Constructive Criticism: Has Full Sail Lost Its "Soul?"

"Constructive Criticism" is an irregular feature in which I speak frankly about an example of a brewery not meeting their own highest standards. Today I turn my attention to Full Sail and the way in which the brewery's constantly expanding list of bottled products offer variety without much interest.

Full Sail Brewing is a charter member of that club of founding-era regional companies that helped establish craft brewing and grew to become one of the most successful (It is the 39th-largest American brewery). But like so many in the club, it finds itself caught between two impulses. On the one hand, the brewery wants to protect its proud heritage of introducing landmark beers; their Amber Ale was one of the most important early "microbrews" in the Northwest (and was distinctive because it had featured substantial hopping), they were one of the first breweries to barrel-age beer, and their introduction of Session pre-dated the current trend of retro lagers by a decade. On the other hand, Full Sail needs to figure out a way to evolve and appeal to drinkers under thirty.

Over the weekend, my hand came into possession of IPApaya, one of the proliferating number of new fruit beers Full Sail has recently released. It is emblematic of the problem they seemed to have wandered into. As a beer, IPApaya is ... okay. But it’s neither distinctive enough to cut through the competition nor normal enough to become a standard. It seems to have been conceived as a one more flavor alternative in an ongoing march of new products.

Since 2016, Full Sail has released Citrus Maxima (a pale ale), Blood Orange Wheat, Black Cherry Session (now discontinued), and Tangerine Twist Session. It's not just fruit beers, either. In the last couple years, a barrage of new bottled products have gushed from Hood River. A (probably imcomplete) list: Sesión Negra Mexican Style Lager, Sesión Cerveza Mexican Style Lager, Hop Shooter IPA, Oatmeal Pale Ale (discontinued), Exit 63 Blonde Ale (discontinued), Harrington's Bourbon Aged Northwest Red Ale. This summer, the brewery is launching Airstream IPA, a session IPA, the name and label of which are clearly a direct response to Founder's All Day IPA. 

But this isn’t a post about brand strategy. In the past, I’ve already discussed the dangers of diluting a brand with too many new line extensions. I'm more interested in the actual beer.

Soulful Vs Soulless

When I cracked the bottle of IPApaya, I was initially intrigued. It vented an unusual fruit scent and hinted that it may offer something new and unexpected. Unfortunately, that impression drifted away when I put it in my mouth. The beer is very, very clean and balanced to the point of innocuousness. That unusual aroma became barely a suggestion on the palate, and came across more like honeydew melon than papaya. As I drank through and finished the beer, it seemed to lose flavor and character with each sip. There's not a single thing to complain about--it's a very well-made beer--but there's also nothing to hold a drinker's interest.

There's an irony about this. Back when Full Sail was born in 1987, microbreweries existed as a critique of American beer. There was nothing wrong with the quality of mass market lagers at the time, either, but for the pioneering micros, the problem was in the absence of character. Those lagers had been smoothed and shaped so completely that there was nothing interesting left. The new breed wanted to inject character back into beer. A lot of that early microbrew was poorly-made or poorly-conceived, but it was full of naive, youthful enthusiasm. To those early brewers, trying and failing at something characterful was preferable to submitting to the unrelentingly bland landscape of American beer.

Almost since craft brewing debuted, people have been arguing about authenticity. This has evolved into a discussion about "craft," and lately, has gotten so tangled that no one wants to use the word anymore. To identify authenticity we talk about who owns the company that makes a beer or what it is made of or how big the brewery making it is. But those are really just proxies. There's something both fundamental and indefinable beneath anything we can quantify. It falls into judge Potter Stewart's famous category: we know it when we see it. For lack of a better way of talking about this, it has something to do with the "soul" of a beer.

When Full Sail got started, the leaders there had a strong vision about their beer. Despite being in Oregon's central tree fruit-growing region, Full Sail refused to make fruit beers. This always struck me as odd, but brewmaster Jamie Emmerson didn't like fruit beers and didn't want to make them. Full Sail was an early pioneer in West Coast hopping, and put out beers that foreshadowed where the industry would head--even though many of those beers were too extreme to find an audience. Even Session was an attempt to recreate a mass market lager with flavor and interest--with soul. Later, when Jamie created Session Black, he used Czech dark lagers--which he loved--as his template.

This is not to say the brewery didn't release random, insipid beers--of course they did. Every brewery does. As a homebrewer, I've brewed them. But it is to illustrate that the brewery's larger project was to create beers of interest and character--beers that would appeal to the people making them and their community. (Jamie originally brewed Session because his neighbor wouldn't drink regular Full Sail and he wanted to create a bridge to that kind of drinker.)

There's nothing wrong with a fruit beer, obviously (Jamie and I disagree on that point). But Full Sail's current foray into fruit feels like a way to offer more "flavors," as if they were an ice cream or candy company. This is an entirely different approach from the more soulful approach of thinking about the beer's nature and trying to perfect it before offering it to the public. IPApaya, despite the fact that it's a tropical-fruit IPA, has all the soul of of a mass market lager. I can't telly you exactly how that comes across, but go buy a bottle and see if you don't agree.

In 2015, the employee owners at Full Sail sold their brewery to Encore Consumer Capital, a private equity firm, and this is surely the reason Full Sail's character has shifted--and indeed Encore owns food and candy businesses. Again, the owner here isn't relevant to the "authenticity" debate--except insofar as it describes the new approach. In Encore's case, it may blind them both to the value of Full Sail's historical approach--that anti-blandness zeal that inspired the founders--and also what attracts beer drinkers.

A good price point can make up for lack of character, but it can't ever inspire passion. The new beers in Full Sail's portfolio may look superficially like they would attract younger drinkers, but I think their lack of character--call it life or spark or soul or whatever you want--will leave drinkers cold. That was the way I felt with IPApaya. It was fine; I wouldn't turn one down. But there are a million beers out there, and I would never look for another one, either.