In the book, Start with Why, Simon Sinek tells a story about how the American car manufacturing industry created the norm of cash back incentives for new car purchases. This expectation eventually led to bankruptcy filings when the system was no longer viable. At one point, Chevrolet sold cars at a $700 loss. Once the car manufactures removed the costly incentive program, people stopped buying their vehicles in droves. I see a similar problem in the craft beer industry.
Most craft beer drinkers (myself included) are loyal to the overall movement but not to a particular brand. Whereas most macro lager drinkers are loyal to their brand, like Pepsi/Cocoa Cola brand loyalty. If you are Coke drinker and have ever walked into a restaurant only to be disappointed that they serve Pepsi products, you know what brand loyalty feels like. If you are a craft beer drinker and walk into a restaurant, you don’t have that same let down if the establishment offers a beer you have never tried. Since the craft beer drinking crowd is on an endless hunt for the latest and greatest beer, it causes most breweries to continually come up with new and exciting offerings. This endless consumer driven hunt for new beer could potentially destroy classic American craft beer offerings.
A local brewery packages and self-distributes its flagship offerings (English IPA, Oatmeal Stout, English Brown Ale) and serves a rotation of seasonal offerings in their modest tap room. The flagship beer they produce is well made and as a high-end craft beer connoisseur, I truly appreciate that they make a stylistically accurate English IPA and Brown ale. If you are a true beer drinker, you know those styles are hard to come by in the American market. The pain point this brewery has revolves around the endless release of seasonal and one-off beer. People in the market pass by well-made beer because of the “Oh, I’ve had that before” mentality. I wish this problem was limited in its scope, but alas, it’s endemic.
It is impossible to concisely list out classic American Craft Beer offerings, but for arguments sake, let me just name a few:
Samuel Adams Boston Lager, Brooklyn Lager, Sierra Nevada Pale Ale, Ballast Point Grunion Pale Ale, Kona Big Wave Golden Ale, New Belgium Fat Tire, Rogue Amber Ale, Dogfish Head 60min IPA, Bell’s Two Hearted Ale, Bell’s Best Brown, Cigar City Maduro Brown Ale, Anchor Porter, Deschutes Black Butte Porter, North Coast Old No. 38, Sierra Nevada Stout.
I tried to name accessible beer across popular styles, so that anyone reading this article can find 50% of these in their local market. Notice that none of the beer listed are seasonal offerings or have any of the latest trends incorporated into them (fruit additions, barrel aging, the word citra/mosaic in their title, etc.). Every single beer on this list is perfectly executed and a standard bearer for their style.
I was just like anyone else, I consumed these offerings at one point but put them aside as I continued on my quest to try new beer. A couple things happened to me personally that opened my eyes to the greatness brewed in classic flagship brands. I spent an extended period of time in another country that did not have a drinking culture. Because of this, I only had access to Amstel Light and Heineken for months on end. I had a decent layover in JFK on my return flight home so I did what any good beer drinker would do, I bellied up to the bar for a couple pints. Luckily for me the airport bar had limited offerings and I decided to go with a Boston Lager. I will never forget that first whiff of malt and hops after only consuming Amstel Light for months. The noble hops exploded off the effervescent collar of foam. The perfect balance of malt sweetness and hop bitterness was a thing of beauty. My first thought was, “Damn it feels good to be back in America”. My second thought, “Wow, I don’t remember Sam Adams Boston Lager being this good”. If there was an IPA on draught that was aged on White Oak, you know damn well I would have had that and gone on living my life in ignorance of the quality flagship products gracing our draught lines. The second event that changed my beer drinking life was my quest to become a Certified Cicerone®. To pass this test, one must become a student of 71 different beer styles. The syllabus forces you to taste and understand each style, causing one to actually drink the OGs (original gangsters not original gravity). It was then, that I fell in love with the classic beer offerings once again. The problem we face today is that most consumers do not have situations causing one to pause and think critically about the beer offerings in their market. This is creating a vicious cycle. Consumers are endlessly searching for something new. Some breweries are scratching that itch by creating seasonal offerings. Which in turn, causes consumers to look past quality beer in favor of something they have never tried before. This then causes other breweries to match their peers and provide their own seasonal offerings or spin-offs of flagship beer. Does anyone have a hard time finding a grapefruit IPA these days? This doesn’t just impact the on-premise market. I routinely see 4 different flavored options of a popular IPA (reg, grapefruit, pineapple, habanero) which allows this brewery to have 4 shelf spots making it harder for other beer to be sold. I am not against a company producing variations that allow for increased shelf space. What I am worried about is the consumer bypassing classic beer because of the “I’ve had that before” mentality. This is now causing the best production craft breweries to change their flagship offerings. Look no further than Tangerine Pale Ale by Sierra Nevada. The regular Sierra Nevada Pale Ale already has amazing citrus aroma and flavor. We are just too quick to pass it by because there are other offerings on the menu with the word grapefruit or tangerine in the name. Another example of quality beer that gets passed by is the classic Stone Ruination Double IPA. The interesting thing about watching people pass this by on the shelf is the consumer flocks to limited offerings by the same brewery! Stone made a limited series that causes consumers to pass up their own flagship DIPA. The Enjoy By IPA series by Stone flies off of the shelf for two reasons. First, it has changes in the recipe from time to time (unfiltered, tangerine, black IPA, etc.) and creates vintages by dating the name of the beer allowing everyone on Untappd to reach for arbitrary badge goals. Second, Stone uses the classic marketing technique of a countdown timer to cause consumers to make a purchase decision before time runs out. I don’t believe Stone started this series with the intent of using a common marketing and sales technique. I believe they want everyone to drink their IPAs as fresh as possible because that is when they taste the best. But if you were to look at any Stone IPA product, you will find an Enjoy By date etched on the bottle. People flock to buy up this beer while it is fresh (within 37 days of packaging) and pass by the good ole Stone Ruination IPA.
I believe we as Americans should drink what we want. If you want a Grapefruit IPA, then go have one. I still try new and exciting beer because it is fun. At the same time, I realize that I didn’t fall in love with craft beer by having a bourbon barrel aged imperial stout or a pineapple IPA. It is important that we, the craft beer drinking community, take time to enjoy the classic flagship offerings on a regular basis for two reasons. First, it is a wonderful experience if you take time to slow your life down long enough to enjoy a classic beer without any distractions. Second, and more importantly, we need the classics around to introduce new drinkers to craft beer. Don’t hand them a White Oak Jai Alai if it is their first time having an IPA. Reach for a regular Jai Alai or any of the IPAs listed above. Have that Sierra Nevada Pale Ale again for the first time. Let it warm up a little so the malt backbone shows itself. Look for those citrus flavors and pay attention to the hop balance.
The car manufacturer story is a cautionary tale that the beer industry and consumers need to ponder together. Craft beer consumers expect endless variety just like car buyers expected cash back incentives. What happens when an independent craft brewery decides not to produce an ever-expanding list of seasonal offerings to focus on perfect execution of their flagships? Will consumers reward them for that behavior? If you are The Alchemist Brewery you will probably be just fine, everyone else, good luck! There is also an inverse question to ask. If you the consumer only buy seasonal and one-off beer offerings, what will happen to those amazing OGs you used as a jump off point along your craft beer journey to flavor nirvana? For me personally, it sucks to see Sierra Nevada create Side Car Orange Pale Ale. I get why they are doing it and it isn’t their fault. It is all of ours. When New Belgium’s Citradelic Tangerine IPA rockets to become their second-best seller in only one year, Sierra Nevada must react or risk losing revenue. It is easy to say we will always be able to find the OGs in retail stores and that more variety equals a better beer scene. I am not convinced this is entirely true. So from one beer snob to another, keep a healthy stock of traditional craft beer in your home. Learn to pair it with your food and don’t be afraid to introduce your non-beer drinking friends to some of the standard bearers.