The Fast Rise and Slow Death of Pete's Wicked Ale

Imagine the world of American brewing in 1980 like you would a new continent. The first pioneers had landed, set up a beachhead, and were prepared to fan out and stake their claims. At that moment, none of them knew much about the continent, nor which places would later be considered prime real estate. Like little kings, they began planting flags: Fritz Maytag on the state called "steam beer," Ken Grossman in "Pale Aleland." I remember these early days clearly, as skirmishes broke out in the Northwest. Amber ales (Portland Brewing's MacTarnahan's v. Full Sail Amber) and hefeweizens (Pyramid v. Widmer) were hot properties. In Bend, Gary Fish wondered if he could build an empire on some scraggly brush land no one seemed to highly regard: Porterlandia.

Nationally, one of the most successful companies was Pete's Wicked, which from shortly after its founding until the "great shakeout" of the late 90s was the country's second largest craft brewery. It's sort of wild to imagine, but the flagship brand was Wicked Ale, a brown. I was put in mind of this as I perused this question of "foundational" beers. Back in about 1995, you could have been forgiven for thinking that the future of craft brewing was going to be brown ales and Vienna lagers. Instead, earlier this year, Jay Brooks broke the news that the brand would end production in May. Gambrinus (of the Shiner, BridgePort, Trumer Gambrinuses) bought Pete's out in 1998, just at the moment its star began to dim.

The story of Pete's is an interesting case study in brewing failures of the 90s, but it's too often told as a business story. What fascinates me is the failure of the style to take hold. In that great land grab, founder Pete Slosberg went all-in on browns, and for a decade it looked like Shangri-la. But then something happened; tastes changed, the market evolved, and now you can't give browns away. So what happened?

In my "foundational beer" post, I posited that one beer's success can help define tastes that create a market for beers of that type. Whether that's true or not, it's obvious some styles do gather momentum, while others lose it--sometimes completely. I posit no theories here, but I'd be interested in hearing if you have some. Such as:
  • In the 1990s, lots and lots of people drank and enjoyed brown ales. What happened?
  • What causes styles to wax and wane in popularity?
  • Are there current styles that sell very well that we may regard, from 2025, as bizarre anomalies, like the browns of 1995?
I mean really, brown ales. What the ... ?