Tearing out a coupon at Broadway Dive Bar, the bartender gave us an appreciating smile. “This is like liquid gold,” she said, handing us two pints of beer with stamps on them from the New York State Brewers Association—featuring a hand holding up a cup the way it might a hammer or sickle. The bartender’s smile hinted that the scene—two college-aged females ordering an obscure, artisanal brew—was a relatively new phenomenon.
We were participating in the third annual New York Craft Beer Week, and the coupons were from our $10 beer passports—the adventurous drinker’s key to receiving discounted $3 pints of featured craft beer on tap at prominent bars from Sept. 24 to Oct. 3. Dubbed “beer appreciation week” by Chris Rom, a sales manager at Brooklyn Brewery, the event is a festival meant to expose craft beer newbies to the wide variety of artisanal alcohol New York has to offer.
In some ways, Craft Beer Week is New York City’s free-market answer to Germany’s fall Oktoberfest. And the timing—though a coincidence, according to Josh Schaffner, director of Craft Beer Week—couldn’t be more appropriate. Last Friday, a Freaktoberfest festival at Brooklyn’s The Rock Shop kicked off Craft Beer Week, with numerous pub crawls and brewery promos following. Beer passports allowed less social beer tasters to plan their own craft crawls at local bars, including MoHi’s Broadway Dive, Dive 96, Village Pourhouse, Toast, and Dinosaur BBQ.
But the drastic increase in participation in this year’s Craft Beer Week exposed the changing youth drinking scene in New York. In short, artisanal beer is exploding and local breweries are expanding rapidly to accommodate demand. And the 20-somethings, of all groups, are leading the trend.
As colorful and eye-catching six-packs from breweries such as Magic Hat and Brooklyn Brewery proliferate at Westside and Milano, local bars in Morningside are also featuring more craft brews on tap and hosting promos from local breweries.
“We’ve seen a drastic increase in the demand for artisan beers,” said Craig Skiptunis, owner of Bistro Ten 18, comparing craft beer today to what red wine was in the 1990s.
Rom described why students have become a marketing target for many craft breweries. “Their palates are still developing—they’re not afraid to try new things,” he said. “Every craft beer has a different branding, labeling, marketing, and when you’re coming out, 21-35 is a core demographic.”
Gary Rosen, sales manager for Blue Point Brewery on Long Island, gave his unique take on the shifting demographic: “I think craft brewers are also understanding that women are really getting behind the craft beer industry. It’s not just this guy that likes vintage Star Trek anymore. It’s not just star soccer and football players—it’s 23-year-old, smoking-hot, recently graduated, just-out-of-college chicks. This is really reaching across all boundaries, and I think it’s really an exciting time for the industry.”
Schaffner described how more and more young people are turning to “transitional beers” such as Blue Moon and Samuel Adams, which, while not necessarily officially craft due to their corporate affiliations, are made from malt and prioritize a complex taste in their production. After experimenting with a newfound complexity of taste in these fairly mainstream beers, students will then turn to newer, more experimental, more complex beers.
“It’s really a cool time to be a 21, 22, 23-year-old, because there are so many breweries doing so many different things and they have such a wide selection to choose from,” Rosen said, adding that this was not the case when he was in this age group.
“Overall, younger people have an appreciation for all kinds of products that require a bit more education and understanding at the basis of their products than older generations,” Schaffner said. But he sees the popularity of craft beer among youth more as a result of wider availability than as the initiative of a generation.
“There are craft beer drinkers in all generations, and there are very dedicated older craft beer drinkers,” he said. “I think what sets our generation apart is, anyone who’s had a beer has also had a craft beer. … We are lucky enough to come of age as adult beverage drinkers at a time period when craft beer was widely available.”
The art of the craft
Simply put, a craft beer is a beer that is “made with the intention of making a flavorful product,” Schaffner said. Whereas mass-producing beer companies use flaked corn or rice—ingredients that are inexpensive and essentially get the job (the job being intoxication) done—craft breweries use the more expensive malted barley to create a rich and unique taste.
“Bud Light does not taste like anything,” Rom said. With craft beer, “There’s creativity, there’s a thought process. These New York breweries make incredible beers, and they put a lot of thought into it.” Continuing this trend, many breweries experiment with super-limited-edition production of certain brews, only producing a few barrels and using highly experimental methods.
At a Brooklyn Brewery promotion at Amity Hall at the kickoff of Craft Beer Week, Rom buys us a “Detonation”—a 9.2 percent alcohol content beer that, he says, “should be your last drink of the night,” and for good reason. The deep-shaded, hoppy beer is as complex and rich as it is alcoholic to the taste—not for the casual fratter looking for a quick buzz.
These beers are also the ones that pop with their edgy packaging and sometimes outlandish names. “Hoptical Illusions” and “Toxic Sludge” six-packs tempt students at local markets. Schaffner explained that craft breweries frequently have little to no marketing budgets, and thus “are very creative and very innovative, and that certainly leads to more inspired artwork on their labels.”
Rom described how mass marketing is generally not a part of craft breweries’ strategies. Instead, “craft beer survives on the social network,” he said.
Even though mass marketing doesn’t come into play, rising popularity has allowed craft breweries to expand—Brooklyn Brewery, New York City’s largest and most prominent craft brewery, is one such example. Since its inception, Rom said, Brooklyn Brewery has been a 10,000-barrel-per-year operation, but by the end of this year, they will be up to 24,000 barrels, and by the end of 2012 they will be churning out 100,000.
Similarly, Blue Point Brewery has been open for 12 years, and according to Rosen, in 2008 it was the fastest-growing microbrewery in the country. “We lose a lot of sleep because of it,” he said.
In the Michael Pollan era of food and drink, craft beer makes sense. It’s the locavores’ beverage of choice, after all—crafted with love and crafted nearby. Many breweries pride themselves on their local mentalities. Schaffner speculated that this originates from the focus on taste over profit. “By and large, craft breweries tend to take other things into account: the value of your community, the value of environment, the value of working with neighborhood associations,” he said.
Craft breweries also maintain high standards for taste, with brewmasters unwilling to settle. Instead, fueled by passion, they strive for greatness.
“Our brewmaster has a four-pint rule,” Rom said. “Any beer of ours you try, he wants you to want four pints of it.”
Meanwhile, Rosen said of Blue Point, “Every beer we make, we want it to be the go-to beer of that type.” Like most classic American crafts, these beers may fall flat—or more frequently, fall a little too sharp—but the brewmasters live for that magic combination that revolutionizes the whole process.