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Tuesday, July 27, 2010

The Session Phenomenon

Note: I will be away from the computer for a few days--probably through Sunday. Rather than just leave the site idle, I've dug around and found some old posts I liked--probably a lot of you won't have seen them the first time. In today's edition, I considered Full Sail's Session. At the time, I was ambivalent, but no more. Session rocks. The thing about "two breweries," though, that's still true. Enjoy--
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."]


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