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Monday, November 02, 2009

The Novelty Curve

One of the best things about living in Oregon is the variety. Yesterday I posted a piece talking about four new brewery/pub openings slated for this year--make that five if you include Coalition. Nearly every week a new beer is released, and if you include brewpub-only beers, it's more like a dozens every week. I constantly have a backlog of beers I mean to try, and let's not even get into the question of national and international offerings.

There is a downside, however.

Another of the many interesting things to emerge from that conversation with Karl Ockert was a comment he made about the "novelty curve." It arose when we were talking about the question of selling BridgePort IPA, an ancient beer by craft brewing's standards, one released way back in 1996. It is truly one of the best beers brewed anywhere in America, and one of my all-time favorites. But how often do I buy a sixer? Once a year, twice? (I have it in restaurants more often because it's often the pick of a small litter.) The beer hasn't lost any of its interest to me, and yet, because it's a familiar old standby, I usually opt for something I haven't tried--and there's almost always something I haven't tried.

If you look around at all the premier brewing regions, they are known in part for a stable of landmark beers that have been around for decades. In forty years, when I'm a doddering old man, I want to be able to get a bottle of BridgePort. The thought of it vanishing is something I'm not prepared to entertain. But the market thrives on novelty. Here's Karl:
“Every beer that comes along goes through a novelty curve, and ours is no different. [Brewery X] is the current big one on the streets. They’re going through a novelty phase where people are out there trying and sampling. All breweries go through that. If I left BridgePort now and went out and started a new brewery, I could do the same thing. I could take tap handles right and left and get a lot of sampling. But it’s that “stayability”—being able to develop loyalty. That’s the tough part.”
Certainly, BridgePort IPA has earned some loyalty--according to Karl, it's still the best-selling IPA in Oregon (though no doubt their slice of the total pie has declined since '96). When you are an established brewery, there's always a wave of novelty coming at you. Since BridgePort IPA was released, great breweries like Laurelwood, Ninkasi, Roots, Double Mountain, Hopworks have entered the Portland market, all bringing their own IPAs along. With each one, BridgePort still had their same-old, same-old, never mind that it continued to be one of the best on the market. Looking forward, there will be scores more breweries opening in the next fifty years. And with each one, BridgePort will have to continue to coax consumers and retailers back to theirs.

As markets mature, this novelty curve will come with a sharp edge. I don't expect BridgePort IPA to go away anytime soon, but it's a good example because it is so beloved. As consumers, we love new beers, but in the long run, we love some of the old ones even more. As the market gets more crowded, we'll have to watch out that benign neglect doesn't nip some of our old faves.


  1. I was thinking about this very issue while writing my apology letter to Full Sail.

    Like Bridgeport, there is nothing wrong with Full Sail. Many of their beers are great, but they have been around so long that I am always passing them up for something new. For almost two years, I didn't have a single beer from Full Sail.

    It's silly how the mind works. When purchasing a new beer, I know it probably will not be as good as one of the tried and true labels sitting next to it in the cooler. But, it says 'new' so I buy it; denying a few dollars to one of my preferred breweries.

    The "novelty curve" might also explain why many of the larger craft breweries are consolidating their year-round offerings. For example, Pyramid is down to 3 full time beers under their imprint; two more under Macs. Maybe the logic is to produce more seasonals and limited releases since they will maintain a high "novelty factor" for their duration.


  2. I have been thinking about this topic. I had designated it the 'Ben & Jerry' factor. Ie, at the grocer, I am not able to find the 3 or 4 Ben&Jerry ice cream flavors that are household favorites.

    As you say, the American consumer market thrives on novelty

    In my experience, 1977 - 1999, British and Germany breweries offer a stable stable of beers. Little downside noticed, by me. How much good choices are enough? This may have / be changing in Europe.

    The upside to the 'market thrives on novelty' is there is always something new to try and the macro-breweries seem to have been forced to innovate; the downside, some fine beers have ceased to exist and I occasionally regret the 6'er I purchased.

  3. As time goes along won’t the cream rise to the top?

    When home brewing and micro brewing finally took off in the 1980’s there was a massive void to be filled beyond mass produced corporate beer. We are still going through that process. Brewpubs open, some of them produce bad beer or they can’t run a business, and they close back down. In the mean while many remain open and the number of places grows. It is far better to have more than less and the consumers will have to sort it out for themselves what they want to purchase and consume.

    The fact of the matter is that most people will buy the same (personally trusted) thing over and over. Only beer geeks concern themselves with “every new thing”. Beer geeks are still a small percentage of the overall.

    So cheers to Full Sail and Bridgeport for hanging in there. However, if you are really going months or years without buying their product then that should tell you something also.

  4. It seems to me that we're still in a bubbly phase of the business. There will be consolidation, and when there is, I'd much rather be a Bridgeport than "Dog & Pony Brewing" trying to eke out market share for their 22's in the grocery aisle.

    Dependability of a classic beer is a good thing. For instance, I have given up on Ninkasi after buying one too many bottles with diacetyl problems. I just won't shell out for it any more, not knowing if they've got their stuff together.

    Long story short, Bridgeport, Deschutes, Full Sail. They all make terrific beer, with seasonals and specials to keep it interesting.

  5. I agree that it's good to support the brewers that really got it started and, in part, got me started in drinking craft beer.
    I will not, however, buy beer that I don't like as much as another on principle. Taste rules my buying decisions. I can't walk past the 22s of Tricerahops and buy Bridgeport IPA. I just can't do it.
    I would not, for instance, go through the Starbucks drive through to support the bigger company who has 'been there' for me when I would get a vastly superior cup going to Stumptown, Barista or Extracto. I may occasionally have a less than perfect cup, but it's the search that makes it interesting.
    I think that the "Novelty Curve" could just be a sign of the passionate search for something better. Always looking for something that can "one up" the status quo. I think the Novelty Curve is great because it forces the brewers, both big and small, to keep experimenting.
    And this is what makes Portland great. Where else can I go to a single bar and get Bridgeports IPA and seasonals along side a Ninkasi, Double Mountain and Hair of the Dog seasonal?(This happened at the Horsebrass by the way.)

  6. This post sits in counterpoint to your post of 10/28 where Ockert was the "novelty" brewer for Schneider brewers. And, Bridgeport and all of the big guys are racing to create "novelty" beers that keep folks interested, at least long enough to realize that their standard brews are well worth drinking. Indeed it's fun to try lots of new things, but most of us tend to gravitate to those beers that we know and love, as more than one commenter has suggested.
    For the "novelty" brewers, I get much more interested in those who are trying a whole different way of brewing rather than simply upping the hops to 100+ points. That's differentiation, not just novelty.

  7. I don't doubt Bridgeport IPA has lost some market share since the 90s, but I'd be curious to see how other old timers, so to speak, like Widmer Hefeweizen, Mirror Pond, Black Butte Porter, and MacTarnahans are holding up against "novelty" in comparison.

    The IPA is such an absurdly popular style right now I don't know how useful Bridgeport IPA is as an example.

    *Maybe* we'll have a million IPAs to choose from forever, but it's likely a fad. Bridgeport IPA stands a decent chance of being one of the survivors when the style's popularity declines.

  8. I was thinking some more about the "novelty curve". In a vacuum, the best product should win out. And, I think this does play out as far as macros are concerned. You try Bud, Miller and Coors, pick the one you like best and stick to it. Since macro breweries rarely put out new beers, their drinkers rarely have something new to try.

    The problem with craft beer is that if you are already drinking Bridgeport IPA, you will probably try other IPAs and there is a new IPA out every other week. This makes income from craft beer drinkers much less dependable; beer geeks or not.

    While I don't think Bridgeport is worried that they are putting out an inferior product, I think they are worried about their solid product being lost in a sea of fleeting products.

    I also agree that they won't be out of business next year, but you have to remember that craft beer is still a small piece of the pie. And that piece is getting increasingly crowded. The easiest was to get noticed in a crowd is to something new; be it good or bad.

    While this does force breweries to innovate (a good thing), it also means that a lot of bad beer will sneak in for the sake of being new. As it sits right now, if I purchased nothing but seasonals and limited releases, I still would not have time to try everything I would like to before it rotates out. This doesn't leave a lot of room for the old stand-bys.

    I understand that ingredient ordering and shipping logistics create a environment where it is better for larger breweries to have a solid year-round variety instead of a lot of special releases. Deschutes isn't making Abyss because it is highly profitable, they are doing it to keep their name relevent among the beer geeks. A small 10 barrel brewery can is in an easier position to switch production every batch because they aren't contracting out huge amounts of ingredients and cutting their deals with distributors a year in advance.

    I think we may see more established breweries combat the "novelty curve" through the use of "extended releases"; beers that are regularly available for 4-6 intervals. Kona does this with Pipeline Porter and Wailua Wheat; alternating every 6 months. Deschutes has Bond Street and Full Sail has their LTD series.

    This lets established breweries have something new on the shelf, but keeps it in production/rotation long enough that it makes more sense fiscally.


  9. Thanks for the fascinating comments, folks. It's an interesting topic, and I think some of your comments were more interesting than my original post.