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Raise Your Glass
Ask the Expert

To the delight of many local beer drinkers and nostalgia buffs, Narragansett Beer or "Gansett" as it has always been called, resurfaced last year after a long absence.

While that business move might have seemed a bit unusual, it is actually part of a larger trend that is happening in the beer industry. Many craft and specialty brewers are thriving while the overall demand for beer is at a low point.

According to Market Watch magazine, beer consumption nationwide is stagnant at best, but the domestic specialty category has been reporting growth rates of 6-8 percent for the past few years, with no signs of slowing down. This category includes everything from craft brews from microbreweries to regional beers to limited production products from the country’s major brewers. Once dismissed as a fad, domestic specialty beers have carved out a long-running, profitable position in the marketplace.

Beer industry spokesmen agree that there is a continuing consumer demand for "better" beers—so-called craft beers and imports with more taste, higher quality and higher price. However, there has also been some shakeout in the industry. Craft brewers made a huge splash in the early 90s, but the market absorbed, consolidated and evolved. Today, the ones that have been successful have grown stronger, and collectively, they are making inroads in the segment as a whole.

One factor in the current popularity of non-mainstream beer brands is the fondness for regional favorites. In many cases, these are old brands that got lost in the shuffle of consolidation among major national brewers over the past 30 years. Pennsylvania’s Yuengling Brewery, once almost extinct, and the Midwestern brand Leinenkugel, both stick to their regional base and work on attracting new drinkers from that particular area.

As one industry expert noted, beer makers are starting to follow the wine makers’ lead and are talking about things like regional hops and other intricacies of production.

Probably the most recognized and popular brand in the domestic specialty beer sector is Boston Beer Company’s Samuel Adams. With national distribution and strong volumes from its flagship Samuel Adams Boston Lager, the company is now focusing attention on Sam Adams Light as well.

In addition to offering light beer (now half of the beer market), specialty brewers can offer taste variety as well. There is now a vast array of beer styles and flavors, particularly in trying to mimic Belgium or German brews, that are designed to appeal to the more independent or adventurous consumer.

Local and regional brewers aren’t the only ones driving the craft beer trend. Anheuser-Busch produces several specialty brands, such as Michelob AmberBock and Michelob Honey Lager, and has Bare Knuckles Stout, Ziegen Bock and Ziegen Light in selected markets. The company also owns Redhook Ale Brewery in Seattle.

Coors Brewing Company, too, is in on the specialty circuit, with Blue Moon Belgian White and Miller, while it owns Leinenkugel, is reportedly experimenting with other craft brews.

Raise Your Glass is sponsored by Chris Gasbarro’s Fine Wine and Spirits. For more information on wines and upcoming wine events, visit the official website.

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