One quick glance at a store shelf or tap lineup reveals that there is a sea of sameness out there these days. The beer market is becoming increasingly crowded, and those products that stand out by standing for something will be more successful in this new environment. Your approach to the beers you produce has to be every bit as disciplined as your branding and other messaging.
Beer is a complex product. There are a number of conceptual, aesthetic and technical aspects that all have to line up perfectly to result in a world-class brew. It’s a task that requires equal contributions from both the thinking and feeling halves of the brain.
Concept. It’s best to start with a big idea. This idea must be able to be summed up in a sentence or two, and I often begin the new product conceptualization process by writing copy that might appear on a label. This is the “elevator pitch” for your beer, hopefully an appealing one that will help prospective customers know why they might enjoy it, and encourage them to try it.
Whatever the concept, it will contribute to your overall brand image. Your beers are not just products to drink, but vital tools for building your identity as a brewery.
Recipe. The recipe should be all about paying off the Big Idea established in the beer’s concept. This makes it easy to make decisions, because every ingredient and process decision has to work towards a common goal. I can consult on ingredients and recipe formulation for production quantities of 5 gallons or 5,000 barrels based on my homebrewing and professional brewing recipe formulation knowledge and experience.
Eccentric and Delicious. When I published Radical Brewing in 2003, the notion of adding things like ginger, lemongrass, raw sugar and many other oddball ingredients really was radical. We’ve come a long way in a short decade, and beers that push the boundaries are becoming much more prevalent. That’s a good thing—in theory.
Customers looking for a novel experience will try something based on an interesting idea, but they will only repurchase the beer if it is well-integrated, subtle and drinkable. We’ve all had that experience of drinking some novelty beer and getting about halfway through a pint and sort of stalling out, having “had enough.”
The Development Process. The traditional beer development process is painfully slow, as it can take several weeks and a fair amount of money to find out whether your great idea actually tastes good and is what your team has in mind. In the course of my work for seberal breweries I've developed a rapid prototyping process that involves blending commercial beers and if necessary, spiking them with custom-made extracts of flavoring materials such as fruit, herbs, spices and more.
A number of blends can quickly be made, tasted and tweaked in a session. Keeping track of the contents of the mixture allows the prototype beer to be reverse-engineered, leading to a recipe that can be used to brew a real pilot batch. Since getting consensus is the first and most important step, doing this in real time allows conversations and ideas to flow easily, as it's much easier to talk about beer flavor when it's in your mouth than by simply imagining it.
Research or Not? Large companies spend crazy amounts of money on research before they spend even larger amounts on the rollout of new products. Despite what they expend on these projects, the results are often not as predictive as hoped, and of course the process is extremely cumbersome and just about rules out any real innovation or personal point-of-view. I know because I used to do this kind of work.
For small brewers, it is far less costly simply to create a product, put it out in the market and see how it fares and who likes it. In fact, beer-enthusiastic drinkers would rather see a brewery experiment and fail occasionally than play it safe. I've always defined craft beer as products made to please the people who make them, with the hope that others out there will also find them appealing. If it comes from a marketing committee by way of consumer, it's not craft beer.
I always encourage my brewery partners to structure their businesses in a way that makes it easy to keep the new products coming. In todays market, insatiable for variety, it also makes good business sense. When you find you have a hit on your hands, start scaling it up and see where it takes you.