The Power Is Yours: Customizing the Drinker Experience

Feature by | May 2017 | Issue #124
Illustration by James Minchall

Don Silvernail was excited. Just before Christmas, a friend from Connecticut was set to visit his South Bound Brook, N.J., home. He was bringing beer.

Among the bounty they shared was Trillium Brewing Company’s Citra Cutting Tiles, an all-Citra hop Double IPA with high ratings across beer websites, including an “outstanding” on BeerAdvocate. But when they popped two 16-ounce cans, Silvernail said something tasted off.

“They were a couple weeks old and transported to New Jersey, so they probably warmed up a little, then got brought back down to a cooler temperature,” he says. “The beer was somewhat skunked and lost some of its body.”

Two cans remained after his friend’s visit, and with a serendipitous gift from his wife for the holiday he decided to give Cutting Tiles another shot. This time poured through a Fizzics Waytap, a countertop machine the size of a large-format bomber bottle that promises to offer “draft quality beer” through its own tap system. It uses a sonic oscillator, forcing sound waves through the beer to add foam and make a pour more full-bodied.

“On [Fizzics] the taste is much better,” Silvernail noted when checking into Citra Cutting Tiles on his Untappd beer rating app. The beer regained the body and carbonation he expected from the first cans opened, Silvernail says. Nearly every beer he’s poured at home since Dec. 25 has been through his Fizzics system.

“No matter what you’re drinking, it enhances that brewery-fresh taste rather than what you’d get from a can or bottle,” Silvernail says of his Fizzics Waytap. “In my mind, it’s a freshness you don’t normally get at home.”

It’s a ringing endorsement, to be sure, but the comment also highlights another aspect of the machine: even if it’s only a small change, it’s still changing the beer, allowing users to personalize their drinking experience. It’s beer how they intend it to be, which isn’t always what a brewer has in mind.

After years of growth in the variety of beer available to drinkers, the brewing industry is entering a new entrepreneurial phase. In the last few years, new satellite businesses now allow for more customization by giving increased power to the consumer, moving from a one-size-fits-all mentality to one that’s tailored to the individual. From clothing to cars to food, it’s a natural progression with consumer goods—particularly luxury items—that are marketed to “have it your way.” And as so many aspects of life have become better at aligning with any whim or personal preference, it only makes sense that beer would eventually follow suit.

Increasingly, a new collection of beer-specific products is running with the idea of personalization. Want to barrel age your own beer at home? Try the Oak Bottle. Maybe you’d rather change flavor with a beer ingredient tea bag? Hop Theory has you covered. In all sorts of ways, entrepreneurial companies are giving enthusiasts the potential to customize a beer experience from serving method to flavor expression and even its very state of matter.

“Over the years, markets have learned to become more segmented, and smaller and smaller niches emerge that have particular interests or offer things for consumers to make something special for themselves,” says Mary Ann McGrath, professor of marketing at Loyola University Chicago’s Quinlan School of Business. “That’s the kind of thing you’re finding at this point with an affordable luxury like beer.”

McGrath notes that as types of goods or services mature, gadgets and new inventions often enter a marketplace not only as a way to endear a product through customization, but to make it feel more accessible and fun to consumers. She likens machinery such as the Fizzics system to things wine drinkers have used for years—a specialized item that uncorks a bottle in a particular way or helps to aerate wine as it’s poured.

“As a commodity, craft beer brought up the beginning of this interest in perfection or looking for something special,” McGrath says. “But now we’re getting all these offshoot products to make it even more refined and fun in a home setting.”

Except not everyone is as excited about this evolution of choice.

“The tagline for the draft systems is it lets you ‘Experience beer how the brewer intended,’ but that’s all lies,” Barbara Becker, head brewer at Des Moines, Iowa’s 515 Brewing Co., says with a laugh. There is some truth to the half-joke though. “If somebody was intending to have a rounded flavor profile and certain carbonation, there are ways to make that happen, from how you carbonate a beer to what you put in the boil. If a beer you pour is intended to represent what a brewer wants, they probably would have made it that way.”

Becker admits she’s not necessarily opposed to products that impact the sensory profile of beer, especially if it keeps drinkers happy, but notes the time, attention, and love brewers put into their beer is also something to consider. On the flip side, however, new products like liquid flavorings could encourage experimentation that leads drinkers to try a wider variety of beer, she says.

“When we started dating, I was a Miller Lite girl and my boyfriend was a Bud Light guy, but now we like to think of ourselves as beer connoisseurs and we’re constantly wanting to try new things,” says Shana Martz, a 33-year-old beer lover who lives in Columbus, Ohio. “I got excited when I found something new to play with that looked like MiO [a liquid water enhancer made by Kraft Foods] for beer.”

What Martz came across, while scrolling through her Facebook news feed one day, was an ad for Mad Hops, a condensed liquid drinkers squirt into a beer to add flavors that include “Mexican lime,” “Irish Porter,” and “apple Amber Ale.” She ordered a variety six-pack and took an immediate liking to “wild blueberry” and “cherry wheat,” which were tested with a Budweiser and a Bud Light. The palm-sized squirt bottles now have a place in her purse, and Martz says it makes ordering at restaurants easier, since she can spend less on an American adjunct lager, use a few drops of Mad Hops and feel like she’s having something more flavorful. “It’s nice to have control over it,” she says.

That’s the point, explains Peter Hanley, the founder of Mad Hops. From water to coffee, tobacco, and liquor, consumers—especially Millennials—want greater influence on their brand experiences. If a shopper knows they can walk into a restaurant like Chipotle or Subway and create any combination of food they want, why not do the same with beer?

“I think it actually creates a larger base for the next generation of craft beer drinkers, because when college kids graduate and maybe can’t afford a $15 six-pack, they’re going to have a better beer experience with Mad Hops,” says Hanley, who founded Mad Hops after 30 years in sales, management, and international markets, including 20 years at Kodak. “When they settle into their adult life, they won’t have migrated over to wine or spirits. There’s a greater chance they’ll stay within beer.”

According to Beth Bloom, a food and drink analyst with market research firm Mintel, the evolution of the industry to reach this point was inevitable. In recent years, consumers have come to expect aspects of personalization in daily activities, from social media to the products they buy, so in Bloom’s opinion, the belief that no two people’s needs are the same is simply how many businesses now need to think to remain competitive.

Bloom specifically notes potential for a rise in at-home, countertop draft systems, since they aim at aspects of authenticity and quality that drinkers appreciate. In two separate 2016 reports, Mintel found that 59 percent of drinking-age consumers agreed that draft beer tastes better than bottled or canned beer and that drinking beer within a few days of brewing was the third highest “innovation” interest behind the use of local ingredients and limited edition or seasonal beers.

Enter inventions like the uKeg, a pressurized growler made by GrowlerWerks that acts as a 64-ounce keg, and multi-tap system Growler Chill, which can hold up to three growlers at a time. It’s a way to bridge the gap between two preferred ways to enjoy beer: Americans want that “brewery fresh” experience, but for a long time have predominantly chosen to drink at home.

Randy Hollister, creator of the Growler Chill, took his experience behind two real estate-based software startups that focused on customizing the sales process to fill a personalization space within beer. Within the bread box-shaped Growler Chill, the goal is to get the highest quality pours once opened. So 64-ounce containers are purged of oxygen and carbonated, allowing for a longer lifespan at home.

“How much milk would you buy if you had to use it up the day you opened it?” Hollister asks. “The new reality in beer is the vast majority of breweries are making beer to sell at the brewery and not in a bottle or can. What consumers perceive as ‘the good stuff’ doesn’t make it into stores, so this is their option to be able to enjoy that beer at home.”

Yet for all the ways customers now have control over how they taste, serve, and alter the flavor of their beer, Eric Sorenson isn’t worried about how that will impact his job as brewer at Glenwood, Iowa’s Keg Creek Brewing.

“Everybody wants to be a part of the creative process,” Sorenson says. “People talk about ‘my brewery’ when they don’t even work there because they like a kind of ownership over what they love.”

And to Sorenson, the transition of taking that passion to the next step—having a direct influence on a beer itself—isn’t a big step. From a production perspective, brewers now have to learn to simply let go once their creations enter the marketplace.

“There was a time when I used to make beers and think, ‘Gosh, this is a really great beer, I hope everyone enjoys it,’” Sorenson says. “Then I’d see people blending it with other beers. Eventually, I kind of relaxed and became more accepting of the fact that people like to try and change things.”

At some point in the future, if the trend continues to progress, the personalization of beer may move beyond just playing at home. In fact, if Tobias Emil Jensen and Tore Gynther, the founders behind Denmark’s To Øl, have their way, enjoying a pint will be about what you want, whenever and wherever you choose. In 2015, the brewery announced trials of “instant beer,” a Pilsner, an IPA, and a Stout in a freeze-dried, powdered form. Add sparkling water, mix, and your beverage is ready to drink.

The clever idea, however, never got as far as a commercial product due to the expense of creating the powder, says Louise Norup Hellener, who handles communications for To Øl. In order to make it work, the brewery would have to charge between $50 and $60 per instant beer, an extremely high price for a novelty pint. Norup Hellener notes that the brewery doesn’t think it’ll be commercially viable in the foreseeable future, but hints that an occasional appearance at a beer festival may happen in the short term.

Instant beer’s original goal was to act as the ultimate customizable beer product, effectively freeze-drying a beer through a process called sublimation. The brewery describes it as a method to isolate aromas and flavors in a dry-matter state. Order different styles then mix-and-match however you please, or experiment by adding the powder to liquid beer or other alcohols. Cooks could even incorporate it into recipes.

It was a recognition that in all sorts of ways, this is the kind of experience drinkers want today. “We want people to be able to create whatever concoction they want to,” Norup Hellener says of putting power in the hands of a consumer to choose how, when, or where to enjoy a To Øl beer, “not to have us decide what people should drink.”