To my ears, the word “Microbrewery” seems like a quaint relic of the 1990’s. While the “What does it mean to be a craft brewery?” discussions seem endless, and in my opinion, a bit pointless, it seems like the term “craft brewery” has left “microbrewery” in the dust a years ago. But it hasn’t. If you look at the frequency of Google search terms for “micro brewery”, “craft brewery” and “microbrewery” since 2004, you’ll find searches for “craft brewery” over took “microbrewery” search around 2016.
Maybe I find find the word “microbrewery” dated because I live in California. If you look at Google searches for “microbrewery”, “craft brewery” and “micro brewery” over the past 12 months, you’ll see that “microbrewery” is largely a Midwestern term, while “craft brewery” is more prevalent on the coasts.
Pliny the Younger, Russian River Brewing’s special, highly-limited Triple IPA is released with much fanfare early February each year during Pliny the Younger Day. People line-up for hours outside Russian River brewpub in downtown Santa Rosa just for a glass of this uber-hoppy, mythical brew. It’s somewhat of a polarizing event among beers geeks, some claiming Pliny the Younger is over-hyped beer, with its cult-like status artificially propped up by Russian River by intentionally making it scarce. Others swear the beer lives up to its considerable reputation, and worth camping out overnight on the sidewalk just for a taste of it.
Whatever you think about Pliny Younger, one thing is undeniable: People are searching for a it a lot less on Google these days. The proportion of Google searches for “Pliny the Younger” to all other searches in the United States peaks each February, the month of Pliny the Younger Day, then dissipates into the noise until the next February. The beer was first released in 2005, but it wasn’t until 2010 that an unmistakable peak of “Pliny the Younger” emerged in the Google search trend data. This annual February peak grew in amplitude until 2014. Then, in 2015, the proportion of “Pliny the Younger” searches dropped 20%. This past February, the proportion of Google “Pliny the Younger” searches was down to 50% from its 2014 peak just four years ago.
What about Three Floyds Dark Lord, a rare Imperial Stout released each year on Dark Lord Day, which occurs each year either late April or May? The Google trends data is similar. The search term “Dark Lord” is a little problematical, since a Google search of the term will bring up not only the Three Floyds brew but plenty of links to science fiction and gaming sites. However, a Google search of “Dark Lord Day” yields nothing but news releases and internet chatter on the beer, and a Google trends search shows strong peaks occurring each spring.
The strongest peak for “dark lord day” occurred in 2015, and currently the frequency of “dark lord day” searches is about half of the peak. Searches for “dark lord beer” and “three floyds dark lord” are less common, but show the same basic trend. Searches for “dark lord” have a large “background” due to searches unrelated to the beer, but show these springtime peaks emerging from the background. It’s worth noting the strongest peak for “dark lord” occurred in 2016 instead of 2015, but then the yearly peaks in May largely dissipate there after. Anyway you slice it, searches for Three Floyds’s cult Imperial Stout peaked at least two years ago, and most likely three years ago. Three Floyds has about the same luck with their other cult brew, Zombie Dust.
Let’s go to the East Coast, where Heady Topper, the limited release IPA from The Alchemist is all the rage. With New England Style IPAs being so hot, interest in Heady Topper ought to be going through the roof, right? Nope! In fact, interest is way down and moving further south. The Google Trends data for “heady topper” peaks in July 2015, and then steadily decline afterwards, which the current search frequency about 25% of the peak despite New England style IPAs being way more popular now than they were in 2015.
Then there’s Sam Adam’s Utopias, released at irregular intervals since 2002, sold in ornate vessels costing $200 a pop. Here, the results are a bit surprising. If you graph the search trend data for “sam adams utopia” and “sam adams utopias“, you’ll find a few bumps and peaks over time but generally declining interest from a 2009 peak, and then pow!. Suddenly in November of last year, everyone is searching Google for them.
Other rare, cult beers like “Cantillon Zwanze“, “Hair of the Dog Dave” and “The Bruery Black Tuesday” show weak Google Trends signals that are clearly petering out from previous highs three to ten years ago. The search data for these type of beers all say pretty much the same thing. People are searching for these beers on Google a lot less than they used to, with a couple exceptions. And one of these exceptions has a pretty large asterisk.
So why the decline? One could argue these beers are as popular as ever and since they’ve been around for a while, people know exactly where to find them and no longer need to search for them on Google. Or perhaps people are using social media more to find these beers than they used to rather than Google. There may be something to these arguments, but social media was definitely around a few years ago when Google searches of these beers peaked. I’m finding it difficult to explain the 50-75% drop in searches simply because people either no longer needed to search for them, or they found out about these beers through other means.
A stronger explanation, in my opinion, is with all the new breweries and beers coming into the market, beers like Pliny the Younger/Elder, Dark Lord, or Heady Topper no longer towered over the industry. Since they are rare and hard to get, people stopped searching for them and turned to more readily available alternatives. The first time I tried Pliny the Elder about ten years ago, it was a blast of hops way beyond most any beer on the market. It was worth the effort to find. Of course, other breweries took notice. They started investigating how to brew their own uber-hoppy brews. As a result, the industry has basically caught up and now, Pliny the Elder is just one of many excellent IPAs. No use searching for it online when plenty of comparable beers can be found with a lot less effort.
Cult beers will likely continue maintain some level of mystique, and going the tremendous lengths necessary just to drink them will remain a right of passage for certain beer geeks. But they can no longer dominate brewing like the once did, as comparable beers are far more ubiquitous. It no longer requires and extraordinary effort just to enjoy an extraordinary beer. That’s good for everyone.
It’s easy for people like me to get addicted to Google Trends. It’s a website devoted to the frequency of search terms people “Googling” to find information online and the geographical locations of these search. It turns out to be a pretty handy way to find out what things are popular and where, and test out some of the conventional beer wisdom.
For example, some people claim the cloudy, unfiltered “Hazy” or “New England style” IPA is just a fleeting beer fad like the Black IPA was back in the day. Could Google Trends provide some insight into the validity of those claims? I thought I’d give it a try. If I enter “Black IPA” into Google Trends, it will report the frequency over time and the geographical locations of a statistical significant sample of searches with “Black IPA” in it.
Anyone who’s asked Google “Where can a find a Black IPA?”, or “Black IPA home brew recipe” will be reflected in the Google Trends under “black ipa”. (Google Trends aren’t case sensitive.) Of course, searches like “Where can I find black market IPA” will also be included in the frequency count, so the data isn’t perfect. While there are certainly limitations to using this data, plenty of social scientists and market analysts have come up with all sorts of interesting, and at times counter-intuitive conclusions using Google Trends. (A great read for those interested in that is Everybody Lies by Seth Stephens-Davidowitz.)
I’m started using Google Trends to investigate the following question: Are Hazy/New England IPA’s just a flash in the pan style like Black IPAs? But in the process, I discovered something interesting about where in the United States names like “Black IPA”, “Hazy IPA” and “New England IPA” are actually used.
Let’s start by comparing search terms for “black ipa” wiith “hazy ipa”, “new england ipa”, “ne ipa”, and “neipa”. (Other plausibly related search terms like “cloudy IPA” or “juicy IPA” yield significantly less searches, but I’m just going to simplify things and leave those search terms out of the analysis.) Below is a plot of the frequency of each search term from April 8, 2006-April 8th, 2018. (You can view the plot in Google Trends yourself at this link.) I limited the search geography to the United States.
Searches for “Black IPA”, the yellow line, emerge from the noise starting in early 2010, and hit their first peak in February 2011. They continue to grow gradually, hitting their overall peak in April 2014, and then start a slow decline afterwards. Searches for “black ipa” actually show rather surprising durability for the style, contradicting claims that Black IPAs were a short lived fad. Even by early 2017, there were far more searches for “black ipa” than the Hazy/New England variants. By contrast, the Hazy/New England search terms don’t emerge from the noise until late 2016, but then really take off, especially searches for “hazy ipa” and “new england ipa”. OK, no big surprise here. Interest in Black IPAs has existed for almost ten years, while interest in Hazy/New England IPAs has skyrocketed in just the past few months.
But start looking at where across the country these searches have been conducted and things start to get interesting. For example, according to Google Trends, Black IPA’s are almost an exclusively California thing.
Note, the map above doesn’t mean there haven’t been any searches for “Black IPA” outside of California. It’s just that these searches are overwhelming made inside of California, indicating Black IPAs are of interest to Californians, but hardly anyone else. This is why I suspect some people living outside may have perceived Black IPAs as a fad. They may have heard about them, but rarely saw any of them, or Black IPAs released outside California had little staying power.
On the other hand, searches for “new england ipa” or its abbreviation “neipa” show a much more broader geographical interest.
What’s interesting is that search term “Hazy IPA”, is dominated from searches from the West Coast states of Oregon and California.
We can zoom into the metro areas and find that “hazy ipa” searches originate all over the West Coast, with San Diego, Sacramento, Portland as the major metropolitan areas having the highest proportions of searches for “hazy ipa”. The larger metropolitan areas of Los Angeles and San Francisco have significantly less searches.
Note that the strength of search frequency chart at the rate measures a higher proportion of queries, not a larger overall number. As Google Trends explains, “A higher value means a higher proportion of all queries, not a higher absolute query count. So a tiny country where 80% of the queries are for “bananas” will get twice the score of a giant country where only 40% of the queries are for “bananas”.”
For grins, we can also look at the Metro areas for “new england ipa”.
By far, the metro area for with the highest proportion of searches for this term is (surprise!) Boston. But the Midwestern cities of Detroit and Chicago figure prominently, too. If we look at leading metro areas for the search “neipa”, we find pockets of interest all over the country.
Again, lots of usage for the term “neipa” in New England, but the term extends all the way to the West Coast. It’s not apparent from this graphic but the San Francisco Bay is way down this list, as the 12th leading metro area for this search term, third from last. That splotch you see in Southern California? That’s Los Angeles, not San Diego. There aren’t a lot of searches for “neipa” from San Diego, but plenty for “hazy ipa”. Just like Portland.
And by the way, I Googled the term “neipa” to double check that “neipa” doesn’t also stand for something like “New England Independent Pediatricians Association” or something like that which would skew the data. It doesn’t.
OK, I could keep playing around with the data, but it’s time to wrap this up. I’ll concede the data has some limitations, so I hesitate to jump to conclusions from any of its subtleties. However, three things strongly emerge from the analysis which are unmistakable.
Black IPAs aren’t so much fad, but a slowly declining beer style confined largely to California: Google searches for “black ipa” are largely confined to the state of California. Unfortunately, there aren’t enough searches for Google Trends to perform a metro area geographical analysis of the term.
Hazy / New England IPAs have enjoyed a fast growing popularity all over the country. In no way does the growth of this style mimic Black IPAs. They are popular all over the country, rather than confined to a single state. In addition, their growth is far sharper than Black IPAs were, at least from the search term data.
On the West Coast, it’s mostly “Hazy IPA”. Everywhere else, its “New England IPA”. It’s telling that California’s Sierra Nevada released Hazy Little Thing IPA about the same time Boston Beer released New England IPA. I’ll note that some places in California, they are called “NEIPA” by a few. Seattle seems to favor “NEIPA” over “Hazy IPA”. I think it’s significant both in Portland and in San Diego, the two cities where the IPA style are arguably most strongly tied to local identity, there is resistance adopting the “New England” name, and instead these beers as “Hazy”.
As you might have guessed, I’ve been playing around with all sorts of Google Trends searches the past couple weeks and found some other interesting beery things right there in the data. Hope you liked this post because you’ll be seeing a few more like it.