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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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6 thoughts on “Death of the Flagship…

  1. Given that the Brewers Association definition of a “craft brewery” includes a requirement to have an all malt flagship beer, are we in fact entering a “post-craft” environment, where there is only seasonals and rotation? If so I think it will be a great loss for the industry.

    I am a big fan of both SNPA and Boston Lager, simply because they are both good, tasty beers that I can drink plenty of and get pretty much anywhere. I sometimes think that the abuse those guys get from certain segments of the craft “community” is akin to bitter Pearl Jam fans bitching about Nirvana for their commercial success, to put it bluntly, they are jealous.

  2. Andy,
    For a while I have often praised the versatility that some of the larger breweries have shown. This discussion on the other hand asks if have multiple releases in a year compromises the integrity.

    I know for me it’s always a dilemma having a ‘go-to’ beer that is from the likes of SN, Deschutes, or even New Belgium.

    Nice insight.


  3. Trying to be successful in the beer business today is a two edged sword. A brewery has no choice but to offer multiple selections. The craft consumer is constantly searching for the next big thing. It’s the “What have you done for me lately?” syndrome. Yet at the same time the brewery has to figure out how to establish an identity. That can be a flagship, or that can be the company brand itself. Either can work, though as you so astutely pointed out, the tide is switching to the business being the brand, not the particular beer.

    The business dilemna: How to grow the Sam seasonals while keeping Boston Lager at the forefront of everyone’s mind? How to keep focus on Fat Tire while also promoting Lips of Faith?

    None of us know where this industry is headed. But if a shakeout happens, it will be the breweries that have built a brand that survive. Those that just make a flavor-of-the-day, with no rhyme or reason, won’t be around for the long term, IMHO.

  4. Insightful and interesting read.

    Ironically, it’s easy for SN and NB to talk about the decline of the flagship as they try to expand market share. They can afford to have that conversation as they both produce beers (SNPA and Fat Tire) that can afford to shed 10-20% of their annual output to focus on the “gimme something new” crowd while still watching those “no longer flagship” beers to account for more than 70% of their overall output.

    (If i remember correctly, Dogfish Head came out a few years ago saying they don’t want a flagship brand so they were purposely slowing 60 Minute IPA to pursue many more new brands. I’m betting a peek inside DFH’s brand production breakdown would still show 60 minute at well over 50% of total volume, but making a public statement like that fires up the beer geek base and makes them want to keep on eye on the next big thing.)

    Putting time and energy into Torpedo or Ranger starts a new conversation about brands that need to develop new story lines as their distribution reaches into most US states and several foreign countries (SN more so than NB at this point).

    SN feels like a sleeping giant coming back to life. I am excited about many of their new beers. The quality and concept are on spot and generating a lot of press.

    But it’s a whole lot easier to talk about the flagship model coming to an end when a brewery can introduce 5-15 new beers a year and still rely on a single brand that is their bread and butter.

  5. You sure do pronounce death to quite a few things. Death to flagships, death to beer blogs, death to beer cocktails. That’s a morbid life… in a charmingly beery way, of course.

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