Old Dogs and New Tricks

Unfiltered by | Sep 2017 | Issue #128
Illustration by Chi-Yun Lau

It’s a scary time to be a craft brewing pioneer. After growing at gangbusters, double-digit rates for a decade, lean years have come for big craft. Sales at pioneering brands, such as Boston Beer, Sierra Nevada, and New Belgium, are declining, flat, or barely growing. Younger drinkers increasingly view these legacy brands as stodgy or uncool.

The generational shift started with the age of extreme beer. A new, disruptive wave of young brewers, keen on brewing to their own tune, entered the marketplace with little care or concern for their elders. For a while, the big craft breweries played along, enjoying the new boost of enthusiasm in the industry. They invested in sour and barrel-aging programs, released their own funky beers, and generally reveled in the excitement, which accounted for only a small share of total craft sales.

Then the rise of the local taproom killed that fun. The big craft brands have been supplanted by a younger generation of brewers thriving on a neighborhood model that delivers fresh beer and builds strong relationships with patrons. Why try an old IPA or Amber from a pioneer like Sam Adams or New Belgium when you can get a hazy IPA that was released yesterday from your local shop?

Today’s generation of beer drinkers has little connection to the legacy brewers. Sam Adams Boston Lager? That’s grandpa’s beer. Sierra Nevada Pale Ale? Solid, but who drinks it? Fat Tire? My uncle drank that in college. Ouch.

Too big to convincingly embrace the culture of rarity, first generation craft breweries must chart a new course. For some, it involves infusing flagship brands with derivative releases showcasing new, fruited hops. For others, it means delving into new types of drinks, including ciders, hard colas, and alcoholic seltzers. When your brewery is making hundreds of thousands or even millions of barrels of beer, there’s not much room for pride when sales start flagging.

Long eschewing easy-drinking Blonde beers and other less cool options, the industry’s biggest breweries are now embracing forays into new products and tactics once considered un-craft-like. New Belgium has made a splash with its 4.8 percent ABV Dayblazer golden ale, which it describes as having a “corn chips” aroma. Simple to the point of near complete unobtrusiveness, the beer sells in 15-packs for a few bucks less than its standard offerings, roiling some of its peers. Competing on price has never been a popular idea in the craft brewing industry. The company, which has hired spirits executives in recent years to chart its path forward, has also chased trends with the release of its forgettable Citradelic series of fruited IPAs. It’s also now embarking on its first Fat Tire line extension, somewhat predictably, with a Belgian-style White Ale.

New Belgium isn’t alone in trying to keep its head above water with some unusual moves. Boston Beer has embarked on a whole new market of insipidness with its alcoholic seltzer brands.

There’s very little to inspire pride in these offerings beyond the bump in sales they seem to be giving each company. And that might just be what is needed now. While these embarrassing efforts may cost companies some street cred, they’re also shoring up sales in other departments. It may be a sad but ultimately smart play, and the future of big craft.