When the pandemic first struck, consumer habits changed seemingly overnight. Dining out was replaced by delivery and takeout; better-for-you foods were neglected in favor of comfort foods; and off-premises alcohol sales overtook on-site consumption.
Amid these larger shifts were slower, subtler changes, particularly within the beverage world. Similar to their preference for more indulgent foods, consumers gravitated toward classic brews and brands rather than newer—and sometimes out-of-the-box—varieties that have enjoyed fanfare in recent years. But the cause of this trend isn’t so easily surmised. While the idea of consumers craving something familiar in times of crisis certainly holds water, supply also plays a key role.
“The biggest change has been where, not what or how much,” says Bart Watson, chief economist at Brewers Association, a trade group with more than 10,000 members. “The tried-and-true beers are more available in the places beer drinkers are buying and more likely to be sold in larger pack sizes.”
Per Brewers Association, 2020 beer volumes weren’t far off the previous year’s levels—down by about 1.2 percent. For some companies, including powerhouse New Belgium Brewing Company, sales were even higher; as of early November, year-to-date business was up 11 percent.
“We have certainly seen beer consumers choose brands they know and trust during the pandemic. In fact, some consumers are even going back to brands they may have originated their beer palates with, [and] New Belgium has proven to be one of these brands,” says Leah Pilcer, director of public relations and digital marketing. “We are outpacing the category and craft, month in and month out.”
Despite net growth, the company has, like all brewers, seen one channel take a hit. Typically on-site business comprises 20 percent of New Belgium’s sales; as of October, it was closer to 8.8 and angling downward with the advent of colder months. On the flip side, off-premises sales were soaring, up 27.6 percent year to date as of early November.
As a nationally distributed brand with corporate offices in both Colorado and North Carolina, New Belgium has benefited from a well-established CPG operation. In contrast, smaller purveyors scrambled to build a more robust off-premises business. According to the Brewers Association, premium and craft beers have bolstered their CPG sales during the pandemic, as many brewers shift their focus onto canning and bottling. Despite these gains, beers from smaller craft breweries are still far from ubiquitous.
“When restaurant and bar beer sales evaporated, breweries had to find a way to sell these beers, so they put them in cans and bottles,” says Chris Creech, co-owner of The Glass Jug Beer Lab, an independent brewery and bottle shop in Durham, North Carolina.
In the early days of COVID-19, The Glass Jug only sold beer to-go. Pre-packaged, mixed 12-packs from established regional breweries experienced an uptick in sales. Purchases of lower-priced year-round go-to beers also increased while seasonal and limited-time releases stagnated. This disparity illustrates another possible factor coming into play. When faced with economic uncertainty, consumers are more likely to opt for less expensive options.
But as the year progressed, consumers, by Creech’s estimation, returned to some of their old habits—at least in terms of beer preferences.
“The longer the pandemic set in, the more it drifted back to our normal mix, with IPAs and limited releases regaining the top spot,” he says. “On-site consumption, once it was allowed again, has been pretty typical of what we were seeing pre-COVID, in terms of consumer choice. We are still selling less draft beer, but the styles are remaining pretty steady, with IPAs at the top, followed by lagers, then a variety of styles from stouts to fruited sours.”
During the winter, when cases are expected to spike, businesses could revert to the operating models they used when the shutdowns first began last spring. While much remains to be seen, the Brewers Association’s Watson expects the first half of 2021 to closely resemble the second half of 2020, with on-premises business still below average and packaged sales exceeding previous benchmarks.
Adaptability will be the top order for all brewers, whether their products are distributed across the country or only available in the local community.
“At this point, New Belgium is projecting modest growth, but we’re also ready to alter needs depending on market conditions,” Pilcer says. “2020 has proved that we can roll with the punches, and we intend to keep doing that.”
The pandemic accelerated some broader shifts in foodservice, such as tech integration and widespread takeout and delivery, that were already underway. But the future of craft is a bit murkier, leaving brewers to decide whether they should concentrate their efforts in developing a wide array of draft-only, unconventional beers or fortifying their CPG operations of go-to favorites. The answer likely lies in the middle.
As for flavors, will the pandemic finally unseat the long-standing king IPA? Not necessarily.
“I have not personally seen a broader shift in consumer preference,” Creech says. “Generally, lagers have been increasing in popularity, even before the pandemic. That trend has continued, but IPAs are still the top dog.”