After almost 200 years, one of the most celebrated Belgian breweries is taking part in one of the trendiest activities of the modern beer industry. Brouwerji Rodenbach, which lends its name to oak-aged, mixed-fermentation ale dating back to 1821, is set to make a collaboration brew with Dogfish Head, who proudly proclaims its SeaQuench Ale the “fastest-growing beer in the fastest-growing craft beer style” in the U.S.
No details were released about what the beer would be or what kind of unique ingredients might be included.
David van Wees, President of Swinkels Family Brewers Imports, the North American importer for Rodenbach, said the Belgian brewery’s centuries of brewing and blending would influence the beer. In a release, Dogfish founder and CEO Sam Calagione noted that Belgium’s “culinary influence” and Rodenbach’s “legendary brewery and cooperage...will serve as a huge inspiration behind the beer we create.”
The companies announced that the beer would be brewed and blended in the U.S. in 2019 and launch in early 2020 in America. A release in Belgium will follow.
WHY IT MATTERS
Dogfish can pretty much do no wrong right now.
As one of the few top-50 Brewers Association-defined craft brewers to have double digit year-over-year growth, the Delaware-based company is a rare bird in the beer industry. Its goal was about 300,000 BBLs for 2018, hitting another big threshold after passing 200,000 BBLs in 2013. In its IRI sales through grocery, convenience, and other stores, volume sales have almost doubled in that same timeframe. Last year, its IRI volume growth was almost 11%, one of the healthiest year-to-year results among the country's largest breweries.
The business' immediate connection to Rodenbach—the sour-inclined SeaQuench Ale—has become Dogfish's #2 brand in just two years, behind only the brewery’s flagship 60 Minute. There’s no easy way to ID Calagione’s claim that the beer is "the fastest-growing beer in the fastest-growing style," as even the most in-depth breakdown for IRI sales available through the Brewers Association doesn't include "Sour Beer" as an individual category. Still, it would seem an exciting win for Dogfish to create this kind of partnership, and an even better situation for Rodenbach, which has been trying to work its way back into the minds of American beer drinkers for a few years now.
In 2015, Rodenbach global brew master Rudi Ghequire visited cities in the U.S. to spread word about his company’s portfolio. He did a similar tour in 2016, including stops in Los Angeles and Houston, complete with specialty graphics made by Rodenbach to promote his visits.
That year was also the first round of advertisements in which the Belgian brewery created its own tagline of "The Original Sour," alongside a slogan of "The sour that started the whole sour thing." At a time when wood-aged beer was working its way toward zeitgeist with craft beer enthusiasts, it was a clear play to take some share from all the U.S. breweries hopping on that train. Less than a year later, Rodenbach Fruitage, a 4.2% ABV fruit-focused sour blend, debuted.
IRI sales of Rodenbach brands reached a peak in 2016, amounting to the equivalent of about 120 BBLs in chain stores, a volume that, while relatively small, isn’t ridiculous for a small and focused U.S. blender these days. But that number has precipitously dropped to a third of its peak among mitigating circumstances for the company.
Latis Imports, now known as SFB Imports, and brings Rodenbach to the U.S., ended its partnership with Radeberger Gruppe USA on Sept. 30, 2017, dramatically reducing sales staff dedicated to Rodenbach Ale, Grand Cru, and more. The move was brought about after Bavaria Group acquired Latis.
The collaboration and the exposure that comes from it will “open doors for us,” says Craig Alperowitz, head of North America marketing for Rodenbach. Since the split from Radeberger, he adds that Rodenbach has worked to entrench itself in core East Coast markets, focusing on quality of placements and relationships with retailers over simply moving a maximum amount of product. “Fewer, but better,” is how he explains it.
For a business like Rodenbach, IRI only tells a small part of the story. Geared toward independently-owned stores, it may find greater success outside crowded shelves of a chain grocer. Meanwhile, it continues to face broader market forces thanks to U.S. brewers’ increased focus on a variety of sour/wild/mixed-culture beer, as well as the ease and wide reach of quick sours.
Connecting with one of the few remaining major American brewers that still tote a BA-official designation of “craft” and are celebrating continued growth could easily prove a win for Rodenbach. The announcement alone—by this analysis or others—is proof of needed attention for a world-class brewery that isn’t front of mind for U.S. beer drinkers blessed by a wide variety of similarly-soured beer.
For now, everyone is left wondering what that collaboration might be, an idea prepared to sit and germinate like the liquid that will hit glasses in about a year.