*Also featured on Brew Studs
In a sea of craft beer newness, brewers both young and tenured emphasize the importance of steering the course.
In the winter of 2019, parts of the United States experienced the frigid grip of a polar vortex. Temperatures plummeted to depths lower than the ABV on a session IPA. School was canceled, pipes froze, and media outlets far and wide encouraged people to stock up on necessities and stay indoors. And while many bundled-up citizens listened, there were some rebellious souls who didn’t.
C’mon…arctic blast be damned, there were still can releases to attend! And after all, the news did say to stock up on essentials.
Today’s beer landscape features various spins and takes on traditional styles (Pastry Stout or Milkshake IPA, anyone?) alongside a long line of iconic, straightforward offerings that have helped shape the palates of beer drinkers young and old. Fans of new releases line up hours before opening at their favorite breweries in hopes of getting their hands on this week’s can allotment, while others take comfort in knowing a craft beer they’ve enjoyed for years is ubiquitously on a shelf or in an aisle. Some do both. The ability to enjoy a tapestry of beers showcasing modern advancements and industry standards all in one session plays a major role in making this culture so dynamic.
Craft beer is driven by innovative offerings from breweries of all shapes and sizes. Just as it was ten, fifteen, and twenty years ago when beers like Sierra Nevada Pale Ale, Great Lakes Eliot Ness, New Belgium Fat Tire, and Southern Tier 2X IPA fought for mainstream acceptance. For years, these brands’ respective flagship beers have enjoyed unrivaled success in markets nationwide. Today, with local brands dominating the trends, these beers and others that put their respective breweries on the map are struggling to keep up…even though the quality of the liquid hasn’t fluctuated one iota.
Many factors can be attributed to this shift. Hot new releases are traded in similar fashion to sports cards back in the day. Untappd places more importance on badges and check-in totals than the quality of liquid consumed. Social media photos with new beers donning captivating, eye-pulling label art garner way more engagement than that of a beer most consumers haven’t thought about in years.
A flagship beer is one a brewery is proud to put on the front line as its piece de resistance. No matter the size of the brewery, a flagship is a fail-safe offering beer enthusiasts can always find on the menu whenever they visit their favorite destinations. Flagships often identify the best beer a brewery is producing and, in most cases, represent a brewery’s best selling beer. But today, the emphasis is on new – a phenomenon that’s changing how flagships are accepted, as well as defined.
As craft beer culture continues to evolve, the role that a flagship beer plays is evolving as well. While a lot of our attention is focused on what’s new and what’s next, there is still a lot to be said for what’s good and what’s consistent. To a large degree, beer loyalty has transitioned from love for a singular brand to devotion to style preference, with undying allegiance being pledged to any and all breweries that produce the best versions of quality liquid. That said, there’s no reason iconic brands that helped shape the craft beer revolution, or beers that help build the identity of new craft breweries, should fade away.
Adam Boura, Head Brewer at Four Points Brewing in Charleroi, PA, just outside of Pittsburgh, brews a Light Lager that you’ll only find in the brewery’s taproom. This beer isn’t defined as a flagship, but it’s a consistent offering regulars can count on. Fourth Street IPA is the flagship offering in a portfolio overflowing with hop-forward, juicy, hazy brews and creative sours. Boura’s beers have helped elevate Four Points to a very recognizable status in the brewery’s first year, and he believes the flagship offerings breweries tout definitely help the cause.
“I think most breweries have a beer or two that are generally on, but it may not make up a majority of their sales like it used to,” Boura suggested. “Our one IPA is almost 20% of what we brew. I think that’s pretty solid for a small brewery. If you don’t have a beer that’s considered a go to by your regulars, there may be issues. But there are a multitude of models these days.”
A multitude indeed. Some breweries don’t factor in flagships at all. It’s all about new. Then, you’ve got House Beer. These guys make one beer, a 4.8% ABV Premium Craft Lager; it’s a flagship by default. Some brands have at least one recognizable offering on the menu while doing a new can release every week or two. Others still haven’t entered the canned beer world and focus intensively on delivering the best in-house drinking experience. Some brands incorporate food. Others let you order in or schedule food trucks to handle the grub. No direction is right or wrong, but all lend to cultivating an experience intended to bring people back time and time again.
On the small-scale side, it appears flagships are winning. But on the nationally distributed side, the recognizable brands we’ve known for years are on a steady decline. According to an article by VinePair in early 2019 that references a study by IRI Worldwide, brands like Samuel Adam’s Boston Lager, Sierra Nevada Pale Ale, and New Belgium Fat Tire all saw dips in sales in 2018. This decline is not so much a dispersion towards their quality, but more so a byproduct of the meteoric rise of hyperlocal.
That term wasn’t even a thing when Sierra Nevada began building their nationwide footprint back in the 1990s. In that age of beer, that’s how you got on the map. You brewed a quality product, you penetrated successful markets across the land, you put feet on the street to generate awareness of what you had, and you succeeded.
Today, breweries are less concerned about establishing a footprint that large. The cost of mass distribution simply doesn’t run parallel with establishing popularity in local and regional mainstream circles. This is not a blanket statement, as several breweries are still expanding their reach into successful markets via wholesaler partnerships. But by and large, driving enthusiasts to the taproom and generating an experience on a local level has become a more popular approach.
Despite any declines, well-established brands continue to stand by their core products and seek to deliver a quality pint every time an enthusiast orders.
“With today’s constantly rotating tap handles and the fight for shelf space, it’s important to have a beer the drinker instantly recognizes,” said Brian Grossman, co-owner of Sierra Nevada Brewing. “Something they know will always be a high quality, damn good beer. Kind of like that friend who you’re always happy to see and never lets you down.”
This month marks the first-ever Flagship February. Started by national beer writer Stephen Beaumont, it is designed to pay homage and respect to the beers that made us like craft beer in the first place. Feel free to Google ‘Flagship February’ and you’ll discover plenty of press revolving around the movement.
While Flagship February may be shining the spotlight on these industry stalwarts for 28 days, there’s no reason that offerings responsible for helping us discover better tasting liquid can’t remain in our drinking rotations year round. Not to say that these beers are for every day, but an appreciation for their quality and craftsmanship cannot be overlooked. They’ve stood the test of time for a reason, and despite a plethora of beer enthusiasts eagerly anticipating a brewery’s next release, no sane beer lover will ever be able to question a brew that consistently delivers satisfaction to so many.