Good Beer Hunting

None More Black — The Reports of American Stout’s Impending Death are Greatly Exaggerated


It's easy to lament the death of a beer or style (I've even done it myself a couple times.), but it also requires proper context for what that means. Across the board, beer has had problems maintaining traction with drinkers spurred by decreasing consumption and competition from wine and spirits. Perhaps the lone bright spot has been the unstoppable force of IPA, chronicled in GBH multiple times for its sheer volume and how it can alter the business plan of a brewery in positive, beneficial ways.

One of the common dangers beer enthusiasts often fall prey to is taking the trends of The 1% Of True Craft Beer Believers—Once again, I count myself amongst this small group.—who are passionate and caring about the industry they love, and then extrapolating those trends to an entire, much broader set of consumers. Craft beer as a segment is still a minority—Brewers Association-defined "small and independent" volume only makes up a little less than 13% of all the beer sold in the U.S., and that includes continually bending a "craft" definition to keep the largest companies in the club. The vast majority of drinkers, despite many of our opinions, couldn’t care less about the beer they drink aside from whether or not it tastes good.

So when there's a declaration that something like American Stout is "endangered," it's a problematic claim to make. The style known for its adjunct-free roasted and chocolate flavors may not carry much interest among beer geeks, but to say the style has lost its place in the glass of beer drinkers—full stop—isn't merely a giant leap. It's patently false.

Paste magazine’s Jim Vorel recently posed the idea, noting that “‘regular’ stout has become a curiously endangered beer style over the course of the last decade. In fact, it’s all too easy to overlook just how rare ‘standard’ stouts have become. From their heyday as a staple beer style at seemingly every major craft brewery, to relative obscurity, there seem to be myriad factors behind the precipitous decline of non-adjunct stout.”

Speaking to GBH, Vorel says that he’s never been a fan of Pastry Stouts or other beers overly treated with spices or ingredients you’d find in your kitchen cabinet.

“Beer bars are really where you notice it the most, being in the mood for a standard Porter or a standard, non-adjunct Stout, and seeing nothing but vanilla,” Vorel says, leaning into a joke. “A coffee Stout could at this point be a non-adjunct stout because it only has coffee and should be dry.”

But regular Stout isn’t dying—it’s just facing the same kind of market challenges every other non-IPA style faces. In fact, when it comes to the actual sales data, the perceived end of a style might only seem likely to a small group of enthusiasts, not the public at-large.

For analyses such as this, data pulled from the IRI market research company is invaluable. Sales numbers from grocery, convenience, and other stores are helpful to track customer behavior, and matter even more in this instance. Because the life or death of a style is more attuned to patterns created by average customers that make up the vast majority of beer drinkers, purchases from these kinds of chain retail outlets found all over the country provide a good idea of a brand or style's health.

In that regard, IRI's tracking of Stout puts it in a good place. According to a report compiled by the Brewers Association's Bart Watson, Stout was the fourth-most popular style by number of brands sold in IRI-tracked stores through nearly the entirety of 2017. In his analysis of style growth, he found that Stout had 623 brands in national IRI scan data, only behind IPA, Seasonal, and "Other Pale Lagers." Most importantly, that figure represents data through the first week of October 2017, which means that during a season when Stouts would likely be found more often on shelves during the fall, there would have been a lag of any additional releases to be added to the Stout category, as entering brands into the IRI system always takes some time.

In IRI data available to Good Beer Hunting, Porter and Stout are lumped together, so information provides an imperfect look into the health of each individual style. That being said, the category continues to show life.

Note: 2018 data is only through Dec. 9.

Note: 2018 data is only through Dec. 9.

From 2015 to 2017, the grouping in this data set showed 11% growth in volume sales when accounting for all IRI-tracked Porter/Stout. When looking at IRI's "craft" definition only, which is more inclusive of companies than the Brewers Association, Porter/Stout was even stronger, growing by 20% during this timespan. The amount of IRI craft-specific Porter/Stout sold in 2017 was more than the amount of beer sold from Victory Brewing's entire portfolio.

The caveat for this is that in 2018, IRI sales are on track to essentially be flat. That doesn’t prove category health going into 2019, but it also doesn’t mean death.

In talking to brewers and industry professionals, Vorel says he heard a common challenge: maybe making and selling plain Stout falls in an awkward spot between average drinkers and a vocal minority.

“It felt like there was a frustration [from brewers] of getting people to try these beers in the sense that a lot of their audience is looking at ‘basic’ Stouts and thinking that the ones who aren’t into craft beer that much see them as intimidating, and the ones who are into craft beer see them as boring because they’re not flavored and unique and over the top,” Vorel says of his reporting.

On an individual basis, there’s still plenty of purchase power behind Stouts, even leading to a battle over the ownership of marketing for “America’s Stout.

The most synonymous version of the style, Guinness Draught, continues to be a powerhouse off-premise and is actually on pace for its best year ever in IRI sales in 2018. Through the first week of December, Draught had sold more in grocery, convenience, and other stores than Hamms or the entire portfolio of beers made by Firestone Walker, Bells, or Kona.

[Disclosure: Guinness is an underwriter for Good Beer Hunting.]

There’s plenty of interest from shoppers in officially-designated, Brewers Association “craft,” too. New Holland’s Dragon’s Milk, while an Imperial Stout, was not long ago announced to act as the Michigan brewery’s flagship, putting the 11% beer firmly within its marketing plan as what they wanted to sell to all beer drinkers, including the average shoppers at your local grocery chain. In March, Joel Peterson, vice president for marketing with New Holland, told GBH that the company tracked the beer as the number one revenue-driving Stout made and sold in America, both for the "regular" Stout category as well as bourbon-barrel aged varieties. Halfway through 2018, it continued to be one of the fastest-growing craft brands in the U.S. In IRI stores, Dragon’s Milk isn't far off from what the entire Allagash portfolio sells.

But to focus on an Imperial Stout isn't entirely fair to The State Of The Stout, which still has a strong representative in Left Hand’s Milk Stout Nitro. In sales volume, customers snap up that beer with the same rate as all the beer sold in IRI stores by Wicked Weed.

Deschutes’ Obsidian Stout, a decreasing presence for a brewery increasingly focused on hop-forward offerings to boost needed interest and sales, has fluctuated up and down in sales volume for years, but still sells more than Stone Go To IPA or Boulevard Single Wide IPA in IRI stores. Not surprising, given that Black Butte Porter, different in style but close thematically in flavor, has long been one of the most important brands for the business.

Founders Breakfast Stout—which was made a year-round beer in 2018 based on its seasonal popularity—is at the same spot in terms of volume as Obsidian Stout via IRI. Allagash Black (Belgian-style Stout) is holding steady year-to-year and Firestone Walker rolled out its Nitro Merlin Oatmeal Stout in six-packs across its distribution footprint in 2018. Breckenridge Nitro Irish Stout will sell more than 600 BBLs worth in its first year on store shelves, which is more than many neighborhood breweries produce in total.

Other examples cited by Vorel, like Sierra Nevada Stout or New Holland’s The Poet, beloved by some enthusiasts, have never been a significant part of either company’s plans. Since 2013, Sierra's Stout has never accounted for even 1% of the brewery's IRI sales, which makes sense for a company built on hops and has built a lineup around that. The Poet reached a high of 1.2% in 2016, but has been less than 1% in four of the last six years, and likely won’t get any more attention as Dragon’s Milk remains the focus of attention.

For the most passionate of beer drinkers, brands like Goose Island's Bourbon County Stout and its many variants may seem most exciting. The family of brands earns annual media coverage to break down where and how money should be spent, and ultimately influence how these beers may be traded or sold down the line. A quick glance at the top-rated beers on rating platforms like Untappd or BeerAdvocate show a litany of adjunct-heavy Stouts. In both cases, the “best of the best” receive only a tiny fraction of attention from a self-selected group of beer raters compared to widely-available—and commonly purchased—Stout brands.

[Disclosure: GBH’s studio side has worked with Goose Island on various projects over the years, including, most recently, the brewery’s Grit & Grain book.]

On Untappd, Guinness Draught, Founders Breakfast Stout, and Left Hand Milk Stout Nitro are three of the most checked-in beers historically. Unlike the idea suggested by Vorel that if you say “Stout” to today’s beer drinker, the first thing that comes to mind is “a 10-14 percent ABV, likely barrel-aged beer with vanilla bean, cinnamon, marshmallows and coconut,” it’s probably the exact opposite. Among the majority of drinkers, the rare whales like 3 Floyds’ Dark Lord that are hunted and traded might not even register. It’s the often-seen Stouts at grocery stores and neighborhood bars that are most synonymous with the style and the plethora of sales that Stout continues to earn.

There’s plenty that could worry beer lovers in today’s industry, with increased competition and tighter sales forcing breweries to reconsider their business plans. But a treatise on the death of Stout doesn’t belong in the obituaries—it’s more of a “missed connection” in search of what’s next.

—Bryan Roth

Words by Bryan Roth