As a senior educator with Anheuser Busch’s Brewers Collective, Max Bakker has a lot to think about each day.
Working with the 12 breweries and a cidery, all spread across the U.S., Bakker has a finger on the pulse of a variety of hot beer markets and wants to help grow the specialty beer market pie. At times viewed as an antagonistic force in the beer industry, Anheuser Busch and its collection of acquired craft breweries have been a hot topic for much of the last decade — so much so that there’s even a book.
The collection include’s Washington’s Elysian Brewing, Oregon’s 10 Barrel Brewing, California’s Golden Road Brewing, Arizona’s Four Beaks Brewing, Colorado’s Breckenridge Brewery, Texas’ Karbach Brewing, Illinois’ Goose Island, New York’s Blue Point Brewing, Virginia’s Devil’s Backbone Brewing, North Carolina’s Wicked Weed, Michigan’s Virtue Cider, and Florida’s Veza Sur Brewing.
Because there are so many people still on the fringes of beer, Bakker sees lots of opportunity when it comes to consumers. And as one of 18 Master Cicerones on the planet, Bakker hopes to push his company to keep educating, innovating, and drawing in new customers.
“We just think of ways to bring people into beer and think about it differently,” Bakker said. “There is more choice than ever before and one of the big things I’m focused on is bringing more people into the category. We look at that 80% who aren’t beer lovers and [look at] bringing them in.”
A big part of the potential conversion, Bakker feels, is creating a shared language for beer. Rather than turning to the tried, true, and rather ambiguous “hoppy” or “malty,” Bakker wants breweries to be more descriptive in their marketing. (Writer’s Note: Firestone Walker’s Luponic Distortion series does a fantastic job with this.) One major area of focus is mouthfeel, which Bakker said is an area that has a major effect on drinkability, but where people have the least amount of vocabulary.
“For the longest time, there’s been buzzwords,” he said. “We need to make the language of beer the language of the people, not something you need a decoder ring for.”
To that end, despite some industry worry about that this summer’s seltzer craze, which Anheuser Busch is part of with Bon & Viv, and the move toward other malt beverages like hard tea — including Wandering Whistler — are taking away from beer, Bakker believes these trends could play a part in growing the overall beer slice.
“With seltzer, it can sample a lot of exotic flavors and people are then exposed to flavors that are in IPAs now, like lychee and passionfruit,” he said. “For some people, they’re experiencing these flavors in seltzers and they can expand their preference in beers or anything with those flavors.”
Bakker wonders if seltzers might turn into a new sort of gateway beer, in the same way wheat beer was for him when he started drinking. Maybe a person crushing seltzers this summer decides they like the dry, crisp finish and wants to find a beer that matches that description and they stumble on a pilsner. That’s Bakker’s hope.
The hope for the Brewers Collective, of course, is courting those new potential beer fans with beers crafted at one of its many taprooms across the country. Whether it’s Golden Road’s Mango Cart, 10 Barrel’s Cucumber Crush, Elysian’s Space Dust, or Goose Island’s Bourbon County Stout, there’s a range there for drinkers. Of course, those beers could just as well then introduce a new drinker to the world of beer outside the portfolio.
“We always say discovery leads to more questions,” Bakker said.
As for what he’s sipping this summer, Bakker has fallen back in love with American wheat beers as he moved back to the West Coast from time on the East Coast. Likewise, he’s also jamming on the tart “fruit-on-the-bottom yogurt”-like tones of flavored Berliner Weisses. He’ll also always have a big IPA or two each week.
Above all, he likes to follow the six-pack rule when finding beers.
“If you can buy a six back and enjoy three, that’s a good beer,” he said.
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