Death of the Flagship…

There comes a time in the story of every generation when the end draws near and a new chapter begins. In the craft beer industry, it has taken nearly thirty years for that page to turn but a new story of is about to be written, one where many of the beloved main characters are going to be written out or relegated to background roles.

For the better part of thirty years a handful of big name craft beers, from pioneering brewers, led the way as the industry’s ultimate front line warriors. Beers such as Sierra Nevada Pale Ale and Samuel Adams Boston Lager were the twin drivers of craft beer’s narrative and growth. They fought a ground war in airport bars, chain restaurants, and convenience stores from coast to coast. They ran ad campaigns to bolster the public’s understanding of better beer and to teach consumers that taste, flavor, and character meant something. Their salesman built the tracks on which the craft beer express smoothly rides today.

A funny thing happened to these wildly successful brands on the way to craft beer utopia: a new generation of craft beer know-it-alls used the success of the beer pioneers against them. Content to reject Sam Adams, Sierra, and other popular brands as passe examples of the Old Guard, or even dismiss them as corporate beer shills, these founding fathers suddenly became something other than craft. Beyond the industry insider definitional debates over volume and barrelage numbers, the young started to prey on their elders in quiet but vicious fashion.

After enduring years of cheap shots, the generational attitude shift appears to have rubbed off on the beer pioneers themselves. For the first time, the future prospects of the industry’s two most stalwart brands, Samuel Adams Boston Lager and Sierra Nevada Pale Ale, the yin and the yang of the craft beer world, look dim. Supplanted by seasonal brands, endangered by the race for the holy one-off grail, and lost in the hunt for more hops, these respected and balanced brands look increasingly out of place in the wider world of craft beer. And the pioneers seem to know it. In response, Sierra Nevada has focused a lot of energy on its Torpedo IPA brand, which ups the hops from the company’s style defining flagship Pale Ale. Even Boston Beer has launched its own IPA, Latitude 48, even as Twisted Tea offering surpasses Boston Lager as the company’s best selling product and a series of seasonal beers capture the attention of beer drinkers and distributors.

Other breweries aren’t immune from this shift. Widmer Hefeweizen receives a lot less attention from the brothers in the wake of new releases, including a rotating IPA series. The flagship brands of Redhook, Boulevard, and Deschutes have also started to lose focus to other brands and line extensions. Even once seemingly invincible Fat Tire is losing share of New Belgium Brewing’s mind to the brewery’s juggernaut Ranger IPA.

So in the end of an era for some pioneer brands, where consumers appear ready to fully embrace their long-developing beer brand promiscuity, the first era of the flagship is over. The ultimate result of the evolving craft beer consumer’s fickle palate is the end of relations with these former beaus, only to be replaced with a new, younger, and hipper string of beer relations.

While some nostalgia for these great and trailblazing brands is warranted, the new chapter shows the continued maturation and development of craft beer in America. Even as market share slowly inches up, consumers are deciding for themselves that they want new beers, happy to push beyond their early favorites into new and unexplored flavor territories.

–Article appeared in Issue 66 of BeerAdvocate Magazine.

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