Wednesday, June 22, 2016

Is The Age of the Flagship Beer Over?

This here marks the second entry in a loosely connected series exploring the development and evolution of a new brewery's beer lineup, and how a brewery goes about refining such a thing. Part one went into the background of what we decided we should brew at Kent Falls, while a third future installment will eventually expand on the evolution of a particular beer, our Field Beer farmhouse ale. Field Beer was, from the start, intended to be sort of a 'conceptual' flagship ale, embodying an ethos that represented the whole brewery, if not necessarily leading the brewery in sales or release volumes.

Everyone knows that craft beer has dramatically shifted the way that the whole of the adult beverage market works. Before I even jumped into the process of helping to launch a new brewery, and planning and brainstorming and stressing and speculating what beers that I wanted to make would also be practical and sellable to the public, I had noticed something interesting about the way that breweries present themselves to their consumers. For years, maybe ever since the craft beer movement first began, its trajectory has been that of slowly and silently killing the model of flagship beer offerings. It has been one long history of flipping the way in which a brewery works.

For years, a brewery was a brand. Not a place or destination or personality or cult or whatever breweries are to the public now. The clarity and message of the brand was the product; the brewery as a personality was only really relevant so far as it was part of the brand. You didn't expect them to change what they were doing or switch things up on a regular basis. You were either on board with their brand, or you weren't. And while most of these brands did offer several products, they were usually slight variations on that initial core brand. Rather than releasing a distinct new brand with a separate identity, for example, you marketed a "light" version of your existing flagship brand.

Until recently, and even probably still now, this had a huge impact on how the average person would think about and discuss beer. For decades, the focus had been on a brewery as a brand. So that when you would talk to people about beer, most people would say things like "I had that Dogfish Head beer last night," or "You know what you would like? This one beer from back home, Troegs... you'd like it." And so on. The previous model of brewery-as-brand still greatly affects how the average person sees a brewery-as-a-business, even though it hasn't been that way for most breweries in decades. How many breweries today focus almost all their efforts on one single beer brand?

I mentioned that I view this as a slow trajectory, and I think there is an evolution in brewery identity that has been going on since the 70's. Those people that talk about a brewery as if they only make one beer would be wrong in almost every case, but you can understand why, if they don't really have much interest in the nerdy details of the beer industry, they might see a brewery like Sierra Nevada as a singular brand largely embodied by Pale Ale. That type of consumer would only rarely notice that there are other offerings from the brewery, and if so, probably understands that seasonals and special releases are a thing, and don't detract from the core identity of the brewery/brand. In the first wave of craft beer, this view would still basically be perceiving things accurately. Sierra Nevada was built by Pale Ale. That is still the core of their identity, though they happen to make many other products, too. And to the public, Sam Adams is just... Sam Adams. That's the beer. That's the brewery. That's the brand. But because they're a craft brand, sure, they also do sometimes have a seasonal release on tap as well. In the majority of bars, ordering a Sam Adams would create zero confusion. Only the pedantic beer nerd would protest: "But they make like 300 beers! Which one do you mean???"

The founders of the craft beer revolution largely stuck close to the existing model, focusing on flagship brands, but generally expanding this concept into having a group of "core" offerings, plus seasonals. This became the basic template for almost every brewery of the next several decades. Gradually, though, the obviousness of the flagship offering (and its singularity as the brewery's identifying brand) eroded. A flagship became merely the most prominent beer in a broader lineup of core offerings. Is 60 Minute the most popular and common product made by Dogfish Head? Sure, but they're a brand built on experimentation, and thus variety; it would be hard to miss that bigger picture.

One or two flagships bolstered by seasonals and special releases soon became half a dozen core lineup beers bolstered by seasonals and special releases. Much of this shift was likely tied to the resurgence of the brewpub, which, for most casual beer consumers, would start to define their image of what a brewery was. At a brewpub, having a clear and obvious single flagship isn't necessary, and from a branding perspective, doesn't even really make sense. As more and more began to define this new wave of breweries by their Friday-night-dinner experiences at a brewpub, the expectation that a brewery would offer a lineup of six, up to maybe ten core offerings, with a few side experiments that change every now and then, worked its way into our consciousness. And I'd say that's maybe where we've been for the last twenty years or so.

In that sense, the flagship beer is kind of already dead. Most breweries now don't expect to have one huge mega-hit that accounts for 90% of sales. In the rare cases where that does happen, it looks shockingly anomalous. How weird was it that The Alchemist, one of the most talked about and sought-after craft breweries in the world for a good part of this decade, only made and sold a single beer for a long chunk of that time? That Heady Topper stood as the sole offering of an immensely popular and beloved brewery was highly unusual for the time, probably because it wasn't even the brewery's intention for this to happen, but the whim's of fate and the wrath of mother nature.

Starting a new farmhouse brewery in a demographically-oddball rural area, we knew that a tart saison (or any kind of saison) was going to be a hard sale as Kent Fall's primary brand. You'd be surprised at how hard it is to sell large volumes of saison in the current beer market. Yes, I know, that probably sounds like a personal problem. "Have you considered that you only think that because you are terrible and no one likes you or your beer?" is probably your response, and while you are right, don't take my word for it. Ask any brewery that's producing a lot (or a majority) of farmhouse ale — unless their product is sour or barrel-aged. It may seem like saisons are super hot right now, but I think beer nerds talk about saison more than the general drinking public actually buys them in large quantities. In other words, it's a style that may do really well in special release formats (especially, again, if it's barrel-aged or has fruit or some other specialty situation), but saison is not dominating volume the way that, say, IPAs are, or session IPAs for example, or fruited IPAs, or to pick another random example, fruited session IPAs, or fruited session IPAs with citrus zest, or hard root beer. Saison is one of those styles that's beloved, but puts you in a weird spot if you want to make a lot of it.

Anyway, we anticipated this when thinking about our core lineup of beers, and came up with several concepts for "core" beers, though being that most of them were still in the farmhouse vein, we still ended up brewing for variety much more than we had anticipated. I'm guessing this is a common experience for many new breweries these days, unless you're focusing on hoppy beers for your flagships. Hoppy beers are probably the category that remains very easily (very easily) sellable as flagships or core brands, but in order to start off pushing hoppy beers as your primary offering, you either need to have put in the planning years in advance to procure awesome hop contracts from the start, or else be so small that you can still round up the hops you need from spot and trading. In other words, I don't think there are many styles remaining that are particularly easy to push as your flagship offering. And that may be a symptom of how drastically the entire brewing industry has changed. Variety, for now, is king. The real interesting question for me, is: just how sustainable is a model of "variety, always" actually is for every type of brewery, big and small?

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