Are Flagships Obsolete?

Last Friday, Stephen Beaumont led a spirited band of online agitators in their campaign called #FlagshipFebruary. The idea was to lend some oomph to those classic beers that helped breweries get established. (Beaumont is far more organized than I—not only did he get the campaign started, he coordinated writers to produce a series of essays on their favorite classic beer on a website created for the effort.) The motto of the effort is “celebrating the beers that got us here”—and it says pretty much all you need to know about the celebration.

The concept of a flagship dates back to before the dawn of craft brewing. Breweries may have made one or two secondary products, but the flagship was the beer with the brewery’s name on the label. Rainier made Ale, but when you ordered a Rainier, you expected to get Rainier. Budweiser was Budweiser, Hamm’s was Hamm’s. What we know about anything is framed by what exists, so when craft breweries launched, they did so assuming their reputation and business would be staked on one signature product. Pale Ale at Sierra Nevada, Boston Lager at Sam Adams. In an extreme case, the Widmers created a brewery built to make just one product—an altbier. (That beer didn’t pan out, but a follow-up became one of the strongest flagships in the country.)

Early on, craft breweries made more than one beer, but their calling cards in the market, particularly on draft, was the beer associated with the brewery. Pubs and restaurants had four to eight handles, and breweries that scored one did so with the flagship. Drinkers were still feeling their way around the newness of craft beer, and a porter, amber, and wheat beer represented plenty of variety to drinkers of the age. It was so automatic that when you ordered a Deschutes, you meant Black Butte; “Full Sail”  referred to Full Sail Amber; “BridgePort” was Blue Heron. In fact, these flagships were also fused in many cases to their beer style, so that when you ordered “porter” you meant Deschutes, hefeweizen meant Widmer, and on and on.

Any brewery founded in the past century inhabited this world and strove to elevate their flagship product to this status. The conceptual connection that ran from the brewery to the flagship beer to its style became the obsession for every brewery. If they could create a beer that would find purchase with the solidity of those founding flagships, breweries could write their destiny.

Of course, this changed in about the mid-aughts, when the number of beers a brewery released in a single year, once often fewer than ten, ballooned to scores. Sometimes a brewery had a best-seller, but often there was a group of four or five merely called “year-round.” A brewery’s name and the flagship product were much less often conflated for breweries founded after 2000, and for breweries of the past five years, it’s uncommon.

Within the brewery, folks might have a private sense of a flagship—the brewery’s workhorse and best-seller (and there are often two or three beers that function as flagship-by-cohort)—but they didn’t push that association out to the public. A best-seller one year might not even be brewed five years later. Indeed, now that drinkers want variety and novelty, having a flagship can become a liability as fashions change and sales drop. Who wants to be stuck with a fruit IPA flagship that accounts for 10% of the volume and tastes like 2015? That’s why, when you think of a recent brewery—Wayfinder or Alesong or Little Beast—it’s hard to even guess what the best-seller might be. 

There’s another interesting quirk. Even among those pre-2000 breweries with strong flagships, how many still drive the company? In the Flagship February desciption, Jay Brooks cites Black Butte Porter as an example. But it hasn’t been Deschutes’ best-seller for years; Fresh-Squeezed is by far their current volume king. Black Butte is meaningful to the brewery, but how many drinkers under 30 have any clue it’s the “flagship?”

The concept of a flagship in almost all ways maps to an earlier and obsolete way of thinking. As long as customers remain focused on novelty and change, breweries will de-emphasize flagships. Even among those 80s and 90s-era breweries with inescable “flagships,” those beers will rarely be able to hold their volume and carry a brewery. Like everyone else, breweries of that era are constantly releasing new beers that can replace the flagship’s decline volumes. 

I’m a big supporter of #flagshipfebruary and I want many of those classic American beers to thrive. They not only connect us to the lineage of American brewing, they remind us of how good slightly out-of-fashion styles are. But the concept itself is close to obsolete in the beer market we now inhabit, a conceptual remnant of a much earlier time.

Flagships are dead; long live flagships. 

Jeff Alworth4 Comments