A lot of Steve Beauchesne’s original blog post on The Ontario Beer Revolution has to do with the idea that all it would take to make an Ontario Beervana possible is a shift in consumer spending and a recognition of the fact that purchasing from local, independent brewers is beneficial for everyone involved in the process. If you’ve ever spent any time standing in the refrigerated section of an LCBO or in the back room at the beer store, you may have noticed that you don’t see a whole lot of people selecting things based on the meticulous notes they have attached to their clipboard. As an experiment, why not hang around, feigning interest in some packaging design or description and check out the average consumer. We already know that only one out of every twenty beers consumed is brewed by a local, independent brewery. What about the other nineteen?
By and large the people that you see after 5:00 PM in the LCBO or Beer Store are there for refreshment. Maybe they’ve had a hard day at work. Maybe they just want something to drink while watching the game. It’s difficult to criticize people who are just looking to unwind. These are folks with a lot on their mind, and they’re on their way home and they don’t really want to think about what they’re consuming. They just want to grab it and go, whether it’s a couple of tallboys or a six-pack. I’m going to bet that sometimes they try things that look interesting, but by and large they’re just going to pick up something familiar that they don’t have to think about.
I don’t mean to imply that this is unsophisticated behavior, especially since we’ve all got problems and sometimes you just want something cold to drink after a long day of pretending to work while checking out the funny link that Carol from HR posted on Facebook. You can’t criticize the behavior without coming off like a snob, especially since even really bad beer is still, technically, beer.
I beg you to consider the widely regarded and pseudo-scientific St. John’s Wort Sliding Poultry Accessibility Scale which is largely based on the difficulty of getting a ten year old child to eat various birds for dinner. If you’ve ever had to babysit a ten year old child, then you know that what they want is relatively plain food. They want Chicken Fingers and possibly a side of McCain Superfries. You can’t convince the kid that they should eat a pan seared duck breast which was farmed locally and lived a happy, quack filled life on a free range pond. If you try to tell the kid that choosing the duck supports local farmers, it’s just not going to sink in and eventually you’re going to be asked to pass the plum sauce since the chicken fingers are kind of dry.
It’s immensely difficult to cite the extreme pleasure of high end items. Consider Ortolan. For those of you who don’t know this is a small European bird which is considered a delicacy in France. It’s captured, put in a box to gorge itself on millet, oats, figs and grapes and then, when it grows to four times its original size, it’s drowned in Armagnac. After it’s cooked, you pop the whole thing in your mouth and bite off the head. It’s served at such a high temperature that the fat and the Armagnac fumes roll down your throat while you allow it to cool on your tongue. You then chew the entire thing, bones and all over the course of about 15 minutes. This entire process is done with a cloth over your head in order to block out other sensory information and enhance the flavours. It’s meant to be one of the all-time, hall-of-fame, culinary experiences.
Try getting a ten year old to think that’s a good idea. There will be actual crying, not least because of the bones pricking the insides of their mouth and the fact that it is recognizably a bird. The worst part is that after going to all the trouble of presenting something elaborate and interesting, you know you’re eventually going to capitulate and fish the box of chicken nuggets out of the back of the fridge.
It’s largely the same with beer. Substitute, say, Black Oak Nut Brown for Duck and Vanilla Aged Dark Lord for Ortolan. For the most part, mass produced macrobrews are made to be as inoffensive as possible, thereby appealing to the largest number of people. Molson Canadian and Labatt Blue are the beer equivalent of Chicken Fingers. There’s nothing challenging about them and they appeal to people because they’re always the same. You may not be impressed with a macrobrew, but you always know what to expect.
It’s folly to assume that the consumer is going to change on their own. Sure, you might get some of the more socially conscious consumers to buy local based on what they’ve read about the 100 mile diet. I don’t think I’m wrong in assuming that the majority of people don’t care about that kind of thing. If you want the consumers to change, then you need to change them. Of course they’re not actually ten year olds, so the time honored “Three Big Bites” tactic isn’t going to work. You’re dealing with adult consumers and I think you’ll find that they want to be treated like adults.
If one were to launch a campaign suggesting to them, in relatively gentle terms, that they are in essence grown people who are still at the kiddie table, that might goad them into giving craft beer a try. That, in itself, isn’t enough. You have to make craft beer accessible, and I think you do that by replacing the seemingly randomly chosen OCB Discovery packs with packages based on beers of a single style. Include some educational material. Let people learn about what they’re drinking with a punchy and informative insert. Tell them what to eat with the beer they’re drinking. Make it inclusive: Thank them for giving craft beer a try. Welcome them to the fold. And for God’s sake make it fun! Beer drinking is meant to be a largely frivolous pursuit, so why not make the marketing for Ontario Craft Brewers entertaining? The marketing actually has to reach people and make them think about the issue. You don’t want it to fade away into the background. Fortune favours the bold.
The expansion of craft beer’s market share is going to depend largely on getting the macrobrew crowd to choose to try craft beer instead of something familiar. It’s probably not enough anymore to simply let people know that craft beer exists. You’ve got to challenge them to try it and then once they’ve tried it, you can tell them why it’s good for them. You also have to be prepared for the fact that some people, regardless of how you well you explain your position or cajole them into trying a new experience, just like Chicken Fingers. Sometimes there’s no accounting for taste.