The Stories Breweries Tell

What causes us to like certain beers and certain breweries? What force guides our hand to one product at the store and not another? We think we are the masters of these choices, but something deeper is at play. In the second of a two-part series, I examine the role of breweries in this process. Read part one here.

In part one of this series, I discussed how complex—if subconscious—our relationship to beer is. We may believe our opinions about beers we like are purely objective and based entirely on its flavors and aromas, but if we look closer we see that’s not the case. So, if our relationship to a beer isn’t solely about the liquid, what role do breweries play in all this? How does their presentation influence what you buy?

This is an increasingly relevant question. Until a few years ago, breweries didn’t have to spend a lot of time thinking about the stories they were telling (intentionally or inadvertently), because so long as the beer was interesting and decent, more and more people bought it.

Well, now they’re not always buying it. In the past couple years, we’ve seen a lot of flagships declining—sometimes by alarming rates. But amid these declines, some brands are stubbornly successful. One of the more remarkable feats in brewing is the success of Bell’s Two Hearted IPA, despite being over two decades old and being decidedly off trend: it ain’t hazy, isn’t made with juicy, nouveau hops, and has a fairly thick caramel backbone. It’s a great beer, but does anyone think that a perfect clone in a different bottle would sell like Two Hearted?

Or take Sam Adams Boston Lager, which is inarguably a wonderful beer. For decades, lagers struggled among craft beer drinkers—until a few years ago. For the first time, lagers are in a sustained growth period, but Sam’s continues to post double-digit declines. What’s going on?

It Begins With Identity

It’s a problem with the story. In fact, there’s often something more profound happening—a problem with the brewery’s identity. This isn’t a word you’ll find in most marketing handbooks—I’m no marketer—where brand is king, but for breweries and their fans, it’s a critical foundation on which everything stands. When I write about anything, I always begin with the elemental nature of a thing; it’s the critical first step in knowing how to describe that thing.

Beer drinkers have always had personal, intimate connections to beer. We take it into our body, usually with friends, and it becomes a substance that inflects and enhances experience. It is literally a mood-altering product, and this gives it the potential to make a more potent connection than most products. Over time, favorite beer brands becomes a matter of pride and connection to place. (This was true long before craft beer.) The result is that drinkers “know” a brewery intimately, through a basket of inputs that include the beer, the brewery and location, the different brands, the perception of quality, status, memory, nostalgia, and instinct. All of these things together become the brewery’s identity, something held in trust between drinker and brewery. When a brewery has attended to that identity and communicates it consistently, you get a Bell’s. When they have failed to do so, or worse, undermined it, you get a Sam Adams.

Identity is like personality—breweries can evolve and change, but they must do so in a way that is consistent with their identity. Sam Adams was once a small little concern proudly fighting the giants; two years ago it ousted Bud as the beer of Fenway Park. It’s identity has evolved, but as with a person who grows into adulthood, the size itself doesn’t break the sense of its identity. That happens when the brewery strays from its identity, the mask slips, and drinkers, who have cultivated that complex relationship to the brewery, no longer recognize it.

Here Bell’s and Sam Adams offer a useful contrast. Both are old, large legacy breweries. Both created brands based on reflecting a place—Michigan and Boston. Finally, in an early era where small breweries didn’t always make good beer, they built reputations for stellar quality. Bell’s, despite growth, has remained steadfast to that identity even while evolving. It has grown past its original small brewery and now has many moving parts and different projects, but all of them work in harmony so that the identity of the brewery remains as visible and authentic to drinkers as it was a generation ago. It is still the case that to drink a Bell’s is an act of local pride. The brewery’s identity is Michigan. I see that especially here in Oregon, where Midwesterners still scramble to a Bell’s handle with a zeal that reminds me of a Packer fan responding to the name “Aaron Rodgers.”

Sam Adams, which I discuss at length below, has not managed to keep its identity through periods of growth throughout the past decade. The problem has less to do with the products it has released then how it has kept on top of its own story. Unlike Bell’s, people no longer have a clear sense of who Sam’s is.

Who Tells the Story?

In the first part of this discussion, I talked about all the subtle, subliminal ways we relate to beer. What we think of as an objective assessment of a beer is actually composed by scores of mostly-unnoticed inputs that work in concert to form our opinion. In that post, I described beer less as a liquid than a story we tell ourselves. Breweries participate in this process by the myriad cues they send, which can either clarify their identity (Bell’s) or confuse it (Sam Adams). Collectively, all the decisions a brewery makes about its beer, its presentation, and its communications will create its own “story.”

I don’t know how branding and marketing whizzes think about this, but as a writer, it looks like a literary project to me. The tools of storytelling include strong characters, engaging narrative, key themes, and emotion, and all of these need to be communicated coherently in an identifiable structure. Beer and breweries aren’t literally stories, but when I look at successful brands, I see the presence of these elements.

Have a look at Hamm’s, one of the many old national brands that was remarkably sophisticated in building identity and conveying a story. With its “land of sky-blue waters” approach, Hamm’s projected the themes of purity and naturalness. These were not spoken, but they suffused everything the brand communicated. The can features a deep-blue color that recalls a lake under clear, summer skies, and that merges seamlessly into the decades-long commercials touting “Hamm’s, the beer refreshing.” Summer lakes, refreshment, fun, and purity—it pushes all the buttons of a great story. Throw in the bear, and you even have a protagonist to take you into this world.

Craft breweries have a much different task—they sell a menu of products, sometimes dozens. Their stories are more complex, which is always more challenging. A few have done this well and offer great case studies. Let’s start with Allagash, one of the most consistent brands in the world. Rob Tod started with a concept of doing Belgian ales, and Allagash White became a signature beer in New England. As the brewery grew and expanded, he took that inspiration and built on it. The introduction of the spontaneous program allowed the brewery to inflect its Belgian roots with its Maine location, and as the brewery has evolved it has an identity inspired by European tradition but one now rooted very firmly in New England. It has cultivated a themes of rustic sophistication, terroir, and cuisine-friendly beer. Everything it does, from its photos to communications to new beers, all work to enhance this story.

Dogfish Head is another brewery that has known itself since day one. Generally speaking, mottoes are overrated, but rarely has anything offered a clearer sense of vision than “off-centered ales for off-centered people.” Headed by one of the most visible and charismatic figures in brewing, Dogfish has always projected an image of experimentation and fun. From the early explorations of hop techniques in the -Minute IPAs through the evocations of ancient ales, the invention of the Randall, and all the way through SeaQuench, the first kettle-soured beer to find a mass audience, Dogfish has always been on point. It helps to have a front man like Sam, so that his lighthearted, self-effacing humor becomes a theme of a brewery that not only doesn’t take itself too seriously, but doesn’t expect you to, either.

Breweries get in trouble when they begin to lose the plot. Let’s return to Sam Adams as a contrasting example. For decades, the company’s identity was inseparable from Boston Lager, and it did a great job telling that story. The problem emerged when Boston Lager’s sales flattened, and Sam’s began casting around for other ways to keep production up. As new concepts rolled out (Rebel, nitro, etc), they didn’t help tell the Sam Adams story, and eventually each one failed.

This was unfortunate from a sales perspective, but it was far more damaging to the Sam Adams story. Breweries need to release new products to augment or replace outdated flagships. But doing so changes the story, and breweries need to not just be aware of that, but actively knit it into the existing story. In fiction, writers create a facsimile of reality and ask readers to suspend their disbelief. If writers do their jobs right, nothing in the story will contradict the rules of that invented world. When a writer errs, however, it can cause the whole thing to come crashing down—now the reader no longer trusts the story. That’s what happens to breweries that go off in random directions. They contradict the rules of their own story. Consumers, with their complex, emotional relationship to breweries, need to see the thread that connects the new direction to the core identity. Sam’s has undermined not just the sales of its own products, but customer’s emotional connection to the brewery.

And here’s where breweries should be really cautious. There is always a story. That’s how humans think. The question becomes who is telling the story of the brewery. In the case of Dogfish and Allagash, the breweries are largely creating the narrative. But with Sam Adams, the story is now in the hands of consumers, for whom a big part of Sam’s story is one of confusion and wandering.

Even though I’ve droned on forever in this post, a lot more could be said about the components of storytelling—the nuts and bolts of each message, the audience, different mediums, and so on. This is probably more than enough. Creating a “story” is a long-term project, and one with scores of moving parts. It’s hard work to align all the pieces, but when breweries don’t attend to this process, they don’t just lose the opportunity to tell their story, they lose control of their story entirely. And reconstructing it becomes a far, far more difficult task than attending to it in the first place.