Craft beer reaches for the skies on U.S. airlines

04/01/2014 5:55 PM

04/01/2014 5:56 PM

Attention, passengers: Craft beer has reached 35,000 feet.

As the airline industry works to improve its food and beverage options, a new trend has emerged — airlines adding craft beers to their in-flight offerings. The assumption is that as more drinkers switch from mass-market to specialty beers, they’ll be happier if they don’t have to give up the good stuff when they’re in the air.

“We already had our drinkers on airplanes. We just didn’t have the beer,” said Jim Koch, co-founder of the Boston Beer Co., maker of Sam Adams. “They want to drink in the air what they’re drinking on the ground.”

It’s another sign that airlines are getting better at responding to changing consumer tastes. And Americans have certainly developed a taste for craft beer.

U.S. craft beer retail sales reached $14.3 billion in 2013, an increase of 20 percent from a year earlier, according to the Brewers Association, the trade group for most U.S. brewing companies. The move also helps craft brewers gain brand awareness.

Fort Worth-based American Airlines offers Sam Adams among its specialty beers on North American and Caribbean flights, and Virgin America has offered beer from San Francisco’s 21st Amendment Brewery for a few years. But other airlines have joined the trend recently.

Reasons for the surge include the craft beer industry’s new preference for cans over bottles — which are lighter and easier to store on drink carts — as well as greater availability of the beers.

Southwest Airlines began selling cans of New Belgium Brewing Co.’s Fat Tire on its nearly 700 Southwest and AirTran planes this year.

Sam Adams joined JetBlue’s offerings over the summer, Alaska Airlines and its sister carrier Horizon Air offer brews from the Pacific Northwest and Hawaii, and regional carrier Sun Country partnered with Minneapolis’ Surly Brewing Co. last month to sell craft beer from its home base.

“Pretty much anytime there’s an opportunity to have a beer, whether it be at a sports venue or at a club or on a plane, I’d like to be able to have some craft beer,” said Omar Ansari, founder of Surly Brewing Co. “One of the big pieces to making that all work is that we finally have enough beer. … There’s a demand for it, and a lot of breweries are making a lot more beer.”

And that’s what passengers are telling airlines, too.

Customers “began asking more and more for craft beer,” said Sonya Lacore, senior director of base operations for Southwest. “We’re running out of Fat Tire right now. … It’s clear that they are really going all-out for it.”

It’s not all good news. Much as the taste of food generally suffers in-flight, craft brews also lose a little oomph at that altitude. Drinkers’ sense of taste can be a little dulled to the aromatics of the beers, and bitterness can be accentuated, reducing the overall taste, Koch said.

Naturally, he said, a balanced malty and hoppy beer is best.

“It is interesting: Your taste buds operate slightly differently,” Koch said.

Still, beer — craft or otherwise — isn’t typically the most popular alcoholic beverage sold on planes.

Passengers aboard six North American airlines spent more than $11.3 million on beer over five months last year, according to GuestLogix, which processes about 90 percent of onboard credit card transactions for North American carriers. By comparison, liquor sales neared $38 million and wine sales topped $14 million.

On Southwest, where all alcohol is $5, beer runs neck and neck with liquor, Lacore said.

But Koch said the in-flight beer business is smaller than the statement being made about demand for craft beer. And the growing interest in craft beer could help send sales on planes soaring.

Koch predicts that most flights that have beer will offer craft beer by the end of next year.

“This is one more step for craft beer becoming a more widely accepted experience for people,” Koch said.

Staff writer Andrea Ahles contributed to this report.

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