How to Sell Beer in 2017

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It’s a tough time to be a “big” brewer.

AB InBev and MillerCoors continue to watch as flagship brands slowly decline in sales, but some legacy craft breweries are suffering as well. Sales of Sierra Nevada’s Pale Ale (2.8 percent) and Torpedo IPA (2.3 percent) are down. Sam Adams continues to face a free fall for Boston Lager, declining nearly 12 percent in 2016.

Diagnosing the problem points to a host of symptoms, from longtime brands going stale among consumers who always want something new to the rise in importance of what’s “local.”

“If [consumers] have two [beers] they feel are equal, and one’s local and one’s not local, that’s an important part to the decision for two-thirds of craft purchasers,” Brewers Association economist Bart Watson recently mentioned at a Brewbound Session in San Diego.

So what are these Big Boys of beer to do? Follow the lead of their smaller, more nimble competition.

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How Big Craft Breweries Are Keeping Share of Mind – and Pint Glass

Back in December 2015, I wrote about an important pivot “legacy” breweries were being forced to make as the beer market continued to diversify, led by many of the smaller and more agile breweries.

Examples like Dogfish Head, Founders and Highland – an NC brewery with Mid-Atlantic footprint – were all businesses that had been around for a while. Looking at their 2016 production schedules, something seemed clear: they were trying to find more ways to keep attention on their brands. That meant new products, new packaging and a new pattern of beer releases to keep things fresh and interesting for drinkers.

“In any industry, businesses run the risk of falling behind if they don’t innovate and experiment,” I wrote. “Considering the incredible growth in beer over the last few years, this feels doubly so.”

If anything, what we’ve seen since that initial post has only reinforced this necessary action for long-tenured breweries. No surprise, they’re the ones big enough to heavily influence the supermarket numbers mentioned above in Kate’s tweet.

In some ways, 2016 has been very kind to breweries like New Belgium, Sierra Nevada and Sam Adams, but there’s always another side to the story.

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What We Mean When We Talk About the ‘Death’ of Flagship Beers

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Not once, but twice last week I read about a presumptive sweeping movement in the beer industry: the death of the flagship brand.

First, it was Chelsie over at Stouts and Stilettos, followed by Derek at Bear Flavored. Two different takes and perspectives on the cultural rejection of the notion that breweries, as a business, might have One Beer to Rule Them All.

Is there truth to this? Maybe a little, but no more than what we could glean from when Andy Crouch wrote about this same topic in 2012 :

So in the end of an era for some pioneer brands, where consumers appear ready to fully embrace their long-developing beer brand promiscuity, the first era of the flagship is over. The ultimate result of the evolving craft beer consumer’s fickle palate is the end of relations with these former beaus, only to be replaced with a new, younger and hipper string of beer relations.

Let’s for a moment assume we’ve spent the last four years witnessing the Death of the Flagship. The most important point we should talk about is addressing the audience for which “flagship” matters.

I am the 1 percent. If you’re reading this post, chances are you’re the 1 percent, too. We are the ultimate minority, the beer enthusiast who thrives on promiscuity and badges on Untappd. We want to learn about new beers from new breweries to fill our portfolio of experiences, often at the risk of ignoring heritage brands or simply buying beer in “bulk,” opting for single servings instead of six-packs.

There is nothing wrong with that. However, there is still 99 percent of the beer drinking public out there for which that behavior is not the norm.

Then again, this topic is wildly complicated. What we need to be asking, then, is what do the numbers show? Are flagships dying? Maybe, but not like you think.

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Liking Sam Adams’ Beer is Now a Political Act

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“No thanks, I like my IPAs good…”

It was a comment left by my brother (mostly serious, partially in jest) on a recent photo I posted on Instagram showcasing Sam Adams’ Rebel Raw IPA. He gives me crap (jokingly) about my affinity for breweries like Sam Adams and Sierra Nevada, but he also lives in something of a beer Mecca in Seattle, Washington.

But he wasn’t the only one to tease, as I got some pushback on Facebook, too.

And there was this on Reddit:

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I know the conversation based around the question “is Sam Adams ‘craft'” gets people all kinds of wound up, but more than ever, the assertion that Boston Beer’s flagship brands should even be relevant just feels a bit too much. Even if it’s an argument spurred by beer lovers deep in the trenches of nerdom, having to justify an appreciation for one of the iconic breweries in the country makes the situation just a little too … political.

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What’s Happening to Sam Adams?

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As every day goes by and yet another brewery opens, things keep getting interesting for one of the stalwarts of the industry.

By now, you may have heard about the rough go Boston Beer (read: Sam Adams and brands) had over the first four months of 2016. Shipments are down, projections are off and that stock price took a Humpty Dumpty like tumble last week. But really, it’s all activity that was expected. Going back to 2014, Boston Beer leadership was candid that they “expect the competitive environment to be tougher” across beer.

Here we are, with that challenge front and center. Competition not just coming from the growing behemoth of AB InBev, but from the rapidly expanding craft beer base, increasingly comprised of the local and regional breweries that play such a pivotal role in customer choices. People want “craft” in their goods these days and beer is the place to find it. One Nielsen poll showed 56 percent of respondents see craft as a “small, independent company” while a Harris poll indicated themes of “handmade/handcrafted” and “limited edition” were the most likely sign of quality.

At a time when consumers are looking for these kinds of connections across all kinds of goods, it’s no wonder Boston Beer is simply trying to tread water. From the company’s own admission of increased difficulty with distribution to drinkers’ localized tendencies, it’s only getting harder for Boston Beer.

Strangest of all, could these changes officially spell the end of Boston Beer as “craft”?

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Catching Up with Beertography

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Whoa.

While I’ve been busy writing about 2015’s best beers or lagers or ‘share of stomach,’ I’ve completely neglected beertography. So many words lately, so few pictures.

So let’s fix that with a super-sized beertography dump from the past couple months.

In addition to a selection below, you may also have come across some pics on my Instagram page, Twitter account or even Untappd. If you like these, you can find more beertography on Instagram or in my running archive.

Let’s hope I’m less forgetful in the future and find out what I’ve been up to…

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Hot Job? ‘Share of Stomach’ Comes to Beer Boardrooms

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It is certainly not a wholly American value, but competition sometimes feels more deeply rooted in our everyday lives than it should be.

After all, there’s a reason why “#winning” became a cultural phenomenon after Charlie Sheen made it part of his personal mantra.

The idea of victory is so ingrained in our cultural expectations, we love equating things with battles. We “fight the good fight” for all sorts of reasons – politics, tobacco use and boredom. We’ve even been waging war in beer for years, going back to Jim Koch’s 1994 “declaration of war” after Anheuser-Busch purchased a stake in Redhook.

No matter how trivial the task, we love shifting the thought process to win or lose, love or fear. The spectrum is wide, but we set forth with clear goals.

Which is why, as the beer industry grows and competition becomes intensified, I’m particularly curious about how bigger companies want to fight off those around them in a never ending battle to win over our wallets, pint glasses and throats, in a very literal way.

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Sam Adams and the Power of IPA

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Supermarkets and grocery stores are brimming with beer options these days, making every trip to coolers more time consuming for drinkers trying to sort through all the choices. According to estimates from Nielsen, there are nearly 6,700 craft brands now available in major stores, with about 850 of those just showing up in 2015.

And, of course, plenty of those new bottles and cans are IPAs. A third of 2015’s new brands will be India pale ale, if trends hold from earlier this year.

It seems many breweries – or perhaps just drinkers – tether success to the creation of a hopped-up ale. Beer rating boards are flooded with them and people are always searching for the next Pliny the Elder.

When taking the temperature of the beer industry, it always feels like we start with IPA, then consider where to move from there, but it’s with good reason. There’s no denying the power it has on the marketplace. Which, in the three months since I last asked “Are We Watching the Next Stage of Sam Adams?” the answer appears to be a resounding “yes.”

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Are We Watching the Next Stage of Sam Adams?

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Blink and you’ll miss it.

Among all the industry news of buyouts, investments and global mergers, we may be witnessing the pivot and turn of one of America’s most iconic breweries. While businesses are busy reimagining individual beers to lure back customers, another is making an adjustment in planning a decade in the making.

It’s certainly not a wholesale philosophical shift, but Sam Adams – and more specifically Jim Koch – is buying into a new approach.

And it may be a necessity.

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The Defining Reason to Talk About Sam Adams Not Being ‘Craft’

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If you’re deep in the weeds of today’s industry – or if you read my recent Beer Money series – you’ve no doubt heard about the Fair BEER and Small BREW acts, opposing legislation that have been geared toward presenting tax breaks to the beer industry. The Small BREW Act was created to address only breweries producing less than 6 million barrels of beer a year, while the Fair BEER Act would benefit all brewers, including Big Boys like Anheuser-Busch, MillerCoors and Heineken.

Those attempts are now more or less scrapped in lieu of a bill known as the Craft Beverage Modernization and Tax Reform Act, which is jointly endorsed by the Brewers Association (“small guys”) and Beer Institute (all of beer) who were previously on opposite sides of the spectrum.

This new bill – with bipartisan support from beer trade organizations, just like Congress – does have one hiccup, according to this piece: it might push Boston Beer, maker of Sam Adams, out of the “craft” beer club due to tax relief tied to production limits of 6 million barrels:

…Boston Beer’s production in 2009 was roughly half of its 2014 total. That’s an average of more than 20% growth a year. If that pace continues, Boston Beer will be over the 6 million bar in less than three years and, for tax purposes, would be considered a macro.

But here’s the thing. None of these bills are likely to pass, so we don’t need to worry about definitions and labels – yet.

Because Boston Beer could still lose its “craft” definition, just not for the reason everyone’s talking about.

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