HAMPTON ROADS, Va. – It can be pretty easy to spot the craft beer drinkers in the crowd, and that may be a problem for regional breweries looking to grow.
“They are caricatured as young, Caucasian men with white-collar jobs, likely sport beards and perhaps have a few discreet tattoos, and are outdoorsy on the weekends,” a report from Old Dominion University economists says. And the data appear to confirm at least some of that stereotype.
In 2015, 86 percent of craft beer drinkers were white, according to a Harris Poll cited by the Brewers Association. By 2018, the percentage had dropped, but only by a half a point. Most are millennials and those earning more than $75,000 a year.
Those figures aren’t inherently bad news for any industry. As far as age goes, as the report points out, younger millennials will reach drinking age and the older ones will, ideally, begin earning more money.
But there’s a whole world of people out there who might be craft beer customers too – people who, if recruited, could keep the taps open for years to come. The number of breweries nationwide rose from 2,898 in 2013 to 6,266 last year. In Hampton Roads, the number went from about a dozen to 36. Without adding new customers, could craft beer growth hit a wall?
“A lot of the advice I give to brewers is to think of people as beer drinkers, first,” said Bart Watson, an economist with the Brewers Association. The locales that do it well? “It’s because there’s a very pervasive culture of drinking beer, so everyone drinks beer.”
Nationally, nonwhite consumers accounted for 14.5 percent of craft beer drinkers, less than 1 percentage point higher than three years earlier. African-Americans accounted for just 10 percent of those drinking craft beer weekly.
Of the 40 percent of the drinking age population that told pollsters they drank craft beer several times a year, 68.5 percent of them are men and 31.5 percent are women – a 2-point increase since 2015, according to interpretation of the data by the Brewers Association. In just two localities – Portland, Ore., and the Providence, R.I., markets – women craft beer drinkers outnumber men.
In Hampton Roads, men account for 69 percent of the customers, which is on par with the rest of the country?
Ask craft brewers in the region, though, and they’ll tell you they already open their doors to anyone and everyone of age and worry more about the volume of breweries and geographical challenges of drawing people in, than addressing diversity for diversity’s sake.
There are only so many breweries a single area can sustain and getting people outside the core clientele has been an ongoing challenge.
“I can’t even get people from Virginia Beach to come to Norfolk,” let alone pull in customers from across the water in Hampton, said Kevin Erskine, owner and president of Coelacanth Brewing in Norfolk. “For me, that’s a bigger issue.”
Thomas Wilder, a co-founder of Young Veterans Brewing Co. in Virginia Beach and a new brewpub, The Bunker, agreed: “People don’t leave their area. People in Virginia Beach look at Norfolk like it’s far away.”
Few other options – be it restaurants or breweries – are a short distance from Dave Baum’s year-old Billsburg Brewery in Williamsburg, which has helped attract a variety of customers, particularly families and “kids running around like its 1972 without cellphones.” Originally counting on tourists for business, locals have instead provided most of his traffic so far.
“I’m trying to get diverse audiences out here,” he said, and part of that has been saying “yes” to nearly any community event that might be looking for a waterfront setting and hosting events of his own, like a church anniversary and a drag show on Halloween (called “Hallowqueen”).
Eight acres of farmland have so far set Back Bay’s Farmhouse Brewing in Virginia Beach apart and so has the wine and cider additions to the menu. There are plans to offer kombucha, iced tea and ice cream eventually and Back Bay collaborated on a beer for festival modeled after a brew that’s popular in the Philippines.
“They’re doing it right with these lights,” Arielle Adriano said at Farmhouse. The 24-year-old and three friends – all women – were pointing to the bistro lights hanging above. “It’s very ‘Instagram-y.’”
Her group has noticed that the craft beer demographic seems to skew white male, but they said they’ve always felt welcome at Hampton Roads’ breweries.
“I think breweries are, kind of, hidden gems,” said Alana Abenojar. They’ve been particularly drawn to Farmhouse because of the regular lineup of food trucks and cozy atmosphere.
“We’re offering a lot of other ancillary beverages so that people can come to Farmhouse and enjoy the outside and the atmosphere even if they don’t drink,” said co-owner Josh Canada.
He said they try to make beers that “will please every palate.” And he’s seen a wide range of demographics – people who come just for the beer, millennials who come for the bands, families that come during the day to get out of the house, and, in summer, tourists because of its proximity to the Oceanfront.
Christine Holley, of Wasserhund Brewing in Virginia Beach, said food has been the differentiator for her brewery. It adds appeal to customers who might want meals made at their restaurant, as opposed to the food trucks that other breweries rely on.
Every brewer has to consider its individual geographic market and how to appeal to more customers as the industry gets more crowded, Watson said. “Some of that will happen naturally,” depending on where they’re opening, he said.
“I think we’ve been able to cast a wider demographic net than some of my friends,” said Kevin O’Connor, owner of O’Connor Brewing, one of the original breweries in Norfolk.
He was referring partly to their location in an industrial area of the city. It has a large space indoors and out and hosts to numerous events. One of those was the recent “Crafted” show that attracted a couple of thousand shoppers, many of them women bringing their husbands or boyfriends for holiday shopping, looking for handmade goods.
O’Connor said they can probably do better at offering beers that appeal to a wider spectrum of the community, but they offer a beer for breast cancer awareness every year and have added goses, which is a bit more like wine.
“It’s creativity, it’s events, its community involvement that we’ve always been pushing here,” he said.
There is bound to be a tipping point, though, with so many breweries so close together that the days of customers ambling in simply to support buying local are gone.
“That’s just going to force everyone to be more unique and make better beer,” said Benchtop Brewing owner Eric Tennant. “There’s lots of breweries that are competing for the same style beer and the same customer”
His customer? Mainly the older and more affluent people with the disposable income for a brew. Younger customers looking for alternatives, such as a vegan beer, have also been drawn in.
Tennant said it’s the experimental things they do – carrot, beet and grasshopper beers, for example – that attract a varying crowd.
“We’re not trying to beat O’Connor (Brewing) at selling IPAs,” he said. “We’re going to lose that fight.”
Roan Razon, 26, of Virginia Beach loves going to breweries and is a fan of stouts in particular. But she said she likes options, too. At Farmhouse Brewing recently, she sipped a watermelon mimosa with a friend.
Adam Connolly of Capstan Bar Brewing in Hampton focuses on making approachable, balanced beers.
“If someone comes in who likes beer in some portion of the spectrum, we have multiple varietals that are approachable,” he said.
St. George Brewing Co. in Hampton makes Larry’s Lemonade and a hard root beer popular with people not as big on beer, said owner Bill Spence.
Erskine, of Coelacanth, said he tries to be as inclusive as possible and zigging when others zag.
He’s eschewed some trends popular with other breweries, including yoga, trivia nights and live music. All he wants to offer is a gathering place where a few friends can come to chat. “I want to be what we wish coffeehouses were,” he said.
That means no pink or glitter beers (both real things that have been sold elsewhere) or any other brews that might be seen as pandering to a specific audience, he said.
“I would personally feel like I’m alienating the audience I’m purportedly trying to attract,” he said. “I’m just going to make beer and hope that people like the beer.”
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