Maine craft brewers have cornered the state’s market for suds — but to maintain that position, they’ll have to respond gently, a beverage expert warned Thursday at an industry conference in Portland.
“You own the yard,” consultant Bump Williams told the New England Craft Brewing Summit at the Holiday Inn on the Bay.
Maine brewers have adapted quickly to changing consumer preferences, but those changes are accelerating and intensifying, Williams said. At the same time, it is predicted that large international beer producers will strengthen their efforts to maintain the increasingly fragmented market share.
Some of the most profitable tools Williams Maine brewers have are their brewpubs and tasting rooms. He said the state’s brewers have done a masterful job of getting people to stop by to taste the latest creations.
“We really don’t see this anywhere else,” he said.
However, he cautions brewers to strike a fine balance in playing hard to earn.
“Diversity is key,” he said. “Once people can easily find it, they don’t want it.”
Williams also credited the brewers with introducing hard seltzer.
Such ingenuity helped Maine brewers survive the outbreak relatively unscathed. Breweries and breweries have continued to open since the pandemic hit in March 2020, and many have weathered the economic devastation of those early months.
Brewery officials say 27 new brewpubs have opened in Maine since 2020, while only 10 have closed. Brewpub owners are hoping that a repeat of last year’s tourism boom will send tourists to breweries around the state to create another stress for the industry this year.
According to data from the national trade group the Brewers Association, there will be 143 craft breweries operating in Maine by 2021. The state ranks No. 2 in breweries per capita, and Maine beer production — totaling 364,000 barrels in 2021 — ranks No. 3 per capita.
Williams’ attitude to beer production is not entirely rosy. He pointed out that at the national level, the industry has the capacity to generate more than 72 million barrels, and this will open the door for international competitors to enter into contracts with beer producers so that additional capacity can be used for foreign brands.
Williams also said there could be more shakeout in the industry as brewers compete for shelf space in stores. He also said there will be a trend away from six-packs to higher-end single-serve beers in larger 19.2-ounce containers. Adaptable to larger cans, ready-to-eat brews are better placed to generate sales and secure shelf space, especially in convenience stores, he said.
One way to ride the wave of change is for breweries to form partnerships with distilleries, wineries and soft drinks companies — a trend that’s just getting started, he said. The partnerships can give the companies a stronger position and more stability.
“These strange partnerships are evolving for a reason,” he said.
That message resonated with summit attendee Pete Harris, who operates Liquid Riot, a brewery, distillery and bar on Commercial Street in Portland.
If brewers plan their strategies, they should be a little more sensitive to changing public tastes, he said. For example, Williams says, brewers are slow to release “hazy” beers, which put IPAs through a secondary fermentation process and produce a “cloudy” beer with stronger flavors and aromas.
“The brewers don’t like them, but people wait in line for them,” he said.