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Friday, June 26, 2009

The Session Phenomenon

It was just one week ago, as the Beer Goddess and I were sharing an LTD 03 at the Brewers Games, that I first heard about Session Black. In the span of that time, everyone's heard about it: Full Sail had separate launch parties in Hood River and Portland, and there's yet another release cum meet-the-brewers at Saraveza next Thursday. And today John Foyston has an in-depth article in the Oregonian's Business section. It's a hell of a lot of heat and noise for what we must admit is surely a modest product.

And so here's the question--is it too much noise?

A Brilliant Idea
Releasing Session was a big gamble for Full Sail. So far as I know, no other craft brewery had or has attempted anything like it. The idea was born in 2004, during that period following the 90s shake-out when it appeared that the hearts of the next generation might be lost to PBR. On one side were craft beers and on the other industrial lagers, and the twain never met. What divides them seem as much to do with brand identity and customer loyalty as flavor--if you like a nice IPA and don't mind being seen by your brother-in-law throwing one back at the barbecue, Bud Lite is almost certainly dead to you. But if that fancy bottle and that thick goop inside seem like an unnecessary yuppie affectation--and a damned expensive one at that--you probably aren't about to give up your cooler full of cans.

Full Sail's brilliant stroke was to have a closer look at that macro market and see that it wasn't monolithic. There was the PBR phenomenon. The brand had managed to appeal to younger drinkers not because of its product (obviously!), but because of its downscale authenticity. (Support of indie music helped.) This was the amazing thing. Watch a tattooed 20-something walk up to a beer cooler, and there was a 90% chance he walked away with a half-rack of Pabst.

What Full Sail took away from their study was this: younger drinkers were drawn to Pabst out of a kind of nostalgia for local, regional breweries that had mostly been killed off before they were born. They didn't want micros, which lacked the working-class authenticity of tin-can beer, but neither did they want faceless corporate brands like Bud and Coors. Full Sail created Session to hit all the same notes. Even more, they knew it couldn't be called Full Sail. Foyston quotes Founder Irene Firmat:
"That's the way we planned it because we were trying to break out of the boundaries of being a craft beer. If we'd put out Session Lager in traditional packaging and with the Full Sail logo, we would've had a much harder time drawing in new customers who might find craft beers too big and challenging."

Session is available only in bottles and only in 12-packs -- no kegs, quarts, or six-packs. "We're sticking to that," says Full Sail brewmaster John Harris. "If we put out Session in longnecks or had it available on tap, we'd be just another me-too beer. This way, it stands out."
So now Full Sail has the best of both worlds--a beer to compete with PBR, and the impeccable reputation of one of the most storied founding American craft breweries. Here's where I get a little worried, though--is it possible to keep the wall up between the two?

One Brewery, Two Identities
American craft brewing is relatively young. It has evolved in just 25 years from tiny breweries making niche beers to substantial breweries making beers with large audiences. Imagine a line graph in your mind, with barrels on the left side--as that line keeps going up and up, eventually the sheer barrelage will dictate that breweries make more and more mass-market beers. We don't know what that means. Will more and more people buy IPAs, or will breweries begin offering beer that attracts Bud drinkers? Beer geeks tend to think of a future where craft breweries change the beer market, but what if the beer market changes craft breweries? Full Sail is a test case.

The good news is that Session is a good beer, and it looks like Session Black will be, too:
A Budvar schwarzbier (black beer) sipped on a recent trip to Vienna was the inspiration for Session Black, says Jamie Emmerson, Full Sail's executive brewmaster.... The result is a beer that looks black indeed, but is far removed from the thick, malty, roasty beer that lager drinkers fear. "We worked hard to make it a super-drinkable, balanced beer," Firmat says
The worrisome news? Session now accounts for a third of Full Sail's 90,000 barrel production. If we squint and look forward ten years, what proportion will it be? Twenty? Will the "Full Sail line" be a marginal, neglected sideline for a big, regional brewery? Could happen.

Maybe that's not so bad. So long as I can still get a sixer of Full Sail Pale, what do I care how much Session Full Sail sells? In fact, using my future-seeing squint, I can even imagine a day in which Session makes the Pale possible. Things change, and that's not always terrible. Still, worth watching this whole phenomenon to see how it plays out.

[Update. Okay, I'm sitting in the Pilsner Room with a bottle of Black (it's not on the menu). A very nice beer. This is going to please beer geeks even more than regular Session. A fine Schwarzbier, with a sweet, roasty palate. A year-round beer, it will do very nicely for those January Blazers games.]

[Later Update. There has been some confusion about Full Sail's annual sales. I just got an email from Jamie Emmerson. The 90,000 barrels are all Full Sail brands. They do an additional 50,000 of Henry's. All FS brands are up according to Jamie. Also, the Czech style that inspired Session is called--sorry, no proper diacritics--"Tmave." "Not as malty as Munich Dunkles, but not as roasty as Schwarzbier."]



  1. Breweries are always going to face the dueling incentives of chasing profits v. catering to a niche market (though one that is growing fast) as they get larger.

    There is a reason that the big companies have only half-heartedly attempted to capture some of the craft brew market - it is low margin relative to the mass-market macro pilsners.

    As long as the core product remains high-quality I don't think Full Sail risks alienating their craft brew faithful. In this sense the two product lines make sense. Otherwise you try to straddle the fence like a Widmer say that has a hard time appealing to the faithful.

  2. Interesting perspective, Jeff.

    I think breweries CAN walk the line, having a macro type product and a high quality line too. Session Black might be a smart move towards a oh-so commercial take on the old fashion DARK Continental Lager. It'll walk in the footsteps of St Paulie, Becks, Heineken and other commercial Dark beers.

    The only marketing aspect the doctor has a problem with is the SELL OUT craft breweries; Pete's, Pyramid and Redhook are great examples. All have turned their backs on quality and just went for a mass market appeal. I think locals should fear that Widmer is close on those heals because the writing is on the wall. We can read Rob and Kurt interviews till the cows come home, but talking the talk isn't equating to walking the walk. The Widhook merger cemented most of the industries questions on their direction. Locals may be just holding onto the illusion.

    Is this a good marketing choice? I don't know. I do admire they're effort at trying to walk the line, as long as, Session Dry or ICE or Zima isn't around the corner. ;-}

    Is it going to appeal to the young hipsters? Probably not. They seem to want something NOT from the commercial, nor craft world, something they "THINK" they can call they're own.... which is not possible, but whatever.

  3. Jeff,

    You raise an interesting question and one that we debated, sort of, a few months ago. Here, you have articulated precisely what success may bring and the risks of that success. I do believe, however, that breweries can become large and produce excellent products along a continuum of brands. That is the Full Sail model, at least right now. Look at some of the German breweries. They make very well crafted beer in tremendous quantities. The biggest risk is to innovation. Once you start optimizing your production, operations and marketing for brands that appeal to larger audiences, it is tough for an organization to create niche products for a few drinkers. I agree with Patrick's comments to a point, though I think all breweries, at least non-ecclesiastical ones, are chasing profits. You can do that with niche brands, but it is harder as you get bigger.
    I would disagree with Patrick's view of Widmer. I think they have gone in the opposite direction as they have grown. They are relying upon Hefeweizen to fuel the bottom line while they introduce a number of more specialized beers.
    I would point to the former Portland Brewing as an example of fence straddling and brand confusion.

  4. Personally, I am just excited for an accessible domestic dark lager that is made locally. I can't really point to any other good examples that are available year round.

    Also, on the topic of walking the line of...What is the perception of winehards (or winehards ten years ago)? It always seemed to appeal to a blue-collar type but was better than the corporate lager.

  5. Point of order, Patrick: craft beers are not low margin, they are low volume, when compared to mass-market beers. The big guys got into it because they are high margin.

    Also, from what I've been told, Session accounts for a third of Full Sail's TOTAL production, which includes ~ 40,000 bbl of Henry's. So Session has almost outstripped the core FS brands in volume. Sorry, but I think that's bad for the company. Session and the contract brewing is doing exactly what critics feared: it is overshadowing and diminishing the core. Sales are sales, but if FS can't make money of FS-branded beer, it will eventually run into trouble.

    Personally I would drink PBR than Session. It's smoother. Tried the Black yesterday. It was OK, but mot really all that appealing. Like pretty much everything that comes out of that brewery, it was a mix of one-dimensional flavor high notes underpinned by grainy and cloying base notes. And filtered to oblivion. A far cry from what a similarly-suited European brewery would accomplish. I would even order a Beck's Light or Dark before I'd order Session.

  6. No mention on the 11 oz. bottles? Figure that into the cost of the beer. Out of the 12 pack you lose an entire beer. So basically it is an 11 pack. That has to make it more expensive than its shelf price (compared to other 12 pack prices).

    My introduction to Session was by a young sort-of-hipster.

    I don’t think Session is my first choice by any means but it is certainly above Beck’s.