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Second Fiddlers: The Beers Behind the Flagships

November 08, 2017

By Justin Doom, November 08, 2017

You don’t need to look much further than the Untappd ratings to see significant movement within craft beer fleets.

Lagunitas’s flagship IPA clocks in 3.8, while its own Hop Stoopid soars above at 3.96. Bell’s wildly popular Two Hearted (3.99) lags behind Hopslam (4.31), Sierra Nevada’s signature pale ale (3.65) trails Torpedo Extra IPA (3.76) and Victory’s excellent Hop Devil (3.69) can’t quite match up to its even-more-excellent Dirtwolf (3.97).

Pick just about any craft brewery, and you’re likely to find at least one beer that outscores – or very nearly outscores – the flagship that put its producer on the map. This has a lot to do with abundance: There are now more than 5,000 breweries in the U.S., more than double the amount in 2012. Brewers must keep innovating and pushing the envelope to stay ahead.

But it’s also because most beer drinkers really don’t know, or really don’t care to know, whether they’re drinking a flagship brew anymore. Consumers are armed with more information than ever before and able to buy greater quantities of greater varieties than ever before. They still may fall in love with a single beer but remain ambivalent to the rest of what that brewery makes. Variety, meet shrug.

Or it could the exact opposite. A fan of, say, Ballast Point’s Sculpin IPA (4.02) may also try the similarly styled Dorado (3.93) or Manta Ray (3.93) because there’s an inherent trust in that producer. Maybe that same beer fan will be even more tempted to branch out and try different styles, in this case maybe a Victory at Sea Porter (4.08) or Sea Monster Imperial Stout (3.91). And maybe the next time that consumer’s out buying beer, he or she spends an extra five minutes walking up and down the aisle scouting new bottles and cans.

Maybe you already are walking that aisle.

I started with Sam Adams, thinking maybe someday I can make some other beers.”

“People’s tastes change – they ebb and flow,” says Paul Gatza, director of the Brewers Association. “Some are moving from IPAs into a broader set of style choices, while there are other people just discovering that they love hops and what IPAs are all about.”

Gatza has the data to prove it. Through 2017, Brewers Association data show that sales of golden ales are up as much as 40%, even as IPA sales have grown another 11%.

“A lot of beer drinkers are looking for something lighter or more crushable,” Gatza says. Even as craft brewing pumped almost $68 billion into the U.S. economy last year, an increase of nearly 22% from 2014, much of that growth has come as the influence of breweries’ best-known brands has faded.

“There’s a belief in a halo effect around brand families, that where there’s a strong flagship, that supports the sales of beers in the portfolio, and, similarly, that having other strong beers can help a flagship,” Gatza says. “But, in general, it’s decreasing in importance as flagships become a smaller portion of brewery sales.”

Other breweries such as Deschutes, with their porter and pale ale, effectively “have two flagships, because I don’t know what they’re selling more of,” Gatza adds. “With someone who loves Bell’s Two Hearted, there may not be as much of a relationship to whether they’re buying Oberon. It’s harder for a company to show growth with their flagship brand, and with a lot we’re seeing them replaced by other beers that become the flagship. Other beers are just becoming more popular.”

In 1984, Jim Koch, the founder and chairman of Boston Beer, was hoping to produce a beer popular enough to where he’d ship 5,000 barrels a year. Last year, the company shipped more than 4 million barrels.

“I started with Sam Adams,” Koch says, “thinking maybe someday I can make some other beers.

Boston BeerPass the Sammy. No, not that one, the Rebel.

Indeed he has. Thirty, or even 10 years ago, having a successful foundational beer such as his Boston Lager, similar to what Sierra had with its pale ale, allowed Koch to further experiment and innovate.

“With Sierra, one of the key things they did, along with Sam Adams, was demonstrate what high-quality standards look like,” Koch says. “This was back in the mid-80s, when with craft beer, you never knew if you were going to get a delicious beer or someone’s science project. For some, part of the charm is, each batch is different. I never bought into that. That’s never what we wanted. It was that each batch was great, and Sierra was definitely a leader in that.”

While it’s hard to imagine a single brew surpassing the flagship Boston Lager (3.43), its popularity and stature has allowed Koch to produce dozens of beers, including multiple medal-winning double and triple bocks, as well as a legion of highly rated brews including Rebel IPA (3.53) and Octoberfest (3.61). Koch was a bit wistful in describing a nitro coffee stout he loved but that flopped commercially.

“It was like two years of work down the drain, but it was fun,” he says. “It’s okay to fail. You just build on it. That’s the nature of real innovation: You’re going to fail more than you succeed, but if you succeed, you’ll have something that’s really a breakthrough.”

That breakthrough could come from anywhere. It could be a brewery’s most popular or least popular brand. It could be a seasonal, a one-time batch, or a seasonal one-time batch that becomes so popular it grows to supplant a flagship.

“If I see a new beer I haven’t tried that looks interesting, I’m going to try it,” Koch says. “My sales people joke with me, that when I work with them, we’ll end up drinking beer out in the parking lot. We’re go into the store, see how the conditions are, and it’s pretty routine for me to come out of that store with two or three beers from other craft brewers. They’ll open their trunk, and we put the beer on the tailgate and we drink it. That’s just part of my job.”

ZX Ventures, a division within AB InBev, is an investor in October
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