From the Brewer or the Marketing Department?

Every brewery wants to identify that one beer that will catch fire among consumers. Different breweries approach product development in different ways, and there's no algorithm for success. A recent glance at best-sellers, however, reveals an important trend.

A few weeks back, a friend sent me the following graphic. It comes from Nielsen, and I believe represents December sales (but don't quote me on that)--anyway, recent sales.

His interest was the miraculous growth of Elysian's Space Dust--to which I believe he appended a wry comment about it being the top "craft" grower of the year. Fair enough--those are some impressive numbers. But I assume this means ABI has plugged Space Dust into their national production model--farming the beer out to one of the Bud plants and giving it a nationwide push. That's always going to result in huge numbers; the question is whether there's organic demand out there to sustain demand. (Goose Island's Honkers Ale got a similar treatment in 2011-'12 and ... well, you can't exactly find Honkers in convenience stores in Houston right now.)

What really attracted my eye were three different line items: Founder's All-Day IPA, Firestone Walker's 805, and Bell's Two Hearted. The Two Hearted numbers are truly amazing. In craft beer terms, the beer is a relic, with an orangy, lightly caramel--and relatively thick--body and pure Centennial hopping. It even has a classic woodland label characteristic of beers of the 80s and early 90s. This is precisely the kind of flagship beer that is dying in portfolios across the country. I have absolutely no way to account for its sales growth.

Firestone's 805 is less weird, but only just. It is a straightforward golden ale, with no modern frills like layers of late addition hopping, kettle-souring, or unusual yeasts. Like kolsches in Cologne, there's something about this unassuming little style that really captured the fancy of locals, and perhaps that's as much as we can say.

Finally, All-Day IPA makes superficial sense--low ABV, high-flavor beers have been driving growth throughout the craft segment. But All-Day was introduced way back in 2010 (a year before IPAs became the most popular craft style). It is popular because Founders hit on something years before it metastasized into a national trend.

Source: Bell's Brewery

I stared at that list for awhile, trying to make sense of these different shooting stars, when a thought occurred. Not every red-hot beer is made the same--literally. Some are conceived in the brewhouse and gain popularity naturally, as bottom-up interest arises from drinkers. Others are conceived in the marketing department. Because Two Hearted was on the list--chugging along decades after its release--I wondered if there was something different in these two approaches.

Let's delve into a little recent history to remind ourselves of how the first model works. Jeremy Kosmicki, Founders' co-founder, described to VinePair how All-Day evolved.

It started back in our taprooms when we stopped making our normal lager and wanted to keep something light on tap for the Bud Light drinkers who were hanging out with their craft beer friends. It started as something called Extra Pale and then became Solid Gold and to be honest, these were pretty bland light beers. We thought, why not take this concept of making a light, easy drinking beer and put some dry hops in there and make something that we actually want to drink. Something that has flavor.
— Jeremy Kosmicki, Founders

That same process happened in California with 805. Like All-Day (formerly Endurance Ale), it started out with a different name, and was released like so many other beers in the taproom. For entirely unexplainable reasons, it found an audience. Firestone Co-founder David Walker told KEYT how 805 took off.

What I mean about bootleg... they drive into one of our retailers in the central coast, load up a van and then drive the beer into southern California or northern California.
— David Walker, Firestone Walker

The process Walker and Kosmicki describe would not formerly have counted as unusual in the craft segment. Basically every popular beer made by a successful craft brewery had a similar story. There was a process of development by the brewery (beginning in the mind of a brewer), a reaction by consumers, often an evolution of the beer, followed by broad popularity. You may yawn now.

That process is no longer universal.

American brewing long ago passed into its post-craft phase. The extremely aggressive push big beer has made into the craft sector has accelerated a cycle they perfected: quickly identifying trends, figuring out how to adopt and market them, and then sending a dispatch to the brewers about what to brew next. "Brewing beer" in this mode means crafting liquid widgets that respond to a very specific marketing niche. When deployed by big beer, this process both capitalizes on trends and kills them; because marketing-generated trends are disposable, no actual, organic human being can develop an emotional connection to them. They run their course and die.

Craft breweries have taken up this practice, and now when a beer like 805 or All-Day comes out, it's a sure bet that most of the largest breweries in America will release a knock-off within a year or two. Dogfish Head's SeaQuench is the latest hit, and you can bet your bottom dollar summer 2018 will be filled with salty lime sours. (Or perhaps lemon--because "innovation.")

The Two Hearted fan club has grown over a much longer period of time than 805 or All-Day, but the love of that beer is probably unrivaled in American craft brewing. From time to time, Bell's makes an appearance in Oregon, and Midwesterners go crazy. They speak about Two Hearted like it is potion of equal parts nostalgia and joy with the power to put the drinker in a state of sustained happiness. I don't know All-Day's fan base as well (Founders has never been a big thing on the West Coast), but since it constitutes 50% of the brewery's sales, I'm guessing it's fairly rabid. And 805 owes its success entirely to local love.

I suppose these beers could completely collapse in the next year or two, but that kind of devotion seems unlikely to vanish. At worst, they will begin to tail off and slowly give way in the company's portfolio to an new champion. Indeed, that was the case at Firestone Walker. In that KEYT story from three years ago, David Walker mentioned that their old workhorse had become the second fiddle. "For the longest time DBA, that was our number one beer, it's still a very popular beer, but this is slowly becoming our lead dog in the local market," he said.

I am not a brewery owner or a marketing professional, and so my observations should be valued appropriately. Nevertheless, as the market continues to tighten, the lessons of Two Hearted, All-Day, and 805 seem valuable to acknowledge.

Jeff Alworth9 Comments