You’re Actually as Old as Your Feel: Introducing ALF, the Brewery Assumed Lifetime Formula

It started, as so many things do these days, with a tweet:

When analyzing the history of American craft beer, one of the fascinating qualifiers in recent years has been the description used for longstanding breweries that helped create the path so many have followed. “Heritage” and “legacy” are words thrown around often as adjectives for these businesses that launched so many beer enthusiasts: Sierra Nevada, Dogfish Head, Stone, and others.

Yet, none of these breweries have actually been around for that long. Stone opened in 1996! But for many drinkers, they’re old news, only made relevant by the constant churn of new brands released that helps them stay relevant and ratchet up Untappd check-ins.

Modern American craft beer is weird. It’s really not that old, whereas what would qualify as “full flavored” or “non-macro” or whatever non-corporate title style beer elsewhere around the world goes back hundreds of years as the OG option.

The US industry sometimes feels different because in its short lifespan, the combination of American culture, palate and ingenuity has allowed its beer to evolve wildly and rapidly. An easy example might be the country’s defining craft style, IPA, which in just the last 10 years has seen its trendiness shift from malt balance to IBU arms race to moderated bitterness to sweetness and fruit to hazy and juicy. An India Pale Ale that gets a beer geek excited today wouldn’t be recognizable to someone from 2008, and likely vice versa.

And that was the basis for the above tweet. 2018 looks to be the year many of these “heritage” breweries continue their efforts to keep up with their smaller, nimbler craft counterparts. Research and development has always been a huge part of breweries like Sierra Nevada or Boston Beer, it’s just that sometimes it feels like they’re left behind because the younger members of the industry are capable of moving at such a fast pace. These older breweries are showing up to the party late, asking “How do you do, fellow kids?

This is the basis for the Brewery Assumed Lifetime Formula (ALF for short), a wildly unscientific, inaccurate (but sorta fun!) way to put into context the “age” of these longtime breweries.

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The ‘Definitive’ Guide to the ‘Best’ Beer of 2017

If there was ever going to be a year in beer to highlight the “haves” and “have nots,” might as well be 2017.

Since 2014, I’ve been pulling together a compilation of “best beer” lists from writers and publications across the U.S., taking subjective choices of what is “best” and trying to add some layers of objectivity on top. (see 2015 and 2016, too) The goal of compiling these lists into one conglomeration allows for some consensus – or at least clearer focus – of what pleased the palate of “taste makers” from around the country.

A theme that began in last year’s analysis became a full-blown trend this time around, with rarity proving to be a pivotal trait for the majority of beers included across 13 year-end “best” lists. Of 150 beers provided by brewers, writers and beer enthusiasts, there were 142 different brands included in my data set. Nearly three-quarters (74.3%) were limited one-offs or specialty releases, never to be duplicated in that same way again.

An easy argument for why this might happen is simply the number of breweries (6,000+) and beers (A LOT) available to consumers, and as more people preach “drink local,” surely those local breweries will step up to provide.

Except these lists come from people exposed to beer from all over, of all availability levels, from the rarest to core lineups, and “best of” lists are seemingly getting more exclusionary year-to-year. This is not a good or bad thing, as it shows there’s phenomenal beer being made all over, but it does seem to be A Thing.

But let’s not get ahead of ourselves.

Overall, the criteria for selection into this analysis was simple: beers were focused on 2017 releases (new beers or new, annual brews) with a preference toward lists that included a wide geographic representation. An important note on the overall UNscientific nature of this analysis is that the lists chosen differ year-to-year (it’s almost literally whatever I can find) and the total number of beers is different, too. That said, the process still holds, I believe, as an exercise in moving past easy impressions to better understand what the last year has provided us.

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Trouble for Sam Adams’ Flagships? Three Charts Explain

Over on Good Beer Hunting, I wrote this week about Boston Beer’s latest financial report and some of its implications. Of note, I gathered some IRI data to help show changes in company sales structure that proved to be rather eye opening.

Among the variety of findings, this one stood out the most: in IRI-tracked spaces (grocery, convenience, big box, etc.) the Twisted Tea family of brands surpassed the collection of Sam Adams brands in year-to-date dollar sales. In fact, it’s been a long time coming.

Through the first 39 weeks of 2017, Twisted Tea ($199,353,081) has outsold Sam Adams ($197,857,496) by $1.5 million. To put this in perspective, Sam Adams had sold $76.2 million more through the same time in 2016.

Part of the challenge has been the decreased sales of flagship brand Boston Lager as well as the challenge of keeping interest in Rebel IPA. Both are still selling *millions* worth of six and 12-packs, but Boston Beer is a publicly traded company and these kinds of things get a bit awkward when success can’t be sustained.

Note this is *just* for packaged Boston Lager tracked through IRI stores off-premise, and this beer’s significant draft footprint most certainly buoys its decline seen here.

The same applies for Rebel IPA, which had the most profitable debut of a craft beer ever in 2014, and even built on that in 2015, and has declined since.

An odd time for a company that has “beer” in its name when its flavored malt beverages are really the ones showing the most energy at the moment. Maybe a New England IPA (really) and a rose (wine)-inspired cider (yes, really) will be a solution in 2018?

You can find more details in this story on Good Beer Hunting.

Bryan Roth
“Don’t drink to get drunk. Drink to enjoy life.” — Jack Kerouac

GABF by the Numbers: Coffee, ‘Session’ Beer and Winner Geography

Over the weekend, the Brewers Association announced their annual list of winners from judging at the Great American Beer Festival, offering the best of American beer out of 7,923 entries across 98 categories.

Among the joy of all the winners, there was also some confusion. With 105 entries, Fruited American-Style Sour Ale was decided to not have one good enough for a gold. Session IPA awarded its top medal to a beer with 5.8% ABV. The first-place finisher for American-style IPA went to a beer its brewery does and does not list as a pale ale. Whoops.

Even if there are some confusing aspects of what was decided, there are still worthy numbers to crunch (and overanalyze).

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‘Nobody’ Cares About Independence in Beer

OK clickbait LOL headline is a J/K

Sort of.

Over on Good Beer Hunting today I’ve got a think piece that works to deconstruct the word choice beer enthusiasts have been obsessing over in recent months. “Craft” … “independent” … “good” … what does it mean? Who (actually) cares?

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What Does It Mean When Big Breweries Go ‘Small’?

For years, craft breweries have played off the myth and ethos of being small, whether a single person creating one-barrel batches at a time or a national powerhouse like Sam Adams. This has become more evident in recent weeks with the creation of the Brewers Association “independent” seal, meant to convey the ideals of the trade group in a literal way.

Non-AB InBev of Molson Coors breweries are now “small and independent,” two words tied together, not necessarily “craft.” But what some of these businesses are finding is that “small” in theme doesn’t mean the same in practice.

On Aug. 10, New Belgium bought California’s Magnolia Brewing along with minority investments from Belgium’s Oud Beersel and former Elysian co-owner Dick Cantwell. The move saved the business from closure after a series of financial issues.

This was replicated in a similar fashion just a week later when San Diego’s Green Flash, which already owns Alpine Beer Co. in addition to a production facility in Virginia Beach, announced it was opening another space – in Lincoln, Nebraska.

“Up to now, we sold about 40 percent of our beer in our home state, about a third of our beer on the East Coast — and that’s actually increasing faster and might be approaching 40 percent,” Green Flash co-founder Mike Hinkley told Brewbound. “But in all of the big, wide-open spaces of the Midwest, we’ve sold very little beer at all. This will help us to compete in those areas.”

The kicker here is how they’re doing it. Like New Belgium, Green Flash is entering the market through another distressed business in Ploughshare Brewing.

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In Beer vs. Wine vs. Spirits, Consider Similarities, Too

wine-spirits-beer-header

Sure, they’ve already ruined the housing market, dating and napkins (natch), but here’s one thing Millennials aren’t apparently killing: wine.

According to the U.S. Wine Market Council, Millennials, who make up a vague demographic of birth dates that nobody can apparently agree on, now consumer 42 percent of wine sold in the U.S., accounting for roughly three glasses of alcoholic grape juice per sitting. Through some backwards math (which I excel at these days), if we pull beers per capita (75.8 liters in 2014) and round up to an even 80, Americans consume 225 12-ounce servings over a year. For social graces, let’s say those beers are consumed on Fridays and Saturdays, which means that’s still just two servings of beer per sitting.

But let’s be generous and say Millennials can’t get enough of their craft beer to the point that they’re consuming more than the average American at 3 beers per sitting, putting it on par with wine. All this does it raise an interesting question that seems to be surrounding the beer industry in regard to the “armada” of wine and spirits coming for beer’s – pardon the turn of phrase – share of throat.

Here’s the situation in 2017, according to Wine Spectator: the U.S. wine market is expected to expand 1.1 percent and spirits are set to rise 2.5, while beer is estimated to decline by .7 percent. Volumes for these three options are wildly different to be sure – beer is cheaper and more readily available in simple terms of ounces – but in broad thematic terms, sets up a worthy discussion.

If you look at trends across the three segments, there are certain connecting points of interest. For example, lower-ABV options may be applicable to wine as well as beer. Flavored brands have been at the core of growth for some spirits, just like beer. Meanwhile, higher end, premium brands have helped move product in wineliquor and beer.

It’s all circular. Especially when it comes back to Millennials. This demographic is the driving force of the American economy – the most educated age group with increasing amounts of expendable income that thrives off aspects of authenticity. As one area of alcohol goes, it’s worth paying attention to the others. Fluctuations in one corner reverberate elsewhere, given the cross-drinking proclivity of today’s consumers.

There are some changes seen in this annual poll from Gallup, but rather than looking at the situation as beer vs. wine vs. spirits, the 50,000-feet view shows that there is plenty in which these beverages share, especially in terms of taste preferences and creating experiences.

What this doesn’t mean is that Millennials are killing the beer industry. Rather, it means that beer – and beer drinkers – have new trends to look at and consider. For all the anecdotes and data we can pull from the beer industry, don’t ignore the rest.

Bryan Roth
“Don’t drink to get drunk. Drink to enjoy life.” — Jack Kerouac

True Romance: New Glarus Gives a New Meaning to Brand Loyalty

If you’re deep in the weeds or thick in the mash or whatever the appropriate idiom would be for someone who thinks about beer too much, you’re likely familiar with New Glarus. The Wisconsin brewery is a unique snowflake in the industry as one of the largest brewers in the country (#16 on the Brewers Association list) … and widely beloved … yet only sells its beer in its home state.

In 2016, the brewer sold 214,000 barrels … only in Wisconsin. To put that in comparison, New Glarus last year sold *more* than Oskar Blues (201,000 barrels), which is distributed nationwide. Or just a touch more than 21st Amendment and Rogue *combined*. Since 2010, New Glarus as grown production 133%, going from 91,937 barrels to 214,000.

So of course they’re going to start selling more. Per Brewbound, New Glarus is about to embark on scaling up, set to reach a future max of 400,000 barrels.

“Did I envision a 400,000 barrel brewery? Hell no,” New Glarus founder and president Deb Carey told Brewbound of the $12 million investment. “We thought we’d be an 8,000 or 15,000 barrel brewery.”

15,000 barrels? How quaint.

This all got me thinking about doing some silly, uneducated math. The best kind.

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Deconstructing What It Means to Be Best: Is It Beer or Experience?

The past week was a wild one of lines drawn and heated tempers – all over a logo.

Or, rather, a logo released by the Brewers Association to separate their “small and independent” members from other businesses managed to rile up beer enthusiasts, creating collateral damage of their good intentions. No matter what the success of the effort is in the long run, it’s clear that the business – for the geekiest and most committed – is entering a stage of new definitions in which “us vs. them” is merely a starting point for breweries to pledge their independence with a physical commitment of space on packaging.

But still, non-Brewers Association defined beer makes up about 87.5% of sales in the U.S., making it a mathematical impossibility that any significant number of drinkers will choose this battle as their last stand. “Small and independent” matters to consumers, but not in a way that any kind of majority (or “silent majority,” even) will create some kind of beer-focused coup and overthrow the centuries-long fact that humans really like drinking lager.

Among all this, I posed a question on Twitter inspired by a (civil!) Reddit thread: was the “best” beer you’ve ever had about the beer or experience?

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Citation Needed – What Does It Mean to Support ‘Independence’ in Beer?

The Brewers Association has created a new “independent” logo for businesses to display on beer packaging. As for its value as a good or bad thing, I’ll leave it to others.

This move is really interesting, as it fits so well within the BA’s mission and pairs perfectly with another recent decision to reserve certain kind of sponsorships for “craft”-defined breweries only at their annual Great American Beer Festival. However, the backlash (and support!) on social media and elsewhere shows there is more to consider than just the questionable visuals of the logo itself.

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