The longing of belonging

Beer52’s head of beer Chris JJ Heaney discusses why craft beer creates such a strong sense of community, and why it is more than just canny marketing


Among the most noteworthy things, in a social sense, about the rise of ‘craft’ beer is the way drinkers are able to find a real connection with not only the beer in the glass, but with the ethos of the business and individuals behind it. Today more than ever, it is possible for a beer drinker to find a niche that really suits them, where they feel truly comfortable socially and culturally; something the marketing strategists at big corporations can only dream of, much to their frustration.

So, what exactly is it about these breweries, aside from the beer, that we all ‘buy into’?

Certainly, one of the things that has made this culture possible, and which maintains the strong feeling of community within the industry, is the concept of the tap or tasting room, often located near or actually within the brewery. As has become crucial for small producers across the food and drink industry, this allows customers to feel closer to the product, breaking down barriers and granting a fuller understanding of what is being consumed.

The craft beer and independent brewing movement has been incredibly successful in demystifying the process of beer making (and perhaps alcohol production in general), an education that further increases the drinker’s emotional stake in the business – the feeling of being ‘part of the family’. The familiarity and inclusivity this helps cultivate feels very genuine. The regular appearance of brewers and brewery owners, pouring beer and engaging with patrons, delivers a real humanity to what could otherwise be one from a choice of thousands of beers now available worldwide.

People can be attracted to a particular beer or brewery for a variety of reasons. Gone are the days of big brand loyalty, in which our grandparents might proclaim themselves a “Guinness/Bass/Tetley’s drinker” for life. Indeed, things have moved on so much that such a comparison may seem irrelevant in today’s craft beer culture; after all, we’re not subject to the same constant, insipid advertising, lack of choice or economic factors. One key element which remains relevant though is peer affirmation, and the feeling of genuine connection. A personal recommendation is worth much more to most of us than a soulless advert.

In modern society, where technology is increasingly king, social media has become integral to business in almost every sphere. This has made the world of craft beer a truly international phenomenon, giving the potential for almost every brewery, regardless of physical size or output, to maintain a global profile. And so, a reputation can grow even without consumption of the beer itself. Often in fact, the less the end product is available, both in terms of volume and geographical spread, the more desirable it becomes by virtue of its obscurity.

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Hence drinkers can salivate over pictures of perfectly backlit glasses of beer, or wonderfully creative label artwork from places producing only enough to serve their local community, but whose ethos and artistry resonates through these virtual messages.

And brewers can court this trend of seeming aspirational. Online merchandise sales can increase the feeling of being a part of ‘the club’; there are many enthusiasts worldwide, for example, who wear branded clothing from the revered lambic producers Brasserie Cantillon in Brussels, who have never had the opportunity to visit the site themselves, but for whom the iconic shirt is a badge of honour. And then there are those proudly self-titled beer geeks for whom the collection of knowledge is itself a draw, and who will loyally follow breweries willing to share their brewing secrets, or concepts for new beers.

On top of all of this, brewers now have a platform to speak directly to their customer base. Tweets, blogs, podcasts, Instagram stories and internet forums allow them to convey the essence of who they are and how they translate that into what they do. Not only does this allow businesses to invent themselves and tell their own story, but it also promotes accountability. In courting direct interaction with their customers, breweries are compelled to stand behind both their products and their public assertions. They have to follow through on the hype, so to speak.

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And if you can really get behind all of this, there are now ways to get more materially involved. More breweries of all sizes are now selling a financial stake to their customers as part of business growth plans. In some cases, these can represent a genuine chance to make returns on money paid down, but in the majority of cases, the incentive is more geared towards this feeling of affinity. So, perks might involve helping on a brew day, collaborating on a recipe, designing your own label, 10% off beer for life or a t-shirt that proclaims part-ownership with a cool and catchy slogan.

In many ways though, all of this activity taps into a common human need: a feeling of belonging. And whether this comes from the delights of being able to walk a couple of streets over to your local brewhouse and grab a delicious, fresh pint, or sharing pictures of epic beer pilgrimages with like-minded folks online (including mandatory selfies in ace brewery apparel) the result is the same. Encouraging people of all ages, genders, race, sexuality and social backgrounds to express themselves through the world of beer, this spirit of inclusion is of the greatest importance.

Craft beer is gradually changing the cultural norms and preconceptions associated with the drink for generations. In the spirit of the movement, this makes sense; we’re collectively defying definitions, taking on history, style, and tradition, and daring to reimagine them in order to create something genuinely new. Diversity is in our DNA, and by celebrating the humble glass of beer in all its multi-faceted glory, we ought to proudly recognise that we are, in essence, doing the same for expressions of humanity.

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