Just a few years ago, brewers who cranked up the ABV to 20+% or triple-digited the IBUs in their brews could garner enough gee-whiz media coverage and genuine beer-geek fascination to turn a tiny inroad in the market into an expressway.
But these days, brewers need to display more than mere technical audacity to merit even a backwoods trail in the increasingly crowded craft landscape. Last year, the number of operating breweries in the U.S. surged by 15% to 4,269, the largest number in history and a number that increases daily, according to the Brewers Association. Small and independent breweries account for about 99% of that number, 2,397 of which are classified as microbreweries, 1,650 as brewpubs and 178 as regional craft breweries.
In 2015, 620 breweries entered the market (more than one a day!), while only 68 turned off the taps.
These numbers are encouraging in many ways, with craft brewers providing 6,000 new jobs (for a total of 122,000) as businesses grew and opened.
But there’s a drum thumping ominously in the background, threatening to take over the merry merengue beat. In late July, the Brewers Association released its mid-year update and, while it showed increased growth, yet again the explosive fizz of previous years had flattened.
Production volume grew by 8% for the first half of this year, compared with 16% for the same period last year and 18% in 2014. They may not be producing as much, but their numbers continue to increase, with 4,656 breweries in operation as of June 30 and another 2,000 with plans to open shortly.
Yikes! The market is, if not saturated, definitely damp, and the urgency required to find a consistent pool of buyers is being met with increasingly focused business strategies. Unfortunately, throwing bull testicles into an eight-barrel batch of stout and videotaping employees earnestly discussing the deeply satisfying mouth-feel of the finished product will no longer guarantee sales.
“Brewers have to grab people’s attention,” Jon Wolff, sales manager for AJS Tap Handles based in Random Lake, Wisconsin, explains. “Brewers are using tap handles to not only initially get attention at brewpubs with dozens of taps, but they’re also using them as a quick, visual way to identify their brand. For a lot of smaller brewers, it’s their only form of marketing. So some brewers are using intricate, detailed designs and custom, figural shapes with light-up elements, while others are using a simple, distressed wood for a rustic feel.”
The tap handles are placed at eye level and are generally the point of focus at any “serious” brew pub, with an army of scantily-clad pin-up ladies, canoes, sheep and chunks of artistically decaying wood standing at attention.
“We do 3 Sheeps, which is distributed nationally and is very popular,” Wolff says. “It features three hand-painted sheep figures stacked on top of each other, smiling. Figural handles are increasingly popular, and so are flowers. But if it’s not a great product, even if drinkers buy it once because the tap handle catches their attention, it won’t save the brand.”
Drinkers, according to a highly unscientific VinePair poll, concur. The tap handle frequently sparks an inquiry about the beer, but if it’s a style or brand people avoid, it probably won’t prompt a purchase. Still, it can help strengthen a nascent affinity.
“I like the Game of Thrones handles by Ommegang, the Leinenkugel’s cool red canoe and New Glarus’ Spotted Cow, which is unfortunately only available in Wisconsin,” Jess, a writer in L.A. says. “But I’m a dark beer drinker, so when I see IPA or wheat I generally reject it immediately. I will definitely see an interesting, strange or goofy tap and ask what it is, but if is some sort of fruit-infused pentuple IPA, I’m not interested.”
Some drinkers have no qualms copping to being a sucker for branding. “Aesthetics are important to me and I’m not a huge beer drinker,” says Susan, a PR flak in Chicago. “So if I’m out at a bar just grabbing one drink, yes, a gorgeous tap handle may prompt me to buy it.”
Other members of the beer-drinking populace seem to gravitate toward the less-is-more look. “As a beer drinker, I have and will keep away from beers with wacky or weird tap handles because if I question the judgment of their packaging, I don’t trust them not to make shitty beer,” says a New York-based accountant named Joel. “Take Shock Top — that packaging annoys the hell out of me and the beer is not good, so nope, never gonna buy that. Your tap has bungee jumping lizard? Nope — I will avoid that like the plague.”
The influence of wine labels on purchases has long been known, with a Gallo study from 2014 finding that two-thirds of wine buyers pick up a bottle based solely on the label. Extensive data from studies involving tap handles is spottier. One diminutive study of 20 conducted by Anglia Ruskin University in Cambridge, England found that participants’ eyes were drawn to tap handles more than any other piece of pub marketing. When encountering brands they weren’t familiar with, all of the participants but one selected the same beer: the one that had the most colorful handle design. (The other one? Joel.)
Even as brewers seek to push aesthetic boundaries to the limit with craft handles, Jon says certain realities are incontrovertible: the taps can’t be wider than three inches and they have to weigh less than a pound to be realistically usable in a busy bar, and beer buyers at bars have been known to reject brands whose handles push the boundaries too much.
Brewers’ eagerness to grab market-share via the tap handle is doing wonders for businesses like AJS, Jon Wolff says. Handmade tap handles, some of which feature hand painting, laser-cut metals and hand-carved wood, aren’t cheap. Per-handle costs generally land in the $30-$40 range for custom work. And, while a small brewery may only order a few dozen, big breweries like Miller or Coors will order 100,000, Wolff says. It adds up.
“We did close to 10 million tap handles and flight trays – another up-and-coming marketing tool for brewers – last year,” he says. “We are doubling our manufacturing and office space, which will make us even more competitive in prices and turnaround time. It’s key because we manufacture 80% of everything right here in our plant, and our customers really value that all of our tap handles are made in the U.S.A.”
The founder of Green Mountain Tap Handles, Jason Gardner, is also all about U.S.-based manufacturing of artisanal tap handles, and he believes they are not only an essential weapon in the smaller brewer’s arsenal but part of the larger story of how drastically the focus in craft beer has changed from quality to quantity in recent years.
“When I started the business in my parent’s basement in the late 1990s, everyone in the industry was in it for the love of creating great beer,” Gardner says. “Brewers would spend a ton of money on packaging, but no one really thought about the handles. But people get introduced to a new brand in a bar, and handles are the only form of marketing people see there. I had a number of great brewers as clients who got bought out or were sold to larger companies, and when the beer lovers moved out and the business people moved in, they often gave their work to manufacturers who work in China because it’s so much cheaper. The quality of the beer post-buyout has changed, too. Some I don’t even bother drinking anymore.”
Bold-faced brewers like Allagash and Founders Brewing have stayed with Green Mountain and grown together, something Gardner values. “Our whole goal is to help the small brewers who are passionate about the beer,” he says. “Our craft handles can help bring them to the next level without sacrificing quality.”