Nearly 60% of Americans are expected to celebrate St. Patrick's Day this week, with one analysis of average spending showing each reveler dropping around $40 to partake in the holiday. In all, the National Retail Federation estimates total spending to reach $5.9 billion in the U.S.
That's a lot of green all around.
In America and elsewhere, drinkers are expected to consume about 13 million pints of Guinness, the officially unofficial beer of choice for St. Patrick's Day. It's no wonder then, that at least one American craft brewer is looking to get a little more attention this year. In the weeks leading up to the holiday, Left Hand Brewing Co. began an online push to encourage people to "Drink #AmericasStout," a play on a self-created slogan for the Colorado beer maker’s Milk Stout.
[Disclosure: Guinness underwrites Good Beer Hunting’s Coming to America series.]
“Everyone concedes St. Patrick’s Day to Guinness, but we want to be the American craft beer version of that and capture the mindset of what people thought of when they thought of a craft Stout,” says Jason Ingram, national sales director for Left Hand.
But such a bold claim begs the question: is Milk Stout actually America's Stout? No other version of the style came close to Guinness Draught’s $71.4 million in sales last year in IRI’s MULC channels (grocery, convenience, etc.). That is, except for Guinness Extra Stout at $45.9 million. So when it comes to a home-grown option, how are drinkers voting with their wallet?
Based on 2017 IRI MULC sales, it’s certainly up for debate. When looking at volume sales, Left Hand’s Milk Stout Nitro is clearly above the rest, selling nearly 23% more case equivalents than the second-most popular Stout in these channels, New Holland Dragon’s Milk Ale. When combining the volume sales of Milk Stout's nitro (80,584) and regular (22,872) versions, Dragon’s Milk accounts for only 63% of the total volume of Left Hand’s leading brands.
However, this is flipped when examining dollar sales. While the overall amount of beer moved is a worthy number to consider, the amount spent on these beers also matters, especially when Milk Stout commonly sells in six packs of 12-ounce bottles and four packs of 16-ounce cans. Left Hand’s beer has a clear advantage simply by the amount of what customers get according to how the company packages its beer.
Dragon’s Milk, which sells at a higher price point and by four pack of 12-ounce bottles, easily eclipses Milk Stout when considering how—and how much—customers are willing to pay for New Holland’s Stout ($6.25 million in IRI MULC) versus dollar sales for Milk Stout Nitro ($3.62 million), regular Milk Stout ($969,222) or even the latter two combined ($4.6 million).
“We love the team from Left Hand and we’re very close and work with them all the time, and we don’t pit ourselves against them in any way,” says Joel Peterson, vice president for marketing with New Holland. “But we feel Dragon’s Milk is truly America’s Stout.”
Peterson details statistical and anecdotal information to support his claim, starting with the fact that, by his count, Dragon’s Milk is the number one revenue-driving Stout made and sold in America, both in the “regular” Stout category as well as bourbon-barrel aged varieties. Growth has been spurred by a 2016 distribution agreement with Pabst which presented an opportunity to scale up New Holland’s production, as well as entry points to new markets. In 2017, Dragon’s Milk and other New Holland beers started appearing in states like Maine, New Hampshire, and Florida—and they got an expanded footprint in upstate New York.
“We feel it’s the beginning of a moment for this brand, which has literally and figuratively shaped our brewery,” Peterson says. “It will continue do so for the next 20, 30 years, and as long as you can go out into the future.”
That kind of talk could spell trouble for others trying to claim the “America’s Stout” title, and it shows up in MULC dollar sales from last year. Milk Stout Nitro ($3.6 million) sold just slightly more by dollars than Goose Island Bourbon County Stout ($3.5 million) in IRI MULC channels last year. While still a ways away in dollars, North Coast Old Rasputin ($2.4 million) has grown steadily in recent years, increasing by almost 15% in dollar sales between 2016 and 2017, and nearly 22% from 2015 to 2017. Compare these beers by volume, however, and Milk Stout Nitro alone outsold BCBS and Rasputin combined by almost 19,000 case equivalents in 2017.
Increased competition isn’t all bad, Left Hand’s Ingram says. He doesn’t necessarily buy into a “rising tide lifts all boats” philosophy for all of craft beer, but he does feel it applies in a category like Stout, where enthusiasts may often overlook the classic style for something more modern and hoppy.
“For whatever reason, the perception of a dark beer among people getting into craft beer can be a hurdle to get over,” he says. “Sometimes they have to become less averse to it, and usually that ends up with someone recommending a Left Hand Milk Stout.”
In part two of this series, we’ll take a look beyond Left Hand and New Holland to see which other breweries and Stouts are worth discussing as “America’s Stout.”