The Death of the Flagship

Unfiltered by | Aug 2012 | Issue #67

Illustration by Chi-Yun Lau

There comes a time in the story of every generation when the end draws near and a new chapter begins. In the craft beer industry, it has taken nearly 30 years for that page to turn, but a new story is about to be penned, one in which many beloved main characters are going to be written out or relegated to background roles.

For the better part of 30 years, a handful of big-name craft beers from pioneering brewers led the way as the industry’s front-line warriors. Beers such as Sierra Nevada Pale Ale and Samuel Adams Boston Lager were the twin drivers of craft beer’s narrative and growth. They fought a ground war in airport bars, chain restaurants and convenience stores from coast to coast. They ran ad campaigns and deployed salesmen to bolster the public’s understanding of better beer and to teach consumers that taste, flavor and character meant something.

A funny thing happened to these wildly successful brands on the way to craft beer utopia: A new generation of craft beer know-it-alls used the success of the beer pioneers against them. Content to reject Sam Adams, Sierra and other popular brands as passé examples of the old guard, or even dismiss them as corporate beer shills, these founding fathers suddenly became something other than craft. Beyond the industry-insider debates over definitions and volume and barrelage numbers, the young started to prey on their elders in quiet but vicious fashion.

After enduring years of cheap shots, the generational attitude shift appears to have rubbed off on the beer pioneers themselves. For the first time, the future prospects of the industry’s two most stalwart brands, Samuel Adams Boston Lager and Sierra Nevada Pale Ale, the yin and the yang of the craft beer world, look dim. Supplanted by seasonal brands, endangered by the race for the holy one-off grail, and lost in the hunt for more hops, these respected and balanced brands look increasingly out of place in the wider world of craft beer. And the pioneers seem to know it. In response, Sierra Nevada has focused a lot of energy on its Torpedo IPA brand, which ups the hops from the company’s style-defining flagship Pale Ale. Boston Beer Co. has launched its own IPA, Latitude 48, even as Twisted Tea surpasses Boston Lager as the company’s best-selling product and a series of seasonal beers capture the attention of beer drinkers and distributors.

Other breweries aren’t immune from this shift. Widmer Hefeweizen receives a lot less attention from the brothers in the wake of new releases, including a rotating IPA series. The brewers at Redhook, Boulevard and Deschutes have also started to cede focus on their flagships to newer brands and line extensions. Even the once seemingly invincible Fat Tire is losing share in New Belgium Brewing to the brewery’s juggernaut, Ranger IPA.

So in the end of an era for some pioneer brands, where consumers appear ready to fully embrace their long-developing beer brand promiscuity, the first era of the flagship is over. The ultimate result of the evolving craft beer consumer’s fickle palate is the end of relations with these former beaus, only to be replaced with a new, younger and hipper string of beer relations.

While some nostalgia for these trailblazing brands is warranted, the new chapter shows the continued maturation and development of craft beer in America. Even as market share slowly inches up, consumers are deciding for themselves that they want new beers, happy to push beyond their early favorites into new and unexplored flavor territories.