The Drinks and the Scene

Being a bit of a music geek, a few weeks ago I headed for the first time to three days of magnificent American roots music amid the glories of Golden Gate Park, at the Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival. Its seven stages offered a chance to see musical faves of mine like Steve Earle, Conor Oberst, Rosanne Cash and Gillian Welch, and to check out up close a flock of up-and-comers and oddities like CW Stoneking, a blues guitar whiz from the wilds of Australia’s northern territories who’s lately been resurrecting 1920s and 30s hokum. (Yes, readers are thinking, we can see why a magazine columnist would be drawn to hokum. Presidents-elect, too!)

It was the sixteenth annual edition of a festival that was a gift to San Francisco from the late hedge fund millionaire (and gifted banjo player) Warren Hellman, who insisted that it be kept free. In order to keep it as unencumbered as possible, he refused to engage in the usual cost-defraying ploys of selling official pouring rights to various alcoholic and non-alcoholic beverage marketers; instead, fest-goers are invited to just pack in their own. (There were plenty of food stands operated by local vendors, but I spotted only a single beverage booth – a busy Revive Kombucha draft-only stand tucked away near one of the stages.) For a beverage guy like me, that made the event a fascinating petri dish, with visitors’ beverage choices entirely their own, a reflection of their own personal tastes rather than the constraints of the festival sponsors. True, glass was discouraged, as was hard liquor, but nobody was enforcing those rules, and the well-behaved crowd seemed diligent about directing the empties to the right recycling bins. Since I was wearing a Glenlivet cap, I was offered more than one taste of illicit whisky by good-natured revelers.

So what did I see, beverage-wise, in my three (hard working, natch!) shifts of seven or so hours apiece over the course of the fest? Not a single conventional CSD, though I did see one fest-goer with a can of Zevia on her picnic blanket. I saw quite a few visitors drinking bottled kombucha and an awful lot of bottled water – usually inexpensive private-label brands, regional springs, La Croix or Smartwater rather than the flock of higher-end alkaline and other brands. Iced tea? I spotted Teas’ Tea and its Oi Ocha green tea offshoot, but no AriZona, no Lipton, no Gold Peak. A bit of ready-to-drink cold-brewed coffee, a can or two of Illy.

On the beer side, over the three days I spotted a handful of invariably younger people who’d lugged in a suitcase of Bud Light or PBR. Otherwise, the choice seemed overwhelmingly to be local and regional craft beers like Sierra Nevada, Lagunitas, 21st Amendment and Fort Point.

Of course, I was there to enjoy the music rather than conduct an exhaustive survey, so these are stray, anecdotal observations. Still – no Diet Coke? No Heineken? For anyone from a big beverage or beer company this would have had to be a sobering sight. Yes, it was San Francisco, but the free nature of the fest ensured it drew a pretty diverse range of locals, from affluent techies to hipsters to hippies to Latinos to picnicking families with the kids still in their soccer uniforms. To a trend-watcher like me, who’s always wondering whether these intriguing new entries and segments that are bubbling up are truly ready for prime time, it suggested that beverages indeed are going through some significant disruption. Think of it: I spent well over 20 hours at a fest that drew 750,000 and didn’t see anyone drinking a Diet Coke. All this before the newly enacted soda tax takes effect, too.

Some of the music acts I caught were great and have been stuck in my mind all these weeks since: Hayes Carll’s indelible opening of “Drunken Poet’s Dream” (“I’ve got a woman who’s wild as Rome; She likes to lie naked and be gazed upon”), Robyn Hitchcock, informed that his time had run out on a converted-trailer stage, confiding, “This is a really sought shed.” But I can’t stop thinking about the beverage situation, too.

So what does this all augur for 2017? Among manufacturers, the big beer players already have reacted decisively, scarfing up one craft brewer after another in a race to assemble a potent portfolio of national and regional brands, beyond the ones they try to develop in-house. So there’s less drama there. So far, it’s been a bit more sedate on the non-alcoholic front, though if the rumors one hears are to be believed, the cluster of strategics kicking the tires of Bai Brands attests to some fear of missing out. As I write this, it’s widely believed that Pepsi is close to announcing its acquisition of KeVita, the maker of probiotic drinks and kombuchas. And let’s not forget that most big food and beverage players by now have set up venture arms and incubators to capture the innovation that they recognize isn’t so likely to come from within their own walls.

At retail, grocers are carving out more space for innovative beverage brands and making it easier for them to navigate the retailers’ sometimes arcane ways of doing business. Lately they seem to be cutting back a bit on the clutter of craft beer brands, but there’s no question of any decisive retreat for such a lucrative segment that’s done so much to make beer relevant again. Maybe a given grocer doesn’t need to be offering 100 different IPAs, so a few dozen will do. On the non-alcoholic side, they’ve been surprisingly welcoming to relatively unproven new categories like turmeric-, chia- and ginger-based drinks, cold-pressed juice, cold-brewed coffee, kombucha and dairy alternatives, even as the options to choose from have proliferated wildly.

My snapshot of San Francisco aside, consumption habits haven’t been turned entirely on their head: CSDs are still a huge, if declining category, and recent years’ hit brands have included the likes of energy drinks and Sparkling Ice, basically intriguing permutations of CSDs. Still, to paraphrase the Nobel Prize-winning writer Bob Dylan, something seems to be happening here, even if we’re not quite sure what it is. The coming year may offer a lot of answers as to what.

Longtime beverage-watcher Gerry Khermouchis executive editor of Beverage Business Insights, a twice-weekly e-newsletter covering the nonalcoholic beverage sector.