I recently received word through sort of an unusual but reliable back channel that the Harpoon Brewery was planning to brew a new beer. The project is apparently of a very hush-hush nature at the Boston brewery. A new 100 Barrel series or Leviathan release you might ask? Nope. After years of being battered in the local market by the wildfire growth of the Blue Moon Belgian White (or “Blue Moon by Coors/MolsonCoors/MillerCoors” if you’re down with the Brewers Association’s quiet PR campaign), the folks at Harpoon have decided to expand their UFO line to include another beer: UFO White. Details surrounding the beer remain very sketchy as news of the beer was not meant for public release quite yet. I imagine you’ll be seeing this beer pushed very hard on draft in the local Boston market in an attempt to retake some of the omni-present Blue Moon handles secured by Coors.
Now, I’m pretty much on record in support of the development and promotion of Blue Moon by the Coors people. While not the most flavorful beer I’ve ever had, I think Blue Moon is a reliable choice when in a pinch at a chain restaurant and it has contributed to expanding the reach of better beer into demographics where it hasn’t previously succeeded. I’ve also been supportive of how Coors has chosen to treat and promote the brand, say in contrast to the efforts of Anheuser-Busch related to its “faux-craft” products.
With this said, Harpoon’s decision to brew this beer in an attempt to compete head-to-head with the Blue Moon juggernaut couldn’t have been an easy one. I imagine the sales meetings at Harpoon in Boston must have devolved into grumbles about how Blue Moon has been kicking the UFO brand’s butt in local bars and restaurants.
First developed and released in 1998, Harpoon’s UFO Hefeweizen was apparently inspired “by the cloudy beers drank in many German beer gardens.” While German hefeweizens (in their most popular style) are distinguished by their fruity/clovey/banana-y flavors and aromas, UFO ‘Hefeweizen’ is not really a hefe at all. Instead, the UFO lead product is actually an American-style wheat beer, one of the few global beer styles (perhaps the only one) that I personally find little to no redeeming value in. So take my criticism of the brand with that grain of salt in mind. To Harpoon’s credit, the brewery has never claimed (beyond the product’s name) to have brewed a traditional hefeweizen. And despite my lack of fondness for the brand, UFO has proven popular with drinkers and spawned a local “1-2 punch,” along with the Harpoon IPA. Harpoon’s sales staff could sell both products, side-by-side, each complementing the other and without any real competition between the brands.
Enter the Harpoon White. As I said, Harpoon’s decision to release this beer is a little risky if for no other reason than the very real fear of brand cannibalization. I think consumer’s are going to have a difficult time distinguishing between the brands (except perhaps by a lemon versus an orange garnishment, if Harpoon follows the presentation model perfected by Coors and Blue Moon). Even if the products taste very different (no easy feat when you’re trying to keep a broad appeal among your target audience here), the White inevitably will cannibalize some of the UFO Hefeweizen’s market presence and brand share. I haven’t seen any recent numbers on the brand, but Harpoon may have decided that the UFO Hefeweizen’s numbers, if dwindling or growing only slowly, may be worth sacrificing if a witbier product can cut into Blue Moon’s substantial success.
Another odd turn here is the irony of the situation. After several years where America’s largest breweries were trying to recreate the efforts (and thereby the success) of craft brewers, we now have a craft brewer trying to emulate the successful efforts of one of the world’s largest brewers. That’s quite a compliment for the folks at Coors…
It seems to me the problem for Harpoon is distributor support. Coors distributors push Blue Moon big time, at least they do out here on the West Coast (I live in the San Francisco Bay Area). Coors gives distributors all kinds of things, placards, displays, literature, to pass on to restaurants and stores.
Can Harpoon do the same?
Really, the only way to compete is to brew a better beer, a beer with enough difference to make it stand out
At least within the Boston area, Harpoon self-distributes so this shouldn’t be a big problem. Now if Harpoon wants to expand distribution of this beer beyond its base market, which it will likely do, your analysis is spot on.
I would imagine for this to work, there would also need to be some awareness building up that Blue Moon is not actually Belgian, but a Coors beer. Otherwise, people will go for the exotic, “authentic” Belgian white rather than the domestic Boston one.
It’s funny to listen to people whine about Blue Moon being from Coors. That’s the same level of ignorance & arrogance that the French had about California wines. How did that work out for them? People show their ignorance if they continue to downgrade a product when you talk more about it’s manufacturer than the product benefits. Listen, I hate shopping at Walmart, but it doesn’t make Tide any less of a brand or a product. Dig?
So, please everyone: just judge the beer – not the brewer, ok!! [* this comment is a cry to the masses, not specifically to this author. No offense intended)
That being said, thanks for the article. I like Harpoon’s UFO and it’ll be interesting to try their new White beer.
Like Andy, I’ve never been a fan of UFO though I enjoy most of Harpoon’s other beers. First time I ordered it on tap (Portland, Maine) I expected a Franziskaner / Julius Echter-like true heffeweiss (silly me for believing the beer’s name). What a disappointment! There’s just nothing to UFO. If Harpoon’s new UFO White eventually overtakes and replaces UFO “lite,” then great. I, for one, won’t miss it. I do find Blue Moon a decent representation of a Bavarian heffeweiss and order it every now and then when the mood hits. Coors has done a fine job with the Blue Moon line for a long time. My taste buds could care less that it’s brewed by a mega-brewer.