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Thursday, August 11, 2016

The Awkwardness of Middle-Aged Breweries

As a gentleman now past any reasonable definition of "young," I am sensitive to ageist derision. Nevertheless, it must be admitted that once you've been around awhile, you do get stuck in your ways. You can start to look a bit fusty. And so it is with breweries. The ultimate reward for building a successful brand that stretches out across some or all of our broad country isn't public admiration for your portfolio of stable, popular brands. No, it's yawns. In the craft beer biz, the question is always, "what have you done lately?"

This became a topic of discussion on Facebook and Twitter earlier in the week following my post about Sam Adams. To the thesis "the flagship brand needs to be refreshed," I don't think I heard a single voice say, "no way--it's a perfectly current classic!"  And this is just the problem. The successful old-school breweries (let's say pre-1990) all became successful because they built up a popular brand. Sam Adams had Boston Lager, Sierra Nevada had Pale, Widmer had Hefeweizen, and so on. It's very hard to keep a beer exciting for 30+ years. The best breweries can do is try to transition these older brands into a "classic" slot and hope to keep the brand of the brewery alive and vital.

One of the reasons I declared Boston Beer doomed was because as a brewery it does not seem vital. The brewery does have a barrel program, but it's pretty anemic. They still roll out the Utopias from time to time, but it's been a long time since beer geeks swooned over anything but its price. The recent nitro line was curious at best--a fifty-year-old package dispense system is not exactly the cutting edge. Meanwhile, one of the main trends in craft beer right now is lagers, a concept Boston Beer should absolutely own, but they seem to be missing the boat.

Contrast that with Sierra Nevada, which is one of the most active and interesting breweries in the country right now. Their core lineup is as always anchored by Pale Ale, but they've added a great pilsner (not missing the current trends), a gose, and two IPAs, Hop Hunter and Torpedo, which use innovative new techniques to produce vivid hop flavor. (Sam Adams' Rebel series of IPAs seem, by contrast, pro forma at best). They have managed to serve both their tradition--they exalt in it, in fact--as well as trying to remain current with the styles and techniques that are driving new sales.

And that's without mentioning the incredibly successful Beer Camp project, which makes this venerable grandfather of craft beer look anything but stodgy. It not only integrates them into this vital world of brewing they've honestly sort of outgrown, but allows them to both be a leader and a participant in building the notion of "craft" (which, admittedly, is a lot more spin than reality these days).

It's a difficult trick to pull off. Most of the middle-aged breweries have had their share of failures and miscues. You don't want to end up looking like the dad who's dropping middle-school slang into conversation, but you also don't want to just slowly go to seed. And so far, we really only knows what this looks like for breweries in the middle-thirties. Imagine what they'll look like when they're truly middle aged (like me).

As a final, related thought, it seems like that in one of these decades pretty soon we're going to see the failure of some large craft breweries. Maybe they won't outright vanish, but like regional breweries following Prohibition through the 1970s, they might get absorbed into a giant corporate entity, become mere SKUs in a company's bottom line, and eventually mostly fade out. When I came of drinking age in Oregon, we had brands like Lucky Lager and Heidelberg that soon vanished. Could Bell's or Rogue go the way they did? Eventually, some will.

Anyway, this rumination has been brought to you by Metamucil and old farts everywhere....


  1. Lucky Lager lives on as a beloved budget beer in western Canada, particularly on Vancouver Island. Brewed by Labatt (Ab-InBev) in Edmonton, Alberta.

  2. Hey Jeff! Thanks for the cool read. So, what age constitutes "middle age" for breweries? Places like Ballast Point and Stone are celebrating 20 years, and North Coast Brewing has been around almost 30! Are they "middle aged" breweries, too? I think there's a connotation I have towards Sam Adams that I don't necessarily have towards other older breweries.

  3. I said "let's say pre-1990," which would put it at 26 years. I'd say North Coast is in that camp, too. They have a very stable, familiar line up that hasn't changed much in years. Nothing wrong with that, but it has that feel of stasis that we associated with middle age-dom.

  4. Right, I agree. I think just due to Sam Adam's massive distribution, I definitely view them in that category (actually, I always thought they were jut like Coors/Bud Lite until I learned they were till craft). Places like North Coast aren't nearly as widely distributed, so perhaps individuals connect "big distribution" with "commercial" sometimes.