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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Redefining Local In A New Era Of Craft Beer…

Support Your Local Brewery. Drink Local, Think Global. For more than a decade, brewers have doled out countless bumper stickers, coasters, and stickers with these and similar slogans promoting their community-based beer offerings. And the campaign served them well, helping to build a connection to area consumers. After years of communal camaraderie, things are about to change.

If 2011 was a year for celebrating a return to local beer, 2012 will be a year when consumers and brewers seek to redefine what local really means. This past year saw dozens of breweries, including many well-known names, retreat to their home markets due to supply issues, in what I’ve previously called the Great Beer Retreat. From Allagash to Great Divide to Flying Dog, capacity restrictions and demand in closer-to-home markets has drawn mid-range and some smaller regional players to rethink their growth and distributions strategies.

While these larger breweries were busy trying to send beer to dozens of far-flung markets, a host of smaller, nimbler craft outlets, including hundreds of nano-breweries, have crept into their once safe home markets. Many larger players publicly heralded this new wave of craft brewing entrepreneurs, while some privately questioned their abilities to sell enough beer of sufficient quality to survive. As many have grown and continued to prosper in their hometown markets, the inevitable competition for local tap lines and shelf space has taken hold.

As these smaller players continue their dueling dance for hometown beer dominance, another force looms large in several markets across the country. In many industries, cash is king, but not so in the beer business. For brewers, stainless steel reigns supreme. That and the warehouse space in which to install shiny new fermenters or dinged up, used conditioning tanks. In this age, if a brewery can leverage the debt load and possesses the physical space to support growth, it has a good chance of dominating the game. And there are a few breweries that have amassed sufficient size as to wreak some havoc with the whole concept of what is ‘local.’

The issue is coming to a head in the little town of Asheville, North Carolina, where two western craft brewing giants will be opening new breweries. With its growing craft beer reputation and excellent garage breweries, Asheville is making a lot of noise for such a small brewing town. But when word started leaking out that the Sierra Nevada Brewing Company and New Belgium Brewing were visiting sites around the town, the local brewers started to worry. Talk of tax credits and development deals started to swirl around as attempts to entice the two brewing giants, whose combined production is well north of 1 million barrels annually, to make North Carolina their second brewing homes.

Trying to hawk the localness of beer has always struck me as an odd selling point as next to none of the raw materials involved in production actually come from the region and nearly every production brewery sends beer far from home. The hyper-vigilance of some local brewers also seems misguided at times. In the case of Asheville, it’s understandable that local brewers grumble when a seemingly carpet-bagging West Coast brewery swoops into town and charms millions in tax incentives out of county representatives. But who’s to say that setting down roots doesn’t make Sierra or New Belgium ‘local’, especially when they’ll employ hundreds of North Carolinians?

As the credit and stainless steel crunches hit breweries bent on expansion, the stratification of craft brewers will grow deeper, likely straining the communal ethos that has been so central to the craft beer industry’s identity. Already big breweries will expand quickly, while smaller operations beat retreats back to their home markets and dream of stainless days to come. It may be time to redesign some bumper stickers.

-Article appeared in Issue 61 of BeerAdvocate Magazine.

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In Praise Of The “One Beer”…

Tens of millions of barrels later, the craft beer renaissance can be traced to a single beer. Now, I don’t mean Anchor Steam, Redhook Ale, or even the New Albion Ale, though they might qualify for some of you. Instead, I’m talking about the experience every dedicated craft beer drinker has enjoyed at one point, the time that “the beer? set them upon the road to beer enrichment. It’s a moment you’d think we could never forget. But with all the excitement our industry has to offer, it sometimes seems as if we’ve forgotten the remarkable place from where we’ve come.

Sparking an interest in craft beer is all about the right beer at the right moment, the one sip that radically transforms the imbiber’s way of thinking about beer. After experiencing a flood of yellow, fizzy, cold monotony, it’s the scene stealing instant of real flavor that stops you in your tracks and ends with an exclamation point hovering in a speech bubble above your head. An internal cymbal crash signifies the breaking of long-held beer stereotypes, be they an avowed dislike of “dark beer? or a staunch opposition to “bitter beers.?

Depending upon when you came of age, the defining beer might be Sierra Nevada IPA or Samuel Adams Boston Lager, recalling a seemingly distant time when these beers were anything but omni-present and not derided by beer geeks as “mainstream brands.? For others, “the beer? may have been a locally produced pale ale, brown ale, or hefe-weizen. Others still may have first seen the light as it passed through an invitingly hazy Blue Moon Belgian White, a laudable product of Coors.

In truth, “the beer? is more likely a series of beer sojourns spaced over an extended journey into craft beer. For every beer lover, life is a series of single beers and defining moments, the right pub and atmosphere at the right time, warm weather and the perfect quencher, celebratory moments with family or stolen seconds of personal solace at the end of a long day, each accompanied by “the beer.?

After a long, monogamous relationship with Miller Genuine Draft, my personal interest in better beer started with the first sip of Guinness. A near polar opposite in terms of body, flavor, and overall perception from American-style premium and light lagers, this “gateway beer? led me to my first brewery tour and a romp through locally available imported brands. When a brewpub opened in my college town, I visited and ordered my first sampler, in the process unknowingly stumbling upon my second “the beer? moment. The first taste of Court Avenue’s Blackhawk Stout subconsciously taught me the difference between ubiquitous Irish dry stouts and the sweeter but less popular foreign-style or export stout variety. From there, Vermont Pub’s syrupy Wee Heavy, Capital’s malty Blonde Doppelbock, and Summit’s bitter IPA and smooth Maibock propelled my interest. And just when I think I’ve seen it all, along comes the Sly Fox Pikeland Pils, a wonderfully hoppy German-style pilsner whose remarkable complexity is matched only by the come-full-circle irony of enjoying the beer directly from its can.

These single beers define the development of a craft beer drinker, from early, beerphobic days to passionate travels to far-flung breweries. In this era of eBay’d extreme beers, Dark Lord Days, and famed international brewing collaborations, it’s sometimes easy to lose track of the simple origins of our interest. Perhaps more importantly, our passions can sometimes disconnect us from the 95-percent of beer drinkers who do not share our enthusiasm for the charming marriage of hops and malt. With this in mind, I’ve made a resolution this year to redouble my efforts to spread the good word of “the beer? to friends, family, new acquaintances, and strangers yet to be known.

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