When you play a game of thrones, you win or you die. For Brewery Ommegang, the experience as the exclusive brewery officially representing the hit HBO series has been an uncommon victory for its portfolio of mostly Belgian-inspired beers. But is winter coming?
With the cultural phenomenon of a show set to start its final season this weekend, the past six years of making specialty beers representing the series’ characters, themes, and locations have proven to be an educational experience for the Upstate New York business. The opportunity has offered strong financial incentives during a critical time of change and competition, but in an ever-changing industry focusing on how to draw more customers toward beer, the effort of making more than a dozen unique brands connected to the beloved TV show has also functioned as a lesson in brand-building and expanding a customer base.
Since fully entering IRI chains in 2014, Ommegang's one-off runs of Game of Thrones beers have sold an average of $1.1 million annually, representing as much as 25% of the company's dollar sales in grocery, convenience, and other stores. In 2018, four of the company’s top-10 highest-grossing brands in IRI were from the Game of Thrones series. In total, the beers have amounted to about 10% of the brewery’s overall volume in the time frame.
With what can be seen through IRI—Ommegang has significant retail presence in privately-owned stores that aren’t tracked in that system—it’s clear that the beers have offered great mainstream appeal. There’s more to the story when counting all retailers that carry Ommegang beer, though—the brewery’s overall top-five brands by revenue are Three Philosophers, Witte, Nirvana IPA (sold only in the Tri-State Area), Pale Sour, and Hennepin.
The hope now is that, as the Game of Thrones brands transition out of the portfolio, newer releases like Brut IPA and Neon Rainbows NE IPA help fill some of the gap. At least in IRI, those beers have been the #8 and #10 brands, respectively, to start 2019.
For a brewery that has faced a 20% reduction in total barrels produced from 2015–2017 (the Brewers Association is yet to release 2018 figures for members), the Game of Thrones lineup has offered at least one solid win in recent years. But with the final chapter of this story set to begin this weekend, the success has shifted to a focus on what comes next, and how lessons learned can benefit the business moving forward.
“When we started with it, it probably wasn’t as necessary as it would be today,” says Ommegang president Doug Campbell. “It’s been great financially and it’s been great in terms of the amount of attention it attracts for the brand, which is pretty beer-geek- and foodie-centric. With Game of Thrones, it’s an entirely different brand-building exercise focused on brewing a complement to what a fan of this show wants when it’s on and our bottle is within reach.”
With beers made "for those who rule the Seven Kingdoms," creations have included styles that would be very familiar to longtime Ommegang customers—the Valar Dohaeris Tripel or Valar Morghulis Dubbel fit within the business's Belgian-inspired wheelhouse. Others have been learning opportunities. Along with a Barleywine, Blonde Ale, Wit, and more, Ommegang also released Mother of Dragons, a Smoked Porter and Kriek blend, and For the Throne, a Strong Golden Ale fermented with Pinot Grigio and Viognier grape juice.
Campbell says For the Throne, set to release this week, had been nearly 18 months in the making. As a co-fermented beer made with malt and wine grapes, it built off 2018’s limited-release Saison Rosé, a blend of two Saisons (one oak-aged and another brewed with hibiscus flowers and co-fermented with Chardonnay grape juice). According to Campbell, For the Throne offered Ommegang the chance to “take our biggest megaphone and apply it to a projects we’ve been most excited about” in playing with co-fermentation.
“You have to realize the power of something as culturally relevant as Game of Thrones because you can’t seek to contain it,” he says. “What we can do is make sure that if the brand brings somebody to us that has never tried an Ommegang beer before, they walk away understanding what we can do.”
The company hasn’t tried to track just how many new customers have picked up bottles of Ommegang beers because of the connection to the TV show, but a basic glance at the kind of coverage—and where it comes from—shows a much wider reach than normal.
A variety of sci-fi and comic book-focused websites, Vox, and regional newspapers from around the country have all covered the release of these beers in recent weeks. Food and beverage publications are chiming in as well, but when it comes to showcasing beer at a time when the category is constantly seeking new drinkers, this kind of reach can’t be overlooked. Campbell highlights the coverage and sales outside Ommegang’s home market of New York as a big benefit, and one that peers could learn from as well.
The trick is to not become the “Game of Thrones brewery,” something not lost on Campbell, who says that working with “a cultural phenomenon like Game of Thrones is going to swamp a lot of whatever else you have out there.”
“But if you’re going to walk down that path and get that kind of reach, you better know you’ll be happy about it,” he continues. “[The Ommegang] brand is going to live longer, so it’s making sure we’re ready for what’s next.”
Having the opportunity to partner with HBO is a rare example of creating new relationships with new consumers, but the intent behind it can be applied moving forward. If brands like Ommegang hope to grow again, there’s a need to find new connections with new people and build excitement in ways that hadn’t traditionally been sought out by breweries.
“As craft matures, one thing we’ve all had to remember is that we ultimately serve an audience, and you have to know what they want,” Campbell says. “That sounds so obvious, but in an industry that was originally about revolutionizing a product, I don’t think that always comes as second nature to craft. It’s not always about you. It’s about someone else, and that’s not always considered in craft.”
How that insight turns into action will be key in determining the next Ommegang success post Game of Thrones. When the final season ends in May, this current run of beers will also stop production. However, the contract to produce beer with HBO doesn’t end, leaving open the potential for future collaborations if HBO pursues spin-off shows. But fear cuts deeper than swords, so Campbell is focused on how to maximize what this final run of brands can provide the show’s fans, beer lovers, and his brewery.
“What we’ve learned from this experience is you have to spend real time thinking about what your brand stands for from a universal perspective,” he says. “What does it say when you walk up to a bar and you have to choose from the 7,000 breweries that exist? We’re certainly more experienced with what it means to talk to drinkers than before.”