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Airlines are riding the craft beer revolution - here's why it makes sense

Airplanes and airports are often associated with headaches – especially this time of year when blizzards ground flights and cause mass delays. But there may be a silver lining waiting for you at 37,000 feet if you’re one of the 36% of Americans who drinks craft beer. A growing number of airlines are offering an expanding selection of locally-brewed beer.

The craft beer renaissance is nothing new. Sales for small, local brewers are expected to triple between between 2007 and 2018 (the 2018 estimate is for a $17 billion market). So perhaps it’s no surprise that airlines are catching on to the trend.

“It’s something we’ve really seen explode in the last couple of years,” said Bart Watson, Chief Economist at the Brewers Association. As Watson explained, a number of regional airlines kicked off this trend years ago, featuring beers brewed in their home hubs to create a sense regional branding. For example, “Alaska airlines has carried Alaska (ALK) brands for years, but given their growth in California they’re now partnered with St. Archer, a new, exciting brewer out of Southern California.”

And it’s moved past regional airlines as well. Now Delta (DAL), one of the world’s largest airlines, announced it would offer seven new craft brews including  SweetWater, Ballast Point, Lagunitas and Brooklyn Lager just in time for the holiday travel season.

Related: Craft brew industry booms even as Americans drink less beer

If you need a refresher, the definition of craft beer according to most people is a small, independent brewery. The Brewers Association defines it more specifically as producing less than six million barrels a year with no more than 25% ownership by a large alcoholic beverage company. (So Goose Island, for example, is no longer considered ‘craft’ following its purchase by Anhueser Busch - BUD). “Crafty” beers, or the independently styled beer owned by the big dogs, are readily available, and airplanes are no exceptions. That includes brands like Goose Island, Blue Moon, Leinenkugel and the like.

But now airlines are shifting towards beers that aren’t mass produced. One reason may be demographics.

“If you look at the demographics of frequent fliers, they tend to look a little bit different then the general population,” pointed out Watson. “They’re much more likely to be employed, higher socioeconomic status and income, more likely to be married. When you look at the people who are drinking craft beer it’s very, very similar. High education, high socioeconomic status, high income, more likely to be employed. So I think it’s a natural fit for airlines.”

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A report by Chicago-based researcher Mintel showed that craft beer is most popular in the Millennial demo. Of consumers aged 25-34, 50% say they drink craft. And what’s more, 43% of that demo says that craft beer tastes better than the big American brands like Budweiser, Coors (TAP) or Miller (SAB.L).

“The largest brewers are still the majority of sales in the U.S., but there are lots of consumers who maybe aren’t gonna buy an American lager or an American light lager on a flight, but they would buy a Lagunitas if it’s available,” said Watson.

Another reason for the jump might be something as simple as how the beer is packaged. In the past, craft brewers tended to bottle their beers, which isn’t economical for an airline. Bottles are heavier, tend to break and cause hassle. But as craft brewers expand their capacity, a growing number of them are using cans instead of bottles. Watson explained, “Basically every brewery I named now has some kind of canned offering which goes very well with flying.”

It is worth noting, though, that United (UAL) and American (AAL), which is now the world’s biggest airline thanks to that merger with US Airways, still don’t offer craft beers in flight. So if you want to crack open a craft brew at 37,000 feet, be sure to check out the video above for a list of the airlines that are offering them.

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