, well-made beers. For his sake I hope he is reading the market right. If so, his efforts will be richly rewarded. That said, I believe a place like Mad Fox might be a little closer to meeting this market’s demand. We can get a good wit, pale, IPA, or porter at almost any corner grocery store. But you must go to Mad Fox to get Orange Whip or India Ink. Those beers are not only local, they are unique and incredibly tasty! And they are not available anywhere else in the world. Now THAT is local pride.

When I go to a restaurant with a good tap list like Old Town's Pizzeria Paradiso, for example, and I see Port City Optimal Wit on offer as one of 20 choices, would I choose that over other options which are far more intriguing or satisfying? Maybe I would choose it once, because I want to have something local, but twice? Certainly I would recommend it to someone who has not tried it. Local pride is a great thing, but sentiment only goes so far in a free market economy.

I could be wrong, or just jaded by all the great beers I’ve been lucky enough to enjoy by virtue of living in this area and traveling abroad. I am looking for variety and something new and good. I don’t need envelope-pushing novelty all the time, but I am not the kind to order the same beer every day for years on end when there is so much new stuff to try.

I conclude that Bill’s simply not brewing for guys like me. And that’s OK, because there’s Mad Fox for guys like me. And there's a ton of young people drinking Shock Top at the Kennedy Center who have never had a real Belgian-style witbier. For them, may I recommend Port City Optimal Wit?