The world of beer is going through an identity crisis—it’s changing the self-defined language of what’s craft and what not seemingly every few years now, it’s doing battle with wine and spirits, except when it’s embracing them in the form of natural wine and barrel-aging, it’s national, regional, local, and hyperlocal, it’s taprooms and bars going to battle over the same customers, it’s exploding cans and day-fresh distribution, and festivals are dying except when they’re growing, and it’s focused on diversity even as it undermines it’s own goals by competing for the same 21-34-year-old white males in every market, it’s IPAs except when it’s Lagers, and increasingly it’s juice bombs and hard seltzers and FMBs, and coffee roasting, distilling, and wine/beer hybrids.
It’s wild out there right now.
For today’s guest—I have a feeling all that seems a bit…charming. Predictable, maybe. And certainly ripe for exploitation from a manufacturing and marketing perspective. Because as much as we want to think people define themselves by what category of beverage they prefer (beer people, wine people, bourbon people), people like Jaisen Freeman of Phusion Projects has long understood drinkers as category agnostic—pursuing flavor, and brand, and functional benefits above all else. And generally preferring to have a little—sometimes too much—fun along the way.
Phusion Projects is the maker of Four Loko, a notorious, exciting brand that has an unbelievable distribution footprint in the U.S. despite having its product formulation written out of the realm of legality by the federal government after they’d already built their empire. Despite massive lawsuits related to its potential for harm and or misuse. And despite taking a massing hit in the realm of $40 million during that traumatic period for the business. Within four years, it had climbed back to its former peak. And now, with that chasm behind them, Phusion Projects is expanding a portfolio of products geared towards finding the next big thing for drinkers.
In the recent past, that’s included another infamous product, at least in the small bubble of the craft beer world, with Not Your Father’s Root Beer, a fermented malt beverage that got tried and true beer geeks worked up over its root beer flavor and, in some cases, its high ABV. But it attracted a massive mainstream audience as well as it expanded from a small garage into a national footprint. And now they’re exploring the world of vodka, hard seltzer, a flavored FMB that looks like a fancy blended wine or sake, and Earthquake, which they pitch as the highest ABV Lager on the market.
None of them come anywhere close to Four Loko’s success. Like, by multiple orders of magnitude. But this is all pretty recent still as they climbed out of that crater that those four years of Four Loko left them in. And they got out of it, seemingly, all by themselves.
It’s a wild story, and for anyone struggling to understand what their next few years are going to look like in the what might be the beer businesses’ most insane time period ever in this country, it’s a story with a lot of lessons, both encouraging, and exceptionally hard.
This is Jaisen Freeman of Phusion Projects. Listen in.