Thursday, September 1, 2016

Beer Release Calendars and the Brewery Arms Race

Friar Tuck in St. Louis (Image Credit: STLHops)
I went off the grid for about a year in 2012-2013. Traveled around the country, camped out, and generally stayed off the beaten path and outside of KC. I was pretty well informed on the KC craft beer scene before I left, but I came back to KC bewildered by all the new beers on the market. It was a struggle to find the beers I once loved (if they even existed anymore), and it took me about a year to get my bearings again on what was out there.

This is something that's been bothering me for a long time, and the recent release of the Boulevard's beer calendar got me thinking about it all over again. In 2017, Boulevard is retiring 7 beers, and introducing 14 new ones. Of the 39 beers that Boulevard will release in 2017, only 9 of them will have been around for more than 10 years. This certainly isn't unique to Boulevard either.

An Ocean of Craft Beers

A quick scan of some of the bigger breweries that distribute around here show a similar trend to what Boulevard is doing with their releases. Here's a list of the beers officially released (not counting test beers and tasting room only beers) by a few breweries in 2016:

  • Boulevard - 36 beers released, 9 on market >10 years
  • New Belgium - 36 beers released,  7 on market >10 years
  • Sierra Nevada - 26 beers released, 8 on market >10 years
  • Bells - 29 beers released, 15 on market >10 years
  • Great Divide - 22 beers released, 8 on market >10 years

A couple things stick in my mind about this list. First, out of just five large craft brewers, we'll see nearly 150 beers on the market next year. If you scale this up to the 50 or so large regional/national breweries distributing to KC, we're talking about the possibility of upwards of 1,000 beers stocked annually and dozens of releases every week. 

Another thing that stands out to me is that out of almost 150 beers being released, only about 50 are well known beers that have stuck around for more than 10 years on the market. New Belgium is the most extreme example, with only 20% of their current lineup consisting of their classic beers like Fat Tire and 1554.

Another thing to consider is that all of these breweries have hundreds of beers listed on the ratings websites when you take retired beers into account. Sierra Nevada has 474 entries on Ratebeer. Over 75% of these beers were added in the last 5 years. Together, these five breweries have had around 1500 beers recorded on the ratings websites over the last 15 years. The vast majority of these have been added in the last 5 years.

I would guess the average yearly turnover rate for beers at these breweries has been at least 25%, if not upwards of 50% in the last couple of years. Boulevard has had a ~30% turnover rate for the last 2 years not even counting tasting room series beers.

Fickle Drinkers or Brewery Arms Race?

The traditional wisdom says that we have this huge number of new beers coming out each year because craft beer drinkers are fickle, have no brand loyalty, and only want to try new things. But is this really true? I still think that Single Wide IPA is better than all of Boulevards newer IPAs (and this isn't meant as a dig on the new ones because there are some great ones--I just love Single Wide). But every time Boulevard comes out with a new IPA, I feel compelled to try it. Am I buying these new IPAs because I only want to try new things, or is it because new things are constantly being pushed in front of me?

I know that craft beer drinkers are adventurous and want to try out new stuff, but they certainly don't lack brand loyalty. On the contrary, most craft drinkers I know are fervid supporters of their favorite breweries to the point that we sometimes look more like beer zealots than beer evangelists to the outsider. And like me, they feel compelled to try new offerings from their favorite breweries (even if they might be better off just sticking with their favorite standbys).

The explosion of beer brands really seems more like a sort of brewery arms race than simple catering to fickle tastes. If Boulevard doesn't release the new IPA that I feel compelled to try, then someone else might. So to keep loyal customers who want to try new stuff from straying, breweries feels as if they need to continually release new beers to preempt their competition and stay ahead of the trend curve. This sets up a feedback loop where each brewery has to try to one-up their competition and the competition has to answer in turn. This mentality seems pervasive throughout the craft brewing industry in America today.

Mutually Assured Destruction

The turnover of beers and release of new beers and new styles is good to a point. Creative destruction. Some new beers are really better than old beers, and the old beers should be retired. Breweries have always been coming up with new stuff to satiate the curious pallet, but on a much less transient basis. But it seems like this creative destruction has gone off the rails.

In days gone by, it was a big deal when beers were retired (#TeamTwoJokers, anyone?), and it was really exciting news when new beers were introduced. There were big release parties that people actually attended. But with this new normal, beers disappear without a whisper and it's exceedingly difficult to get excited about anything new. Even the fact that breweries have to publish release calendars is indicative of this.

I feel like we're approaching a sort of mutually assured destruction stalemate with the larger craft brewers. The turnover rate of beers is increasing more and more each year. New beers rarely survive more than a couple years. All but the most recognizable classic brews are being killed off. At some point it seems like all the craft breweries will just ebb and flow with the taste trends of the day, with no reference to the past and no direction for the future--constantly pushing more and more new beers that have shorter and shorter lifespans. Every time you go to the liquor store, you'll be faced with hundreds of new beers that you've never heard of all in the name of taste innovation.

The lack of brand loyalty is somewhat of a self-fulfilling prophecy in this scenario. How can a brewery expect their consumers to have any loyalty if they can't ever buy the same beer from them twice? I have this very problem with Mikkeller. Most Mikkeller beers are awesome, but I never know what I'm going to get. A lot of time I just don't even bother buying it because I don't know if the beer is going to fit my mood, and for the money I'd rather know what I'm getting myself into. So unless I'm feeling adventurous, I turn to something I know I will like for the situation or for the person I'll be drinking it with.

Where Do We Go From Here?

Admitting that you have a problem is the first step. Some of you may not think any of this is a problem, but I do. And I think we need to re-evaluate our beer buying and brewing before we lose all sight of American craft brewing roots. This really is a three faceted issue that we're all implicated in--beer drinkers, brewers, and the media.

As beer drinkers, I think we all need to take a step back and realize that we don't always have to try the new stuff. If you really like a beer, just buy it and drink it. Don't feel guilty for not being adventurous or not trying the new stuff. There's no shame in knowing what you like and indulging in the same beer all the time. And don't feel like you're wasting your money on the same old beer rather than buying something new. Honestly, if you really like a beer of a certain style or from a certain brewery, you're just as likely to be disappointed when you venture out with something new as you are to be impressed. Let go of the Fear of Missing Out. Sure there's a time and a place for trying out new stuff (beer festivals), but get rid of the notion that you always must try the new stuff.

Brewers need to have a little more faith in us. We are brand loyal. We will stick with you if you stick with us. Sure we want to try new stuff from time to time, and we get giddy at the thought of drinking test beers before the plebeians get a taste, but we don't need dozens of new beers every year. What we really want from you is that you keep striving to maintain the highest quality beer possible, that you get (or stay) involved in the community, that you work towards sustainability, and that you give us a sense of ownership in the process. And tell us about this stuff. The dozens of new beers you're putting out each year aren't what really keep us coming back.

The media (myself included) need to get off the hype train of new beers. By only giving press to the new beers, we're incentivizing the continual release of new stuff. So instead of just covering every new beer release as a matter of course, why not revisit the brewery's classic offerings and see how they fit in with a modern pallet? How does the old stack up with the new? How about looking into forgotten and underappreciated beers and shine a spotlight on them?

Traditional Old World breweries with deep roots have been producing the same beers for hundreds of years and many of those beers still blow American craft beer out of the water. They've had hundreds of years to prefect the recipe, brewery, and process for each and every beer. I hope that 200 years from now people are talking about the sublime beers being wrought out of the deep roots and tradition in American brewing like they do Belgian, German, and Czech. But we won't ever get there if our beers only stick around for two or three years before they're discarded for the newest fad.

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