Good Beer Hunting

Strengthening the Core — Exploring the New Ways Breweries Add or Boost Their Portfolios

Photo by Stephanie Byce

Photo by Stephanie Byce

Do you want to drink something "super juicy" with a "tropical aroma" wafting from your glass? Or would you prefer "a fresh blast of grapefruit and citrus flavor," courtesy of Comet and Galaxy hops?

This was the scenario presented to fans of New Belgium Brewing Company, who voted on the next iteration of its Voodoo Ranger IPA series, choosing between Hop Avenger or Starship IPAs. Ultimately, Hop Avenger IPA won the contest, and will be released in September.

It’s striking, and still unusual, that a raw, public vote was the determining factor in picking the brewery’s next release. When brewers are still expected to utter some version of “I brew what I like to drink,” giving fans the ultimate control is an empowering move.

"Determining which new beers people really want to drink should always be a two-way conversation,” says Kyle Bradshaw, New Belgium's director of brand marketing. “Our fans have enthusiastically embraced the Voodoo Ranger Rotating IPA series, so we wanted to give them an opportunity to choose our next release."

[Disclosure: New Belgium is an underwriter of Good Beer Hunting’s “Into the Wild” series.]

Sourcing ideas from drinkers isn't totally out of the ordinary—brewers often cite Untappd as a place they go to for real-time feedback—but public polling is a new step in how businesses are eyeing up the market. For decades, U.S. breweries pushed products to drinkers, rather than the reverse. Because of its long near-monopolization by a few companies, the beer industry was built on the idea that supply would create demand, and that, with strong distribution and placement in stores and bars, customers would happily snap up new offerings. But all of that is starting to change.

Thanks to the industry’s exponential growth in recent years, and more competition than ever, it's not so easy for breweries both big and small in today’s beer landscape. That’s one reason why Sierra Nevada started its invite-only "Insiders" program in May 2017, surveying fans monthly to gain insights that have since driven choices related to brand releases and packaging visuals.

Durham, North Carolina’s Fullsteam Brewery also launched its own public survey in December 2018. The poll wasn’t testing the popularity of a seasonal or one-off release, however, but instead an addition to the brewery’s core lineup, a commitment of around 1,200 barrels of annual production.

“We can’t afford, in this market, for a year-round beer to hit a stretch double,” says Sean Lilly Wilson, owner and “Chief Executive Optimist” at Fullsteam. “It’s got to have some possibility to really resonate, sing, and have good staying power.”

It’s a metaphor that works surprisingly well within the fickle nature of today’s industry. Flagships aren’t dead, but they are evolving, and if a company can hit a home run with an individual brand, it can be a game changer. By definition, seasonal and specialty releases aren’t meant to provide sustainable revenue in the same way a regular, always-available brand can, so it’s with these considerations in mind that Wilson and his team wanted to switch up their R&D process three years after the last new addition to the brewery’s year-round portfolio.

“If we do a year-round beer, we’re putting that up to compete against breweries that spend a lot of time in research and development and internal conversations,” Wilson says. “The last thing we want to do is rush things, because that’s not going to work.”

Fullsteam’s prior core release, Humidity Pale Ale, debuted in 2016 and entered North Carolina stores in six-packs of 12oz cans in 2017. It was shortly thereafter named by Thrillist as the "official beer" of the state. Per its IRI sales in grocery, convenience, and other stores, Humidity is solidly second in Fullsteam's lineup, moving about 30% less than Rocket Science IPA in 2018.

Fullsteam’s hope was that survey results would help it switch things up a bit, and move beyond the ubiquity of hop-forward styles. Despite regular proclamations forecasting the “end of Stout,” the overwhelming majority of the poll’s 250-odd responses called for a release in that style. Wilson admits that some respondents may have been biased, as the question was posed in the depths of winter, but a Stout could also fit well into a core lineup that otherwise features a Pilsner, Pale Ale, and IPA.

The customer survey was one piece to consider. The reality is that, as a packaged product that will immediately get significant production in the 9,000-BBL brewery, any new core beer has to offer something to wholesalers, too. Wilson says it’s part of a “chain presence conversation” that has to be calculated in its final decision.

“We have to move in two different directions to hit the kind of churn and one-offs our ardent fans want, but also provide consistent, reliable, always-in-the-fridge options for chains,” he says. “That’s why feedback and data are good.”

In the coming months, Fullsteam will test a few styles that garnered the most interest and reaction from customers and its internal team, including a Mexican-style Lager, a Golden Ale with all-North Carolina grain, and an American Stout.

Sometimes, these things can’t be planned. About a year ago, Fort Worth, Texas’ Rahr & Sons Brewing Company partnered with Mexico City’s Casa Cervecera Morenos on Paleta de Mango, a mango-chile beer meant to be a one-off release for Cerveza Mexico, an annual beer festival held in the Mexican capital. Out of a 20-barrel batch, only two kegs stayed in the U.S., and promptly became a hit. The beer wasn’t supposed to catch on the way it did, especially considering the recipe’s costly additions of two pounds of mango puree per barrel and chile powder imported from Mexico. The collaboration was financially supported by the Brewers Association and the Mexican Agricultural Trade Organization, which kept costs low.

“We were making this beer for fun, so why not throw this and that in?” says Nate Swan, director of brewing operations at Rahr. “Otherwise, we might have looked at the cost and said it’s a no-go because it doesn’t make sense from a raw materials standpoint.”

Then it became the most beloved beer at Rahr’s 2018 anniversary party, and blew up on social media. As others can attest, when a brewery gets that kind of attention, it can’t be ignored.

“So, we started asking about how we could bring it to market,” Swan adds.

Paleta currently counts for about 20% of around 20,000 BBLs of total volume (the percentage may shift slightly depending on season). Adiós Pantalones, a Mexican Lager made with lemon, lime, and sea salt that was created as an ode to sweltering Texas summers, is at 25%.

Both were unexpected additions to Rahr’s year-round lineup, but the customer is always right. If you add in Dadgum IPA—its first West Coast IPA, released in 2017—three of Rahr’s most important core beers have been created in the last two years, a direct reaction to demand and market tendencies.

That said, Rahr's Blonde (a Helles Lager) and Texas Red (an American Amber) are still the brewery’s most popular beers (Red accounts for about 28% of volume, and Blonde 26%), but Rahr adjusted as needed. Dadgum went through a variety of test batches, internal panel analysis, and, perhaps most importantly, customer feedback. Adjusted hop and malt bills allowed for different experiences across seven batches of “Beta IPA,” released only in the taproom.

After strong consumer reaction, Paleta de Mango and Adiós Pantalones got the expedited treatment, however. Paleta had the benefit of its ready-to-go recipe and the fact that its costly, initial batches were partially covered. Pantalones was an adjusted recipe formerly known as Fort Worth, a callout commemorative beer named after the USS Fort Worth.

If it means a business has to scramble to figure out logistics in order to maximize a success, so be it. Adiós Pantalones recently expanded into 19.2oz cans, along with Dadgum IPA, and is also heading into 12-packs.

“There are a lot of breweries launching a crazy, new beer every month, but that means you’re limiting the excitement around each one, and it fizzles in the end,” says Jeff Wood, creative director for Rahr. “You end up casting your line out over and over to get a nibble.”

“Sometimes you need to slow down and listen to what your customers are telling you,” he adds.

In today’s competitive market, Swan says it’s important to celebrate big victories where you can find them, and when something sticks, run with it. The adage has worked famously for Firestone Walker (805 Blonde Ale), Victory Brewing (Golden Monkey), Wiseacre Brewing (Tiny Bomb), and Wild Heaven (Emergency Drinking Beer). The latter example, for instance, changed the small Georgia brewery forever.

“Is it a pivot?” Wild Heaven president Nick Purdy asked GBH rhetorically in 2017. “Yep, definitely. But it’s also a huge challenge. I don’t know that we’ll ever catch lightning in a bottle like we did with that again. That might be a once-in-a-career sorta deal. What do you do to follow that?”

There’s no denying that value of creating new products. After all, there will always be a set of beer drinkers excited to try what’s new, and maybe even wait in line for their allotments. But most breweries rely on some form of a flagship, and sometimes those beers support, shift, or wholly change a core portfolio. Nevertheless, where that inspiration is coming from has undoubtedly changed.

As Craft Brew Alliance’s Karmen Olson recently opined on the Good Beer Hunting podcast, the beer industry has, for a long time, focused more on internal motivations than consumer responses. With so many changing tastes, let alone new and different alcohol options available all the time, stopping to listen to drinkers can prove to be a powerful tool.

Words by Bryan Roth