For generations, American beer was defined by its imitation of European styles. In our own self-deprecating colloquialism, it differentiated itself from its origins by becoming “yellow,” “fizzy” and, to many, bland.
The modern expansion of craft has led to a direct antithesis of this, with the latest wave of businesses creating new boundaries and pushing old ones, expanding the idea and experience of flavor in beer. In some aspects, this is the story of the rise and ongoing influence of IPA, New England IPA, and even Pastry Stouts.
And yet, the brands and styles long beloved still reign supreme. Lager and it’s top-fermenting ale cousins stock fridges and draft lines across the country. Interest may wane in recognizable macro brands like Budweiser, but its Big Beer brethren Bud Light, Coors Light, and Miller Lite continue to sell billions of dollars worth of beer. In IRI-tracked MULC stores (grocery, convenience and others), the best-selling, Brewers Association-defined "craft" beer in the U.S. is Yuengling Traditional Lager. One of the fastest-growing brands in the country is Firestone Walker’s 805 Blonde Ale, which is just about to enter its fifth and sixth states for distribution, and nearly matches Goose Island IPA’s nationwide, in-store dollar sales.
"A combination of light and sessionable is always going to be a large market," Beer Marketer's Insights executive editor Eric Shepard recently told The Washington Post. "For a lot of people, that's always going to be what beer is.”
Small and independent brewers have done immense work of changing expectations for readily available beer, putting new and exciting flavors everywhere, from mom-and-pop bodegas to big box chain stores. IPA has been a big part of that, accounting for the majority of craft dollar and volume growth, but on the flip side, brands like Hamm’s and Rainier are doing great, too.
Craft has changed beer, no doubt, but as more brewers look to the future, past preferences aren’t going away. Brewers Association-defined craft amounts to almost 13% of market share, with a majority of the remaining 87% represented by Pale Lager. In terms of conversion, this style and its near-variations offer an ideal entryway and is a big part of convincing people “craft” is worth their time.
“Craft beer has grown a lot over the last couple decades, but at the same time, there’s a demographic that can feel marginalized by that because they don’t need something that’s going to smack them in the face every single time,” Jack Goodall, marketing manager with Virginia’s Starr Hill Brewery, tells GBH. “It’s not going out there with the Pepsi Challenge, but it’s this idea that you can have something that’s extremely refreshing, balanced and, at the same time, offer a way to feel strong about a craft style to pay an extra $1 or $1.50.”
Starr Hill is hoping this narrative boosts their fortunes in 2018 with the release of Front Row Golden Ale, a new year-round release directly focused on capturing a broader collection of drinkers alongside flagship Northern Lights IPA. In essence, it’s a one-two punch hoping to capture consumers through craft’s leading style (IPA) as well as those interested in exploring new brands (Golden Ale). The two will even be packaged together in Starr Hill’s new BoomBox Variety Pack, which packages four 16-ounce cans each of Northern Lights and Front Row.
“There’s certainly an angle there with an extraordinarily big opportunity for lighter beer options to get more and more popular for craft breweries,” Goodall says.
Overall, this kind of trend has long been cited by those watching the industry. Twice in 2015, the Brewers Association’s chief economist, Bart Watson, noted shifts toward greater sales of craft Lagers and Blonde/Golden/Kolsch Ales. Aside from overall sales, Watson and others pointed toward increased capacity as one reason why these styles showed potential. As growth would inevitably slow, brewers needed to fill tanks and/or diversify. With production sitting around an average of about two-thirds of what it could be, according to the most recent figures by the BA, it made sense. Most of all, these styles of beer harken back to what Americans—and others around the world, really—have always preferred.
“When you look down the list of top selling brands, the top-20 brands are all Lagers. This isn’t new,” Watson wrote in 2015. “Lager has long been the choice for a majority of beer lovers. Combine that with the increasing desire for diverse locally-produced flavors and you get demand for more local lagers in a variety of styles.”
Even though IPA may help drive sales and style experimentation, these tried and true “easy-drinking” styles continue to be a boon for brewers.
While its dollar sales have fallen 25% over the last five years in IRI-tracked MULC stores, Samuel Adams Boston Lager ($70 million in 2017 sales) continues to be one of the highest-selling beers in the U.S. Devils Backbone Vienna Lager is the top-selling craft (as defined by IRI) six pack in its home state of Virginia. Green Flash, which recently restructured to better focus on future growth, saw 2017 as a pivot point for its GFB Blonde Ale to take on an important role for the brewery’s movement into convenience stores, an area of considerable interest across the industry. Stone Brewing, built around a hop-driven lineup, continues to push its year-round Who You Callin' WUSSIE Pilsner despite co-founder Greg Koch’s distaste toward the “fizzy, yellow beer thing” made by multinational conglomerates.
Even Guinness, in its efforts to create a homegrown market in the U.S. with a brewery in Maryland, have gotten in on the action. Since that company’s taproom opened in October, its Blonde Ale has been one of its top-three selling beers.
Consider, then, the growth of lighter styles within the portfolios of some of the country’s most popular breweries:
The above chart doesn’t include even larger dollar share gains made by Creature Comforts Bibo Pilsner (+156%) or New Glarus Spotted Cow Cream Ale (+240%) within their portfolios, as well as debuts from other brands that accounted for a significant showing: New Belgium Dayblazer Easygoing Golden Ale (5.4% of company dollar share), Boulevard American Kolsch (1.9%) and Ballast Point Bonito Blonde Ale (1%).
And all this doesn’t yet consider the monumental success of Firestone Walker’s 805 Blonde Ale which, in 2017, accounted for about 75% of the brewery’s IRI-tracked sales in grocery, convenience and chain stores. Its growth over the five-year span of 2013 to 2017 was impressively exponential, going from $2.8 million to $44.2 million in sales.
“It’s probably the least dimensional of our beers, but it’s caught the imagination of the 20 million people that live within drinking distance of our brewery,” co-founder David Walker told GBH's Matthew Curtis in 2017. “It’s even outperforming a lot of the macro beers in the local market. It’s been a huge surprise to us. We’ve tripled in size over the last six years and, functionally, 805 has been responsible for most of that.”
Along with Starr Hill’s Golden Ale, others are hoping light, sessionable and pale options resonate as new additions to their core lineups. Illinois’ DESITHIL has added Normal Pils, Founders just launched Solid Gold (a “drinkable premium Lager”) Samuel Adams’ Sam ‘76 is a light Lager-Ale hybrid and Left Hand Brewing is debuting Juicy Goodness, a dry-hopped Golden Ale. In no way does it mark the end of IPA, but it’s at least offering another option to get new people into the category.
“This kind of style,” Starr Hill’s Goodall says, “is just what you want when you just want a beer.”