Several years ago, craft beer started taking off at Cincinnati's Great American Ballpark. From 2011-2012, sales went up by 20 percent. From 2012-2013, they were up 47 percent.
So when it came time to create a new hangout in a highly trafficked spot on the third-base concourse, the ballpark went all-in on craft-style beers. The new Reds Brewery District – an 84-foot-long bar with more than 50 taps – included more than 20 craft offerings when it opened this spring. There were local beers from Cincinnati brewers like Christian Moerlein, MadTree, Blank Slate, Fifty West, Rhinegeist, Mt. Carmel, Rivertown and Great Lakes. There were national options from well-regarded breweries like Founders, Bell's and West Sixth.
And the market exploded. Counting single-day offerings, the Cincinnati Reds' selection of distinct beers went from 42 to more than 130 – the most in Major League Baseball, according to a Washington Post analysis. Craft sales increased even more dramatically, by 363 percent. The biggest-selling beer at the Brewery District is still Bud Light – not exactly a craft product – but stadium officials found that rather than taking away from existing beer sales, craft consumers were actually creating a new category.
"It's not the same people that are drinking Bud, Bud Light, Miller Lite," said Don Dierig, district manger for Delaware North Sportservice at Great American Ball Park. "It's more of a younger demographic, and that's what that younger demographic is looking for – things that aren't necessarily what they saw their parents drinking growing up, but more what's popular in the bars and restaurants they hang out in."
Not every stadium has embraced this diversity in its fermentables. Both the Chicago Cubs and the Tampa Bay Rays, for example, offer fewer than 25 different beers. The average Major League team this season is offering 50 different beers from nearly 25 breweries. The Orioles and the Nationals are slightly above average by several measures.
(The beer lists were submitted by MLB teams or their concessionaires during the first three months of this season; many teams slightly alter their offerings as the season goes on.)
While teams like the Reds are just discovering the craft-beer market, the Seattle Mariners have long reveled in it. Located in the hops-mad Pacific Northwest – one of the bastions of craft brewing – the Mariners have a beer program that would make many specialty bars jealous.
About 70 percent of Safeco Field's 700 beer handles are devoted to "good, quality craft beer," according to Steve Dominguez, the general manager of Centerplate's operations at Safeco Field. Sales of craft-style products crush those of domestic-style mass market beers, by a ratio of about 4-1. The stadium bought three cask engines this year to allow for cask-conditioned ales throughout the stadium, and they offer a hearty list of 22-ounce craft bombers from breweries like Pyramid, Oskar Blues, No-Li and Rogue. Next year, the stadium plans to introduce recommended beer-and-food pairings throughout its concession stands.
"At the end of the day, we have to put out a product our guests want," Dominguez said. "They want quality, they want flavor, they know what they want and they're going to get it."
In Seattle, customers also want local, from locally raised meat to local seafood to local beer. Seattle sells beers from 20 breweries based in the state of Washington, the highest number of in-state offerings in Major League Baseball, according to The Post's data. That includes many brews that get high ratings on the user-generated Web site BeerAdvocate.com, such as Fremont Brewing Company's Summer Ale and Bale Breaker's Field 41.
"The Seattle market is about supporting the community," Dominguez said. "Fortunately, we live in an area where craft brewing kind of started. There's just a ton of local appeal here, and we have a real niche, because a lot of these great breweries only do craft beers."
What's in it for the craft breweries themselves? Well, sales, of course, but also exposure to a potential new market. New Belgium products are now available in 15 of 30 Major League parks, making it one of the most widely distributed craft breweries.
Baseball concessions are not a substantial part of the brewery's sales, but they're "a great sampling opportunity – a chance to reach thousands of fans in one swoop and put a beer in their hand," Jason Oziel, the brewery's director of national accounts, wrote in an e-mail. The brewery's wholesale partners pitch New Belgium products as "a well-known profitable alternative to domestic light beer." This is true both in sporting venues and, say, airplanes; Fat Tire is the only craft beer available on all Southwest Airlines flights.
And while craft beer sales are growing, major sponsorship deals between MLB clubs and Anheuser-Busch InBev or MillerCoors mean it's not always easy for an independent company like New Belgium to penetrate the market. The bigger brands often dominate in signage and exposure; Nationals Park has a Miller Lite Scoreboard Walk, Arizona has the Coors Light Strike Zone, and Milwaukee and Colorado play in fields named after Miller and Coors.
Those partnerships are "by far the biggest challenge in getting into any major sporting venue," Oziel wrote. "That said, I think now it is easier than ever to penetrate those spaces simply because of the sheer amount of craft drinkers in the world today and the demand for craft beer …. The consumers, in effect, are doing the work for us by demanding, and expecting, a better beer experience."
The Nats aren't as craft beer-crazy as Cincinnati or Seattle, but they've also made changes in their offerings to reflect the changing market. After introducing two District Drafts locations last season – featuring a variety of craft brews from five local brewers – the Nats expanded to four booths this season, each featuring four taps.
Like several other clubs – including Seattle and Baltimore – the Nats now have a Firkin Fridays promotion, featuring a different local cask beer every Friday. The Red Porch in center field also has several highly rated craft beers on tap, and the team plans to maintain its four District Draft locations next season.
"I think the demand for beer has grown as the culture of the city's changed," said Jonathan Stahl, senior director of guest experience and hospitality operations. "I think it started with food in the city – peoples's palates were changing – and then naturally it progressed to beer. So people want a little more variety."
This season, both the Nats and Orioles introduced 16-ounce cans of Flying Dog's Snake Dog IPA. The Frederick brewery makes those cans exclusively for the Nats and Orioles, and hawkers bring them down the aisles. Flying Dog also has a dedicated kiosk at Camden Yards.
Flying Dog VP of Sales John Stolins declined to discuss specific sales, but he said the stadiums are now two of the brewery's top accounts, generating "substantial volume."
"With people coming here from all over the Mid-Atlantic and even the whole country, it's definitely a chance to showcase your beer," Stolins said. "The Nats and O's make all the sense in the world for us."
Still, sales of traditional domestic beers swamp those of craft offerings at Nats Park, where the biggest beer promotion by far is the Miller Lite Happy Hour, which runs until first pitch at the Scoreboard Walk. The majority of beer drinkers at Nats Park, Stahl said, "definitely still want a Miller Lite or a full-calorie [domestic] beer."
"I think we've found a great balance, to be honest," he said. "Those who want [specialty beer] know where to go to get it and are happy with it. And for everyone else, there are regular beers out there as well."
About our rankings
Our rankings determine the overall status of beer available in each MLB stadium by considering three factors. Quality is determined by the number of beers ranked "very good" or better, according to BeerAdvocate.com. Locality is how many breweries represented are based in the same state as the team. Uniqueness is the number of breweries available only at one MLB stadium. Each of these rankings is given equal weight.
The beer lists were submitted by MLB teams or their concessionaires during the first three months of this season; many teams slightly alter their offerings as the season goes on.
SOURCE: MLB teams, their concessionaires, BeerAdvocate.com. Published August 8, 2014.