Death of the Flagship…

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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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Is It About Beer Or Beer Politics: The Brewers Association’s Baby Step…

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The Brewers Association today released news that it had once again changed its definition of the term ‘craft brewer.’ The change relates to the association’s use of the word small to refer to its qualifying members. As the press release noted:

In the BA’s craft brewer definition, the term “small” now refers to any independent brewery that produces up to 6 million barrels of traditional beer. The previous definition capped production at 2 million barrels.

From a practical standpoint, this change allowed the Boston Beer Company, maker of the Samuel Adams line of beers, to remain a qualifying member of the craft beer club, for purposes of definition by the Brewers Association. It also allowed the association to continue to include Boston Beer’s explosive sales growth and category dominating production volumes in the craft beer segment’s total numbers.

Now, some of you may be thinking, here comes another rant on the definition of craft beer, the likes of which we’ve seen here many times before. To the contrary, I applaud the Brewers Association’s action today. In truth, it was an inevitability. Like a woman who is perpetually turning 29, Boston Beer has been coyly telling everyone that its beer production numbers were below two million barrels per year for at least a few years after many people believed it likely blew past that number. Point being, the definition of small, like much of the rest of the Brewers Association’s craft brewer definition, is entirely arbitrary and the two million barrel number, while finding some viability in tax law, really had no relevance for purposes of determining which breweries qualified as craft.

I have to admit that over the last three years I have experienced a growing disconnect between my own thoughts on the definition of craft beer and those held by many in the craft brewing community, including some very close friends. The prevailing view among hardened beer geeks seems to be that while Boston Beer may have helped craft beer along, that it is now some how now indistinguishable from brewing giants InBev and SABMiller. This view, in my opinion, combines the twin sins of ingratitude and short-sightedness, a rare feat to be sure. As Brewers Association board president Nick Matt himself said in today’s release, “Rather than removing members due to their success, the craft brewing industry should be celebrating our growth.”

So with this part of the issue addressed, there remains the sticky proposition of dealing with the association’s most controversial definitional language, namely that of excluding breweries where more than “25% of the craft brewery is owned or controlled (or equivalent economic interest) by an alcoholic beverage industry member who is not themselves a craft brewer.”

For those who have not lived and relived this fight, the definition excludes a handful of brewers, including Redhook, Widmer, Kona, and Goose Island, Magic Hat and Pyramid, Mendocino Brewing, and others.

I remain disappointed that some well-known craft brewers, for some reason I have yet to fully comprehend, continue to play a game of us versus them, all while perpetuating this myth of the small, hand-crafted brewer. Because an otherwise small brewer, certainly smaller than many of those bitching about their independent status, sends his beer out on trucks run by Anheuser-Busch affiliated distributors or have some twisted corporate tie to a bigger brewery, that their membership in the craft beer club should suddenly stand revoked continues to confound me.

Because, in the end, at least for me, it really is about the beer and these associational definitions actually do a disservice to the cause of better beer. While I can understand excluding Coors and its Blue Moon product from the craft brewer party, it is to my mind and palate indisputably a craft beer. Not the greatest beer I have ever had nor a shining example of the style, but perfectly acceptable nonetheless. But the exclusion of its nearly two million barrels of production (you read that number right) under-reports and undersells the advances better beer has made in the United States in the past fifteen years.

When craft brewers and beer enthusiasts mindlessly disrespect Boston Beer by deriding it as just another “macro beer” or big brewer, I worry about the future of better beer in America. Beyond its pioneering role in the development of craft beer in the United States, Boston Beer continues to be one of the greatest innovators in the industry and its thoughtful, flavor forward advertising campaigns do nothing but help progress the cause of better beer in this country.

Along these same lines, it thoroughly disturbs me when beer geeks and even my beer writing colleagues disrespect and dismiss craft beer pioneers, such as the Goose Island Brewing Company of Chicago, who have found themselves on the outside of the Brewers Association, looking in. As I wrote of company founders John and Greg Hall in a recent issue of BeerAdvocate Magazine:

Despite all of Goose Island’s successes, the city’s notoriously competitive distribution challenges in part led to the brewery’s decision in 2006 to enter into an equity agreement with the Widmer Brothers Brewery and the Craft Brewers Alliance, which has ties with Anheuser-Busch InBev. With their decision quickly came harsh words from self-appointed craft beer purists. Greg Hall quickly dismisses the criticism by noting that the big guys give them better access to market but “zero direction whatsoever” as to the beer. For others he jokes, “Can’t you taste the beechwood in there? Don’t you think it makes it taste better?” Simply put, “the beer is coming on a different truck now, but it’s the same beer from the same brewery and people.”

Having just spent another afternoon at the Chicago production brewery, I can honestly say that I have visited few breweries with such a dedicated passion for producing great, flavorful beers and to pushing the edge of brewing. The brewery simply puts many other regional breweries, with all of their independent, craft brewer puffery, to shame. Put crudely, if Goose Island is not craft, then I have no fucking idea what is. The Hall’s were brewing great beers while many pro-exclusion “craft brewers” were busy playing beer pong with Carling Black Label.

Perhaps it is time to just call it like we see it. Wouldn’t it just be easier to name the breweries that we don’t believe are craft breweries rather than trying to set arbitrary and meaningless definitional labels for entry into the craft beer cool kids club? I say let’s just have a voice vote and move on. We can all agree that when we’re talking about craft brewers, we’re not talking about Anheuser-Busch, Coors, Miller, or Pabst. We might split a bit on Yuengling but frankly, those guys could give a shit what you think about their solid beers.

Because if we’re really getting down to which breweries qualify as craft, I have a whole list of Brewers Association members whose beers scream faceless, nameless mediocrity, akin to those beers brewed by the big guys. Many so-called “craft brewers” make a lot of soulless, boring, clumsy, and inartful beer that I am far more troubled by than the fact that Goose Island needs A-B’s might to help do battle in the Windy City.

With this definitional change, the Brewers Association has taken an important first step in the process of resolving its internal identity crisis. I remain hopeful but not optimistic that the group can manage to figure out how to plan a great family reunion so that the craft brewing clan can once again stand united.

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Craft Beer, All Growed Up…

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All grown up and ready to don his crown, the prince busily makes plans for the future. All hail the new king of beer. If you read the beer press lately, you’d be forgiven for thinking that craft beer has conquered all. The Brewers Association’s recently released half-year numbers demonstrate that despite the economic downturn, craft beer sales continue to boom by double-digits, to the enduring shame of macro beer producers. Without question, no other brewing industry segment can touch craft’s fire.

But before we start the next round of mutual back-slapping and pint raising, America’s smaller brewers should stop and consider the decidedly unsettled course of American beer’s future. We have lived through the Age of Extreme and experienced the Era of Collaboration, reveling in years of unparalleled success. Yet the toughest times lie ahead as craft brewers move from the lighthearted teenage growing years to the increasingly responsible adult decades.

For one, succession issues will continue to pose challenges for brewers small and big. As brewers continue to merge or purchase their craft brethren (and competitors), brands and brewing histories may become diluted or lost. In the wake of the recent transitions of Anchor, Magic Hat, Old Dominion, and others, consumers are learning the painful truth that beer is a business and craft brewing is not some fun hobbyist project. Your favorite beer of today may become a fond memory tomorrow in someone else’s brand portfolio.

Growth also brings its own challenges and has already contributed to some serious identity crises in the industry. After years of predicting the event, the Boston Beer Company appears poised (if not already there) to exceed the magic two million barrel mark that the Brewers Association uses to define the size limits for craft brewers. While many recoil at the suggestion of disinviting Sam Adams from the craft beer party, the truth is that many craft brewers are far from small operations. How the industry defines itself, while caring for its pioneering elders will continue as a rolling boil.

Beyond trying to define “craft”, the industry’s success also challenges the consumer’s understanding of what the whole industry stands for. As growing pains set in, brewers find themselves stretched increasingly thin. Due to demand and quick sales, brewers send beer to markets thousands of miles from home, sometimes while their local patrons can’t find their favorites. To date, only a handful of brewers (craft or not) have chosen to brew their beers in distant breweries to satisfy new markets, but this trend will rise. But if Goose Island brews its Honker’s Ale or 312 in New Hampshire, is it really still Goose Island? Many consumers don’t think so.

Craft brewers also have to contend with the increasing interest of macro brewers in their profitable and growing market segment. As I predicted several years ago, Blue Moon has become the nation’s best selling craft/faux-craft beer. It’s a sales juggernaut that shows no signs of slowing, especially with MillerCoors’ creation of the new Tenth and Blake Beer Company spinoff. Expect the big guys to be more aggressive as they spend more time playing in the craft beer sandbox.

Finally, craft brewers need to get their own houses in order. In the very first issue of BeerAdvocate Magazine, I took craft brewers to task for refusing to put bottling or brewing dates on their packaging. While we have seen some progress in recent years, freshness dating continues to be a problem that many of the industry’s biggest players refuse to adequately address. While I personally love Bell’s Two Hearted Ale and included it in Great American Craft Beer, I shouldn’t have to go to the brewery’s website and enter a batch code to find out when it was made. A few stale bottles have caused me to rethink buying this longtime favorite and many others from craft brewers that should know better.

–Article appeared in Issue 48 of BeerAdvocate Magazine.

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