Is There a Reason Some Beers Take Off?
When Firestone Walker started brewing Honey Blonde Ale, it was not a revolutionary beer. It’s safe to say that since the dawn of craft brewing, versions of this beer have been made thousands of times in breweries and brewpubs around the country. And yet it was this blonde ale, renamed 805 in 2012, that took off, sparked scores of copy-cats, and now constitutes 60% of the brewery’s output.
The million-dollar question is why. Why Firestone Walker and why 805—and how do you reproduce this success?
I’ve been thinking a lot lately about how and why certain beers take off. Is it purely chance, a confluence of conditions that is wholly unpredictable? Or is there a ghost somewhere in the machine, an invisible hand pulling levers and creating those conditions that, to the causal eye, appear random? Here’s a hypothesis: it’s not random, and if we look at a few examples, we’ll see how breweries spent years taking actions that made these successes possible.
A Strong Identity
It starts with a clear identity. Breweries have personalities, presences that we recognize. These are more elemental qualities than branding, which is something like the clothes breweries put on to express their personalities. In the case of Firestone Walker, the brewery had spent nearly two decades building an identity that fused Californian effortlessness with a commitment to quality (51 GABF medals and counting) and an idiosyncratic, virtuosic beer line. Although the original identity revolved around British styles, Firestone’s range gradually expanded, and as it did, customers’ trust in the brewery grew. As they expanded into other styles, their customers followed them into new terrain. That reputation of quality vouched for new releases, and as long as the beer kept delivering, fans were willing to follow. A hoppy pilsner? Sure. Modern IPAs, absolutely. Wild ales? Let’s give them a try.
These conditions were in place when 805 started pouring. Blonde ales have historically been a tough sell because of their low flavor impact; they were often the beer offered as a substitute for mass market lagers. If a brewery was known for more assertive beers, they didn’t fit the identity and were ignored by the core audience. Multinational breweries have made them as a step away from mass market lagers, but in those cases they fell into the uncanny beer valley: not different enough from lagers, not expressive enough to be craft.
805 was different. It was introduced by a highly-respected brewery and so the core customers came to it with an open mind. It was a brewer-led beer, made to be the best example of a modest style, sold on draft to no fanfare. Paso Robles is roaring hot in the summer and warm most of the year, so it had the virtue of being a perfect beer for place. Its popularity grew organically as all these factors built on themselves. The beer may not have been “innovative” or “unique,” but it was right within Firestone’s identity of quality, effortlessness (California mellow), and place.
IPAs and Off-Centered Ales
A couple other examples. Ballast Point released Grapefruit Sculpin a year later, in 2013. It is credited with starting the trend of citrus IPAs—aptly so—but it wasn’t the first one ever made. I remember seeing them in Portland as early as 2010, and the debut Fruit Beer Fest In 2011 featured several—sparking a trend that was a couple years old by the release of Grapefruit Sculpin.
What made Grapefruit Sculpin the avatar for citrus IPAs comes back to identity. Ballast Point was one of the OGs of the San Diego scene, and its flagship Sculpin was quintessentially West Coast, with a citrusy smack at the center of the fruity punch. Ballast was commanding obscene prices for its hoppy beers because everyone wanted them. They made other beer styles, but their identity rested on the IPAs that define San Diego. Grapefruit Sculpin took off because it was just so obvious and right for the brand. Other breweries had had some success with citrus IPAs, but under Ballast it went thermonuclear.
Finally, let’s move to a more recent example, Dogfish’s SeaQuench, released just a couple years ago. This is going to start sounding familiar, but it was ... not the first example of the style. I remember being on my book tour for the Beer Bible in 2015 and every place I went seemed to have a fruit gose on tap. I even noted the trend at the time. None of them sold very well, and by the time SeaQuench was launched, the boomlet was waning.
Dogfish did some things right where other breweries erred—like not calling it a gose, for example. (My free tip of the day: if the style name is unknown to your customers and hard to pronounce, don’t use it on the label.) They successfully communicated what the beer would taste like on the label, successfully getting people to make the first purchase. But it was also a perfect fit for a brewery that had been releasing beers like this for twenty years.
Fruit goses are tasty little beers that hit the market in a hugely underserved area, appealing to a demographic that doesn’t drink 7% IPAs. Because of who Dogfish is, this beer both found its audience and made sense to it. When other breweries made lime goses, they were oddball beers that didn’t connect with customers. People are attracted to Dogfish because of its “off-center” identity, so a beer that was juicy and tart and salty—sort of a beery margarita—made them nod with recognition.
Success Comes After Careful Planning
The point of all of this is to say a beer by itself isn’t enough. If a brewery makes a golden or a gose or a grapefruit IPA and they don’t reflect the brewery’s personality, they’re usually not going to strike a chord. There’s actually a logic to why people like certain beers, and it has to do with those pieces of brand, identity, and expectation breweries put into place over years. Put it another way. If we think the formula is: 1) have a brewery, 2) brew a good beer, then success looks random.
It’s not random, though, it’s just a multi-step process. If we take the cases I mentioned, it looks more like this:
Make a family of beers that establish a clear identity over the course of years.
Build a strong brand that communicates a brewery’s identity.
Build a relationship with customers.
Release beers that are firmly within the brewery’s wheelhouse, made to exceptional standards.
Be patient because even when a brewery follows these steps, most beers will not be big hits.
It’s not possible to manufacture the conditions that will flawlessly produce success. But success is also not random. It comes to breweries that have put the time in beforehand. We can’t predict which beers are going to become hits, but we can see that in most cases, that success came to breweries that were very deliberate about their approach.
This is a bit of a corollary, or the inverse example, of a case I made last year: Chasing Trends and Trashing Brands. If you thought I wasn’t completely off base here, you might like that one, too.