Chasing Trends and Trashing Brands
I have long extolled the communication between brewery and drinker that results, step by step, new beer release by new beer release, in something unique to place. That process has given us the lagers of bavaria and the lambics of Brussels. Breweries have to be responsive to the tastes of their consumers, too; otherwise the whole process stops in its tracks.
There is a similar but far less laudable practice: chasing trends. This is not merely when a brewery tries a new style, ingredient, or technique that seems to be gaining traction, but rather when they identify a particularly popular product and recreate it as close to identically as possible. This is not communicating with customers, it's opportunism. It's a phenomenon that seems to strike at those moments when breweries are starting to have excess capacity and the excess anxiety that comes along with it. In the 1990s, I remember when wheat beers became a thing, followed soon by fruited wheat beers. Fads came and went as breweries went looking for something that would sell long enough to keep the brewhouse rolling for another season.
This is recurring now in the form of grapefruit IPAs, golden ales, and New England (cloudy) IPAs. Recently, Patrick and I were doing a podcast on whether or not craft beer is doomed (give it a listen!)--a riff on a doomy op-ed of the same title by Boston Beer's Jim Koch--and we decided to taste some of the recent offerings of the larger craft breweries that have been in the news for their listing sales. Surprise!--they all contained citrus. As we were tasting Sidecar Orange Pale by Sierra Nevada, something crystalized in my brain. I get why breweries built on selling large amounts of beer have to continue selling large amounts of beer. And I therefore get why the allure of a hot, trendy beer style that can help keep capacity up for that next season or two draws them to chasing trends.
But this propensity, at least for many breweries, is a really bad idea in the mid- and long-term. What follows is hunch-based analysis; I don't have hard data to back it up. As someone who has watched breweries closely for thirty years and looked at least passingly into brewing history, I nevertheless feel confident data would confirm it. Also, because the consequences are so large, it also feels like something we should at least be discussing.
Here's the thing: breweries are unusual businesses. They make a product to which their customers have a strong sense of emotion. This long predates craft beer--for generations, people have attached themselves to Miller or Hamm's or Budweiser with something like the zeal they favor their hometown baseball teams. European breweries, far older, also rely on this emotion to connect to their customers. In fact, that heady blend of social connection, beer, and even religion go back to before the dawn of civilization. It's a real and powerful thing.
When breweries are building up their "brands," what they're actually building is this connection. The personalities of breweries are as different as those of humans--think of Sierra Nevada, Hill Farmstead, Schlenkerla, and Genesee. To go back to that communication of the first paragraph, they are built in collaboration with their drinkers, who begin to expect that the beer will embody that personality. Breweries have a fair amount of latitude to release beers that may send their customers to a new flavor realm, but only to a point. Schlenkerla can release a smoky helles and weissbier, but put out an unsmoky IPA and customers will blanch.
Chasing trends damages this communication. Sam Adams has been doing it so long that people regularly question whether it's craft beer or not (see Forbes, FiveThirtyEight, and Bryan Roth for more). Boston Beer has made a series of decisions that may have resulted in short-term profits--spinning off alcoholic apple juice, tea, and seltzer divisions--but they enhanced the sense that this was a big company as bland and personality-free as Kellogg's or Proctor and Gamble. No one could ever fault Sam Adams for failing to release new beers, but the ever-multiplying new lines of random beer types (IPAs, barrel-aged beers, nitro cans) has created a brewery with no there there. If Jim Koch wanted, at this late date, to take Sam Adams back to its roots, where exactly would that be? Those short-term decisions grew the volume, but they left a company bereft of identity, unable to rely on a passionate customer base ready to buy their next beer for any reason other than price point. (Predictably, sales of recent releases like Hopscape and Fresh as Helles have been anemic.)
Sierra Nevada is not in that boat ... yet. People like me will forgive them for putting out a peach IPA and orange pale ale, so long as they return to their habit of developing beers they're interested in that almost immediately set the standard for the style. (Call to mind Kellerweis and Nooner and Hop Hunter and Narwhal.) They are afforded broad discretion for experimentation through their Beer Camp project, which simultaneously underscores their commitment to community and innovation. There is a soul to Sierra Nevada, and a couple bad releases haven't changed that. It's a worrying trend, though, because that soul can't survive doing it many more times.
If you'd like cautionary tales, the Pacific Northwest is littered with them: BridgePort, Redhook, Portland Brewing, with Rogue forever teetering on the edge of the abyss. BridgePort is perhaps the best example because twenty years ago it had among the most rock-solid identities and one of the best beers in the business. But over the past decade no brewery has released more random beers that had no relation to that identity than BridgePort--wave after wave of them. Many were decent beers, some were even great. But they had the aggregate effect of disengaging customers, and as a not-shocking consequence, sales in Oregon dropped 50% in three years. And I assume that some of the current citrus IPAs and golden ales out there are good or great, too--but they in almost no cases are good for the long-term health of the breweries making them.
We've talked in the past about how the flagship model is no longer a safe one. But its opposite--making whatever beer seems to be lighting up the IRI scan charts at any given time--is worse. The flagship is the central product that helps create identity; it's the beer people develop that emotional connection to. Trend beers make the brand disposable and damage that connection. Short-term damage control can lead to long-term damage, as BridgePort has discovered.
I'll leave it there--I've belabored the point long enough and you see where I'm going. Basically: create the trends, don't follow them. It may mean sacrificing sales in the short term, but the health of a brewery is more important--and that health begins with a brewery's connection to its fans, not the beer it can rush out of the building to sustain sales another few months.