From Flagship to One-Off, From Classic Style to Exotic – Will Craft Beer Author Its Own Demise?

From Flagship to One-Off, From Classic Style to Exotic – Will Craft Beer Author Its Own Demise?

by Mark E. Lasbury for Indiana On Tap

Few people watch the craft beer news and social media more than I. Craft beer is a love of mine for sure, but it’s also how I keep informed so that every once in a while I might write something worth reading. There are endless threads, discussions, and pictures – some worth more than others – everything from what are you drinking to chug videos (that trend should be over by now), from serious talks about professional brewing and stuck sparges to home brewing systems and stuck fermentations.

It isn’t often, but sometimes the entire craft beer internet will pick up on a topic or a set of related topics, and many people will be talking about the same things at the same time. This very thing happened a couple of weeks ago, where a number of articles from the beer press seemed to be talking about similar things, and then craft beer fans of all ilks started to weigh in. In this case, people were talking about the state of both flagship beers and exotic beers at craft breweries.

The articles from several craft beer outlets had titles that stressed different points, from “Is Craft Beer Burning Out,” to “Are You Drinking the Right Beers,” and “A New #Flagship February Campaign Aims to Save Core Beer Brands Before They Disappear.” Despite the varied titles, they were all really discussing the same thing – has innovation in craft beer outstripped demand for classic beers and classic styles. Each of the authors seemed to have a definite opinion, and they all fell on the same side – in favor of tradition.

I will tell you up front that I don’t see anyone as evil here, or trying to hurt craft beer – even unconsciously. I see two continuums working in the world of craft beer, and they should be able to co-exist if craft beer fans recognize that not every brewery has the same model. One continuity we can call “North to South” and spans from breweries that brew only flagships/core beers to breweries that have an ever-changing tap list. The second issue could then be called “East to West” and spans from breweries/drinkers that support “to style” brewing to those breweries/drinkers that never saw an ingredient they didn’t want to add to a beer.

Sierra Nevada Pale Ale is perhaps the beer most responsible for the American craft beer movement, but sales have decreased significantly in the last two years. image credit: Sierra Nevada

As I said, these are continuums, so breweries or craft beer fans can be located anywhere from one poles to the other, or anywhere from Indonesia around to Kenya. Let’s take a look at each continuum, and see if meeting near the equator hanging out on the extremes is better for the health of craft beer. But regardless of our determination, it’s uncontestable that the drive toward more new styles and more new beers is having an effect on the industry.

North to South: Flagships to One-Offs. Most breweries these days don’t make just flagship beers, and few if any, breweries make only one-time beers. The products that helped grow craft beer (Sierra Nevada’s Pale Ale, Sam Adam’s Boston Lager, Allagash White, etc.) have struggled lately, and this has partly driven, and partly been driven by, the drinkers desire for new beers. In this way, the North-South and East-West are very much related.

Newer breweries do fewer core beers unless they have a specific niche, and the core beers they do make are less likely to be classic styles. For example, no one would have considered having an Imperial IPA as a flagship beer, but now many breweries depend on a DIPA for a significant percentage of their sales.

Many beer writers and brewers have been lamenting the downfall of the flagship beer – a beer that is always available, sells a lot, and is one of the beers most likely cited when a brewery is named. The writer Stephen Beaumont has been talking about the importance of flagship beers in the building of the craft beer movement and has instituted #FlagshipFebruary in order to support these core beers that are struggling. Most importantly, this isn’t just a bunch of oldies saying things were better in their day; flagship beers (whether they be old or new) have and do serve an important purpose for the industry.

For example, the breweries with huge systems make a lot of beer at a time – is it reasonable to expect them to have a new beer every time you walk in the door? No, but there are so many more breweries nowadays with 1.5 bbl systems making a couple hundred pints of a beer at a time; they thrive on an ever changing beer list. The sheer number of breweries doing this is pushing the industry in that direction. Small batch systems at big breweries can help, but that pretty much just adds to the regional/national brewery costs, not alleviates them. How many of us are going to be making multiple trips to the Stone Brewing taprooms every year to try their one offs? Yet they are paying for recipe development, brew time and ingredients, and label art and approval for all of those beers.

Core beers are made all the time for a reason – they are made well and sell well. image credit: Bier Brewery

Even with regard to local breweries, if they have a couple of large accounts, then they are going to spend a lot of time making the same beers over and over, with a few batches being more volume than what a lot of newer breweries make in a year. Not every craft drinker is at a taproom; many are looking for a flavorful beer at a concert or ball game. How many people do you know beyond your rabid craft beer friends who visit a hundred taprooms a year?

No, the vast majority of people have a beer at a restaurant, buy a six pack, or have a beer at a large entertainment venue. And for that vast majority, they’re going to be looking for a Two Hearted or a Deduction or an Apricot Wheat – something they know and know they like. That was a main reasons these flagships became popular and remain so. Therefore, the flagship has to remain a viable option to maintain the health of many breweries. But the trend toward new beers all the time is having an effect – flagship beer sales have been waning in the past two-three years, and it affects the bottom line for many breweries.

East to West: Classic Style Beers to Exotic Beers. So now you know – flagship beers are the products that keep much of the beer industry afloat, and what’s more, they are what allow for experimentation. This, then, is where we turn from North-South to East-West on the map of craft beer – the “to style” drinkers/brewers (looking for beers that conform to published guides for ABV, IBU, gravities, hop and malt profiles) versus the “next new trend” drinkers. While not every flagship or core beer is a “to style” beer, it is more likely that these beers will be classic styles rather than “experimental” beers, but more people today are wanting something exotic.

There are examples on each side – New Belgium’s Fat Tire is a mystery of a beer when it comes to style, yet it is a classic flagship, and Treehouse’s Julius is hardly a classic “to style” IPA, yet it’s a top seller. On the other side, Daredevil has built a huge following and reputation brewing mostly beers that fit neatly into classic style guidelines. Truthfully, both ends of this continuum are great, yet one is a bit more sustainable that the other. If you want to keep getting new beers that use new ingredients – you’d better be willing to pay more and more for them, and you had better expect the occasional fail. Meanwhile, the intense attention to classic detail and occasional foray into the exotic keeps breweries like Daredevil growing steadily – as long as people are willing to seek out those classic styles.

The same type of thing that drives a brewery to create two new brews every week is what also drives this requirement for beers that diverge from style guidelines. A large section of the consumer public is looking for a new experience every time they go out to drink. Everything moves faster these days, mostly due to technology, but it has created a population with a very short attention span and one that gets bored very quickly. Whether that’s a good thing or a bad thing can be debated, but I think it’s directly tied to the haze craze, the milkshake rage, and the pastry party.

Mega beer does alot wrong and tastes bad, but it does enjoy amazing brand loyalty. image credit: Freaks United

The flip side to this East-West continuum in craft beer is brand loyalty on the part of the drinkers. At one end is the person who is looking for the same beer every time they walk into a bar. Indeed, that’s one of the things that turns beers into flagships. It isn’t just Bud drinkers that are monstrously brand or beer loyal, and there will always be that segment of the population that is looking for a cream ale, American light lager, or blonde. And those are likely to be flagships simply because there is always going to be a market for them. On the other end of the scale, it’s more likely nowadays to find drinkers whose favorite brewery is 1000 miles from home and they only get to drink beers from them a few time a year – always something new. It isn’t everyone, but it is a growing trend. Loyalty to diversity in beers is what builds a 10,000 unique beer UnTappd list.

Some breweries and brewers (both professional and home) have a legitimate point when they lament that people are demanding riffs on styles without really understanding the styles themselves. Why doesn’t anyone stand in line to get the latest Munich Alt release? Why is it always a Russian Imperial Stout with four variants or a beer that was divided into three different kinds of barrels and then aged for eight months before being blended into a final product?

For many consumers and producers, beer should taste like beer. They argue that too many consumers, and a bunch of brewers, don’t carry that appreciation with them daily, or the knowledge of what the style guides are asking of them. They say that consumer palates are untrained, and a lot of bad beer is being unleashed on the public, with flaws being covered by strong added flavors. A major adherent to this argument – Mark Stutrud of Minneapolis’ Summit Brewing, as this stalwart in the industry proclaimed in a recent article in CityPages by Mike Mullen. I think this complaint needs a lot of qualification, because many brewers and consumers do know what they are getting into with “exotic” beers, they just happen to like them and like flexing their creative muscles.

Then there are the people who log onto UnTappd as soon as they sit down at the bar, looking for that one beer on the list they haven’t had before. A new style emerges – they have to find as many examples of it as possible. Is the brut IPA going to stick around? Who knows, but people are drinking them up right now (BTW, the President Brutarsky from Quaff On! Brewing is a great recent brut IPA). The NE IPA was that way, and now it has worked itself into a quasi-flagship status, so no one ever knows how things will go.

Lines for beer releases testify to the fact that people want what is rare and new. image credit: Beer Simple

The need to try all the beers and to find the next, new thing has created its own trend in craft beer – “the release.” Parties, variants, different packaging, whole festivals, high prices, trading sites – all of these are built around consumers’ need to get something new, and breweries’ need to profit from these expensive to make beers. No brewery opening even five years ago had to consider building in space for barrel storage, but anyone opening now better have it in mind. This drive for innovation is also a big expense. The power of the consumer is great, and in this case, the power to demand new beers is driving both creativity and cost. Can craft brewers keep it up?

Conclusion. We have described two interrelated continuums in the present environment of craft beer. The middle ground along both paths may seem like a cop out, but it is a legitimate piece of ground on which to reside. I drink flagships and I seek out a brewery’s new release. I appreciate and buy bocks and kolschs, but I won’t turn my nose up at a beer made with gummy bears or deviled eggs. I’d say that I reside on the equator, about halfway between the Far East and the Old West. However, a large migration in craft beer drinkers is under way to the southwest, moving toward new beers all the time and having those beers be less classic in style.

Luckily, we have people who feel strongly on both ends of each continuum. Those people that drink only flagships keep the industry strong, and those people that drink only classic styles keep brewing honest and tied to the past. But just as important are the brewers and drinkers that crave creativity and selection, for they drive the industry forward. People who feel strongly about one aspect of the industry help to center everyone else and to not push us too far off an any direction. Without those fanatics (used in the best sense of the word), the industry could get off the rails of stable and continued growth. It is in this spirit that #FlagshipFebraury is a great thing.

In the end, breweries will make the beers that people will buy; craft beer is a business after all. But balance helps growth, so people should embrace the merits of both flagships and one-offs, of both classic styles and innovative beers. We don’t want the question to become – is craft beer going to create it’s way into an era where a large number of breweries aren’t going to survive? But just as important – if too many breweries stagnate and don’t continue to move forward, does craft beer risk just becoming a more expensive version of mega-beer?


banner image credit: This is Why I’m Drunk

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