Good Beer Hunting

Summer Lovin’ Pt. 1 — IPA—and Little Else—Stays Hot at 2019’s Halfway Sales Point


We’re now firmly in the thick, humid days of summer: prime beer-selling season. The period between Memorial Day at the end of May and Labor Day in early September is traditionally the busiest time of year for beer sales, as holidays, parties, and vacations make beer the go-to beverage for millions of Americans.

This is also an important moment for reflecting on 2019’s sales trends: we now have half a year of purchase data tracked by research firm IRI, which collects scan data from grocery, convenience, and many other chain stores. As a beer lover may expect, looking at the numbers reveals continued patterns spotted from earlier this year, plus ideas about where things are headed next.

But first, we have to talk about IPA. 

There’s nothing new to explain about the dominance of IPA, as the hop-forward style has long driven growth in the non-macro beer sector (and has influenced the kinds of hops we find in our beer). Through the first half of 2019, IPA is one of two main style categories tracked by IRI that has shown growth compared to the same timeframe last year. IRI-defined "craft" IPA (which includes multinational-owned brands like Elysian’s Space Dust) grew by 13.4%, while craft American Lager increased by 18.3%. Porter/Stout, lumped together by IRI, was up 1%, consistent with past years.

Now, before beer lovers shout from the rooftops about the mass adoption and success of "craft American Lager," know this: IPA sells about 7.5 times more in IRI volume than American Lager. IPA is growing at a double-digit clip while selling the highest volume of these styles. Pale Ale, (almost three times as much volume as American Lager), Wheat (2.5 times more), Seasonal (2.2 times more), and Variety Packs (almost two times more) all move far more volume. So don't get carried away quite yet.

With that in mind, it’s impossible to consider the continued growth of the IPA category without examining the ascendancy of Sierra Nevada's Hazy Little Thing. There's some cosmic synergy for this brand and its company, which helped usher in the modern hop-forward beer movement three decades ago with its style-defining Pale Ale. Hazy Little Thing, which debuted nationwide last year and sold enough IRI volume to become the 10th best-selling IPA in the country (in IRI-tracked stores), is now the sixth best-selling beer by volume and dollars. It’s arguably setting the pace for New England-style IPAs on a mass scale.

Last year, Hazy Little Thing amounted to 8.8% of Sierra's total IRI volume across its entire family of brands. Through the end of June, it was up to 16%, solidly behind Pale Ale (41.3%) and Torpedo Extra IPA (18.8%). To illustrate how big of a summer the brand might have, it grew by 75% in volume sales from the first quarter of 2019 to the second. 

After total sales “increased” just .2% in 2018, Sierra Nevada set a goal of 5% year-to-year increase for 2019, which at this point doesn’t seem easily attainable. Regardless of achieving that figure, Hazy Little Thing is going to play a big role going forward.

Elysian’s Space Dust IPA, with nationwide backing from parent company Anheuser-Busch InBev, is on pace for a fourth-consecutive record-setting year, and isn't far off from overtaking Torpedo IPA as the fifth best-selling IPA by volume in the country. Torpedo lost 6.6% of its sales volume in the 52-week period from June 2018 to June 2019, compared to the year prior, with Space Dust up 37.8%.

It’s an interesting battle at the top of the IPA list: Founders’ All Day IPA, thanks to its 15-pack format, outsells Lagunitas IPA in terms of volume, but Lagunitas IPA brings in far more money. Through the end of June, All Day IPA moved an equivalent of about 1,800 more barrels’ worth of beer than Lagunitas IPA, but the latter sold almost $8.2 million more in IRI stores, almost entirely though its six- and 12-pack formats. Take your pick with either brand for how success is defined.

It's an unsurprisingly similar story when it comes to brands that are finding success in 2019. Rather than look solely at debuts that have been around for six months, a good way to get a sense of what's performing well is to eye 2018 debuts, and then their sales into this year. From this perspective, success (as determined by chain-store sales) remains decidedly with the IPA category.

Two themes emerge from the IRI data. First is the joint success of SweetWater's 420 Strain G13 IPA and New Belgium's The Hemperor HPA (Hemp Pale Ale), both of which featured last summer on GBH's exploration into the overlap of cannabis marketing and beer. While The Hemporer already sold almost 70% of its entire 2018 IRI volume by the halfway point of 2019 (a little over 3,000 BBLs’ worth as of June 30), SweetWater's marijuana-inspired brand meant to smell “like the infamous cannabis strain" G13 moved three times as much, going from about 3,500 BBLs in IRI stores to almost 10,500 BBLs.

“As [cannabis] becomes more prominent in pop culture and accepted and less taboo, it makes sense for a beverage alcohol company to tap into that lifestyle,” Brian Miesieski, SweetWater's vice president of marketing, told GBH last year.

Recently a host of non-alcoholic, THC-infused beers have entered the market (like Ceria Brewing Company), or are waiting to do so (like Flying Dog Brewery’s Hop Chronic IPA). IPAs designed to mimic the aromatic experience of marijuana without the mind-altering chemistry have also proven to be an initial hit. The trend looks even more promising when considering the adoption of these beers by a wide range of consumers shopping at chain grocery and convenience stores, not just boutique bottle shops.

The success of these two beers is testament to the “varied” types of IPA making strides halfway through 2019. An easily accepted narrative may be that New England IPA is the most important hop-forward style of the moment, but there’s certainly more out there.

Dogfish Head's Liquid Truth Serum IPA (151% of 2018’s volume has sold in the first half of  2019), Stone Brewing's Scorpion Bowl IPA (70%), and Ninkasi's Prismatic Juicy IPA (66%) were all tracking strong. They all also feature Mosaic hops, one of the fastest-growing (based on planted acres) varieties of the last five years. For the hazy crowd, Deschutes' Fresh Haze IPA (186% of last year’s volume) and Modern Times' Orderville Hazy Mosaic IPA (107%) exemplify the NE IPA’s continued success, with the latter also benefiting from having the popular hop in its name.

Cigar City's Guayabera Citra Pale Ale is also worth highlighting as a beer that has taken off in 2019. The all-Citra beer wasn't far off pace to double its 2018 sales of about 3,200 BBLs’ worth of beer in IRI stores by year-end. Ditto for Sierra Nevada’s Hop Bullet Double IPA, which went from a seasonal to year-round release in 2019, and has already grown its IRI sales 2.5 times over, selling almost 6,000 BBLs of the SKU through June 30.

Brand new, full-distribution 2019 debuts offer plenty to the growing category of New England IPA, too. Bell's Official Hazy IPA (featuring a combo of Mosaic and Citra hops, alongside three other strains) sold about 4,500 BBLs in IRI stores in the first six months of the year: a little more than the entire Full Sail Brewery portfolio of beers. Saint Archer's Hazy IPA (featuring Citra and Simcoe, two of the fastest-growing hop varieties), and Blue Point's The IPA (Citra with Denali and El Dorado hops) both sold more than 1,000 BBLs’ worth through the end of June. (Saint Archer’s Hazy IPA had a limited start in 2018 and went wide across its distribution footprint this year.)

If you're looking for some non-IPAs making a strong showing through the first half of 2019, there are a few brands that have easily sold more in IRI stores than what a typical U.S. brewery might make in a year (about 400 BBLs). Blue Point's Shore Thing Anytime, Anywhere Lager (517 BBLs), Dogfish Head's Super Eight Super Gose (593 BBLS), Ballast Point Lager (841 BBLs), and Saint Archer's Gold Lager (1,450 BBLs) are all doing well, with Gold Lager getting help from parent company MillerCoors to make a big push in limited markets. According to the MillerCoors blog, Saint Archer’s Gold Lager was the #1 new brand in Indiana and #4 in Arizona and the city of Charlotte, North Carolina through the end of May.

Not to be left out: Dogfish Head’s Slightly Mighty Lo-Cal IPA, which sold almost 1,100 BBLs in IRI stores. Alongside Super Eight Gose, the two beers have played a key role in the brewery's aim to become the "number-one active, lifestyle-oriented craft beer brand."

These narratives continue when looking at some of the "smaller" breweries in the country, too. The brands leading businesses on the Brewers Association's list of the fastest growing U.S. craft breweries (per the BA's definition) aren't likely to offer any surprises.

Lone Pine Brewing Company (#4 on the BA’s list), which was featured in a GBH podcast about how today's businesses are eyeing growth potential, is led by the extraordinary popularity of its Brightside IPA, Portland Pale Ale, and Tessellation Mosaic Double IPA brands, all of which will pass their 2018 IRI sales volume by the end of summer, if not the end of July. The jump is aided by an additional production facility for the Maine-based brewery, but reinforces the power that an IPA brand can have for a brewery. 

It's a similar situation for Sacramento's New Glory Craft Brewery (#6 on the BA list), which is led by its Ubahdank West Coast IPA (made with Mosaic and #1 in the company's IRI sales), and Citra Dream IPA (all-Citra New England IPA, and #3). Seasonal releases are #2 for New Glory.

Even down BA’s list, this trend continues. Third Space Brewing, based in Milwaukee, (#32) is led by its Happy Place Midwest IPA. Oddly enough, the BA’s fastest-growing brewery in the country, Clear Lake, Iowa's Lake Time Brewery, has an IRI leaderboard that looks like a joke on #BeerTwitter: #1 is Peanut Butter Porter, followed by Oreo Speedwagon Chocolate Vanilla Milk Stout, and Haze of Our Lives NE IPA.

The necessary inclusion of IPA across all these breweries is pretty much table stakes these days. Instead of just looking at individual brands, part two of this series will take a step back to ID some broader beer-industry trends in 2019.

Part 2 — The Breweries Cooling and Heating Up For Summer

Words by Bryan Roth