CHICAGO -- Insights can come from just about anywhere. I had the joy of driving halfway across the country with my family this summer (two adults and three kids in a rented minivan!) to see Mount Rushmore, the Badlands and other splendors of the stretch of the United States between Chicago and South Dakota.
As a beer drinker, I luxuriated in some of the local brews available in the rustic restaurants across the Black Hills and the fruited plains, brews such as Crown Peak Pile o’ Dirt Porter (Spearfish, S.D.), Firehouse Honey Badger (Rapid City, S.D.) and Zip Line Kolsch (Lincoln, Neb.), among others.
What struck me, though, as I looked to bring a few choice bottles home, is that these beers—and few other craft brews—were not available in local convenience stores. In fact, the beer set across most of the rural ground I covered during that week was extraordinarily tame, leading me to wonder if much of middle America has missed the craft-beer renaissance.
Craft-beer sales grew 26% in c-stores in 2015, leading many retailers to struggle with how (and where) to offer a wide variety of brands and styles while changing up the offer frequently enough to keep beer drinkers coming back to try something new.
But clearly, not everyone bought into this song and dance. One c-store in particular on the eastern border of Nebraska was progressive enough to have a beer cave, but its entire contents consisted of 12-packs and cases of Budweiser, Bud Light, Miller Lite and Busch—nothing else!
The farther west I drove, the sparser the beer landscape became, so to speak.
Sure, distribution is an issue for many of these smaller beer brands; they just can’t reach rural communities. But I was equally surprised to see newer trends in beer—hard sodas, hard seltzers—represented in these stores. It was as if these stores had simply bypassed the craft-beer trend and were on to the next best thing.
But wait: Maybe blame doesn’t need to be assigned here. Maybe these retailers—few of them major brands—just understand their markets. Here, in towns often with populations of fewer than 1,000, maybe craft beer is best left to the tourists and doesn’t fly with the locals (even if hard sodas do translate).
Maybe these small-town retailers are savvier than they seem at first blush.
I tip my hat to any retailer who might be one of only two—or even the only—retail game in town. I trust you understand that market—as small as it may be—better than this passer-by.
Steve Holtz, who writes the Fluid Thoughts blog, is the online news director and beverage editor for Winsight Media. He has been covering the convenience-store industry and the beverage category for more than a decade. Contact him at email@example.com.