is an award winning
member of the North
American Guild of Beer
Writers. His blog
Adventures in Beerland
is now a regular feature of
|Yankee Stadium is the “House That Ruth Built, the automobile industry was built by Henry Ford’s assembly line, and
Wal-Mart, the largest retail business in the world, was built discount after discount by Sam Walton. Each is
deservedly revered. That leads to the question of who build craft beer or more specifically, which beer brands
created the renaissance of American beer? For me it’s Sierra Nevada Pale, Sam Adams Lager, Anchor Steam, New
Belgium Fat Tire, New Albion Ale, Pete’s Wicked, and even Yuengling Lager (if you accept the Brewers Association
somewhat tortured definition of craft). Interestingly while the Yankees, cars, and Wal-Mart continue to flourish many
of those pioneering mighty beer brands still in existence are now mediocre sellers; just an afterthought to many savvy
beer buyers and craft aficionados.
Statistics tell the tale. Pet’s Wicked and New Albion are just memories etched in the lacing on the beer glass of
history. Boston Lager declined more than 14 percent last year. New Belgium’s Fat Tire fell more than 19 percent.
Sierra Nevada Pale Ale declined 8.1 percent, Yuengling was down 12 percent and Anchor Brewing was sold to The
Sapporo Group because of declining profits.
Those points illuminate an interesting dichotomy of the craft beer business: Some of the most successful craft
brands are the ones that seem to be suffering the most. There are a lot of reasons for that. Some of them have
reached their saturation points in local and regional markets. Some may lack the brand loyalty they once had. Others
may suffer from a poor distribution network unable to keep up with the competition; some simply don’t have the
energy of newer brands. And sadly, many are using the same tired recipes that may be classic but have not changed
with the ever evolving sophistication of the craft beer lover’s palate.
Some beer people are alarmed at this trend and lament the fact that many of us seem to be infatuated with the new
and the newest. But before these folks look for the nearest basement window to jump out of in protest consider that
more than three decades after the craft beer revolution was started when Sierra Nevada released its flagship pale
ale in bottles for the first time in 1981, it is still the brewery’s top-selling beer. It’s also the nation’s top-selling pale ale
and second best seller from an independent craft brewer overall. Ten years later, in 1991, New Belgium brewed its
first batch of Fat Tire— an American’s take on a Belgian interpretation of a British-style ale (all that sounds better
than it tastes)— the brand now has its own glassware, T-shirts, and hot sauce. They may be fading but maybe
things aren’t as dire as they seemed at first glance. It seems flagship beers like these still have a place, though not
the one they used to have, in the craft beer world.
Flagship beers are not anything new in the industry. It’s usually a brewery’s core or basic offering; one made to
appeal to the largest amount of drinkers. Some have come to define their respective styles and are listed in the
BJCP (Beer Judges Certification Program) as commercial examples of the style that home brewers strive to emulate.
Note however that “flagship beer” does not mean it’s the best beer the brewery makes or, more importantly, ever will
To combat what some see as the beginning of the end of many a classic flagship there has been a movement to
revive them. The idea began with a tweet from Canadian beer writer Stephen Beaumont, in which he opines how
hard it now is for flagship beers to attract “fickle” beer drinkers. His campaign has since garnered support as some
bars offered specials or even held events to highlight flagship beers. Those taken with the concept promoted
something called “Flagship February”. If you ask me a day, a week, or a few minutes every third Wednesday would
have been more than enough but I guess these people think big. What’s that? You missed “Flagship February” last
month? Don’t worry; it’s built on a flawed philosophy that we drinkers of beer have the responsibility to “save” a
brand. I have a lot of responsibilities in life but that is definitely not one of them. And for the record don’t call me
fickle (or Shirley for that matter). I may buy different beers most of the time but I’ve eaten a bowl of Cheerios for
breakfast for the last quarter century. Well, I can’t tell a lie. One time I didn’t. I had Maple Cheerios.
Indeed these moralists and arbiters of how you and I should spend our money are heavy handed about it. Here’s
what one famous beer writer published to promote Flagship February:
“A lot of beer drinkers have developed a sort of ADD with respect to the beers they drink, so going for a glass of beer
at the bar or pub becomes less a pleasant distraction and more a relentless search for what’s new and exciting.”
Trivializing ADD by comparing it to buying beer is at the very least inappropriate and at the worst offensive. I am
dismayed that when I want to try a new beer, investigate a new style, or try a beer made with a hop I’m not familiar all
of a sudden I’m demonstrating symptoms that include:
Trouble paying attention (easily sidetracked)
Doesn't like or avoids long mental tasks (such as homework)
Trouble staying on task during school, at home, or even at play
Disorganized and seems forgetful
Doesn't appear to listen when directly spoken to
Doesn't pay close attention to details
Loses things often
Sorry, but wanting to try a new beer is not an illness in February or any other month.
More rational, though equally fallacious, reasons offered by those who support flagship month include –
1. “We may think everyone knows how about Allagash White or Anchor Steam, there is an entire crop of drinkers
turning 21 today who need these beers in front of them because they are absolutely delicious.”
Oh my; talk about conceit. No one needs to be force fed what some self appointed expert thinks is good. If a person
is serious about beer they will eventually branch out from their flavor wheelhouse and try different styles. And there
are many fine examples of those styles that are not necessarily classics or mentioned in the BJCP style guidelines.
if a drinker likes a double dry hopped New England IPA and just wants to drink new versions of that style to the
exclusion of others.It’s not a capital offense, a felony or even a 2rd class misdemeanor. .
2. “The brands would get a boost and drinkers would be reminded of what got them here.”
Why is it my job to “boost” brands I do not want? Any brewer, especially those that have sold out to Big Beer, will tell
you they are in a business to make a profit. The free market works perfectly – if I don’t want something I don’t buy it.
The company eventually realizes that fact and improves/adjusts their product. If they don’t they fail. When brewing
becomes a charity then I’ll contribute the equivalent they’ve given me in free beer over the years. Wait, I’m a
generous person I’ll triple it.
3. “People should know the history of craft beer and honor it by preserving flagship beers.”
Why is it necessary to drink a certain beer brand to know about it and honor its role in the craft revolution? Not only
were there 1,645,967 books, give or take a few, published last year on beer history there are more than enough
crotchety old timers (why are you looking at me like that?) to spin a few tales about the early days of craft beer and
even reminisce about when Coors was all the rage for every discerning beer drinker. Yes, that Coors. In a fashion it
was the craft of the day. Of course if someone feels they can only experience beer history by actually drinking
Coors, or Anchor Steam, or Sierra Pale, all well and good, they are fine beers (no, not the Coors).
I wonder if just drinking old,stale beer would be a history lesson too.
If anyone wants to see the true legacy of the classic flagship beers all they have to do is look around and notice the
incredible explosion in new breweries and the countless taps now pouring craft beer of all kinds at places ranging
from dive bars to high end eateries to the delight of millions of drinkers.
Be assured that every time you walk into a bar or brewery tasting room and ask “what’s new?” you are saluting
flagship beers as much as those who praise Flagship February.
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