- Associated Press - Sunday, May 27, 2012

KANSAS CITY, MO. (AP) - It used to be that baseball fans would head for the concourse to grab a beer between innings, a cold one as much a part of America’s pastime as hotdogs and Cracker Jack.

Now they file up the aisles in search of Belgian-style pale ale.

During a period of decline in overall beer consumption, the market for craft brews is rapidly expanding, and the trend is evident at ballparks from coast to coast. Many stadiums offer upward of 60 varieties, everything from Budweiser and Coors Light to Henry Weinhard’s IPA.

In the mood for a porter, with a hint of chocolate and caramel? Ask for a Great Lakes Edmund Fitzgerald at the Irish pub inside Citizens Bank Park in Philadelphia.

Taste trending toward Scottish ale? Order up Erie Brewing Company’s Railbender Ale at PNC Park in Pittsburgh, one of the most beer-friendly ballparks in baseball.

Looking for something with a cloudy appearance and citrusy flavor? You can find Boulevard’s Unfiltered Wheat at stands throughout Kauffman Stadium in Kansas City.

“Every market is different,” said Bob Sullivan, vice president of sales and marketing for Boulevard Brewing Company. “But what you’re seeing now is that stadiums are saying, `We really need to carry the local beers.’ People pay a lot of money for their season tickets, and there’s some obligation to give them what they want.”

The big breweries still rule the ballpark _ Miller Park and Busch Stadium, anyone? They have the unique ability to spend lavishly on marketing: billboards inside and outside the gates, subway cars on the way to Yankee Stadium, television and radio spots during a broadcast.

Smaller brewers simply can’t compete.

Then there’s the fact that Anheuser-Busch and Major League Baseball renewed their exclusive sponsorship deal in 2010, making Budweiser the league’s official beer.

Yet the groundswell of support for premium, often-kitschy, sometimes expensive and usually irreverent brands has been heard loud and clear by the baseball’s establishment.

“There’s been a shift, a cultural shift, in the beer culture in the U.S. No longer does a light American lager satisfy every occasion,” said Julia Herz, craft beer program director for the Brewers Association, an organization made up of more than 1,400 brewery members.

The Brewers Association documents 140 beer styles worldwide, Herz said, and the United States is the most diverse destination globally, with 13,000-plus beer labels in the marketplace.

In the past, the Royals had limited their beer category to two sponsors, and they ended up going to the highest bidders. Companies such as Boulevard couldn’t compete with heavyweights such as MillerCoors and Anheuser-Busch, so even though Boulevard was able to offer its brews at the ballpark, it became a scavenger hunt for fans trying to locate the taps.

That changed this year, when the Royals decided to extend to more than two partners.

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