In a World Full of IPAs, Can Brewers Avoid Being Boring?

March 22, 2019

By Zak Stambor, March 22, 2019

Across the industry there’s a whole lot of the same—from brewery names (Sea Dog Brewing Co., Bike Dog Brewing Co., Laughing Dog Brewing, Lead Dog Brewing Co., White Dog Brewing Co., Island Dog Brewing, Sleepy Dog Brewing, Flying Dog Brewery, Hair of the Dog Brewing Co.) to beer names (Hipster Brunch Stout; Sunday Brunch; Mexican Brunch; Brunch Money; Kentucky Brunch Brand Stout; Clear Sky Cinnamon Toast Brunch; Lunches, Brunches, Interviews; Brunch. Dinner. Grub.; Beer Geek Brunch) to the actual beers being produced. This month alone, two different breweries have rolled out hyped-up Lucky Charms pastry stouts.

What’s surprising is that all this mediocrity is occurring when the craft beer industry continues to gain market share from even less interesting macro brands. At a time when taprooms, brewpubs, and breweries have cemented their place in urban and suburban neighborhoods throughout the country, one would expect those breweries to try their hand mastering one particular style of beer, resurrecting long-forgotten styles, or creating new ones altogether. And, to be clear, some certainly are doing just that. But a large share of the beer being produced by craft and non-craft brewers alike is remarkably similar and often isn’t all that interesting.

Much of it isn’t even that good.

That’s because a copycat culture has permeated the industry. Once a style generates hype, a slew of breweries capitalize on that trend. That was true with single-hop Citra pale ales, hazy IPAs and, most recently, brut IPAs. “Does a single hop Citra pale ale taste good? Yeah, of course it does,” John Laffler, Off Color Brewing’s told me back in 2013, not long after he opened his brewery when the hype over Three Floyds Brewing Co.’s Zombie Dust was sparking a wave of imitators. “But every brewery doesn’t have to make that one. And it doesn’t make sense for every brewery to make one because every brewery doesn’t, and shouldn’t, have the same vision.”

Consider Off Color. When Laffler and his co-founder Dave Bleitner founded Off Color, they sought to craft obscure beers such as Scurry, a Kottbusser-style beer, and Myshka, a so-called Russian serf stout that’s just 3.5% ABV. But Off Color’s approach is the exception to the rule; a large share of breweries either don’t have a clear vision or aren’t pursuing whatever it was that got interested in beer. Instead, they’re only looking at what’s hot.

Case in point: the juicy or hazy IPA. Last year marked the first year that the style had its own category at the Great American Beer Festival. In its debut year, there were 391 entries. That’s not just more than any other category, it is 80 more entries than the next most-entered category, American-style India pale ale. And it set a new record for the number of entrants. It’s also a clear sign that too many breweries are chasing the next the big thing.

If everything you make is a variation of a hop-forward IPA, then you’re going to take a hit when drinkers want something different.”

While the beer industry has always followed trends, the growing number of breweries is driving some to look for ways to have broad appeal, says Doug Hurst, founder of Metropolitan Brewing, which has specialized in unflashy, but well-crafted lagers since it opened its doors in 2009. That approach often leads to a portfolio that offers an array of styles, even if each beer is mediocre. “The best breweries have always had something they were particularly good at and most of them followed that niche they created,” Hurst says.

But fewer breweries are following that ethos. Just a few years ago Stone Brewing Co. was content making in-your-face, hop-forward beers; while Brewery Ommegang would put its spin on Belgian styles; and New Belgium Brewing Co. balanced its production of approachable beers like Fat Tire with wood-aged sours such as La Folie. But now each of those breweries produce a brut IPA, a style that didn’t exist until November 2017.

In part, that’s a reflection of craft beer drinkers’ evolving habits. The thirst for novel beers and styles has led to the decline of flagship beers such as Stone IPA, Hennepin, and Fat Tire. And that’s making it hard for breweries to continue operating the way they used to. After all, sales for some of the best-known craft and craft-like beers fell last year, including New Belgium (down 2.7%), Goose Island (down 12%), and Constellation Brands-owned Ballast Point (down 12.9%), according to IRI, a Chicago-based market research firm.

At the same time, New Glarus Brewing, which is the 16th largest craft brewery in the United States despite only distributing its beer in Wisconsin, has managed to buck those trends. The reason for its sustained success lies in the brewery’s broad mix of styles, according to Deb Carey, the brewery’s president. It offers a stable lineup of four year-round, approachable beers such as Two Women—a so-called country lager—and eight unflashy seasonal beers such as its Staghorn Octoberfest. Then it also offers quirkier beers in its Thumbprint Series, such as a Flanders Sour, and more offbeat beers such as R&D Kriek that are only sold at the brewery.

Offering a varied array of beers has insulated New Glarus from the changes in drinkers’ tastes. “A lot of craft brewers made the same mistake that the big brewers made: everything they produced was similar,” Carey says. “If everything you make is a variation of a hop-forward IPA, then you’re going to take a hit when drinkers want something different.”

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