Sam Adams and the Power of IPA

sam adams-2

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.”

It’s been a weird year for Boston Beer, parent company of Sam Adams, which saw its stock slide about $75 since Jan. 1. The company, once buoyed by the growth of its beer, is now leaning on hard cider, hard tea and even hard root beer.

Sam Adams is still selling plenty of beer to hold its now-traditional 1 percent of the beer market, but in Boston Beer’s third quarter report, CEO Martin Roper noted that increases from non-beer brands were needed to offset the decline in Samuel Adams Seasonal Beers and Boston Lager.

So what’s a brewer to do? Add more hops.

One of the great stats recently shared by Nielsen is in this chart, which highlights the fastest-growing craft beer styles by sales:

growth rates of styles_800

Lots of buzzed about beers there, mostly because when production of a style goes from 0 to 60 (looking at you, gose) the percent growth rate is naturally going to be high. But I’m still focused on India pale ale, hiding toward the bottom. Despite the voluminous options available to us, IPA is still one of the fastest-growing styles. According to the Brewers Association, IPA is expected to take 27.5 percent of craft volume in 2015. If you combine regular old IPA with its imperial/double/triple IPA brothers and sisters, it’s near taking over seasonal beers as the top craft style in dollars, too.

growth of styles_800
Note: “REM” stands for “remaining flavored,” which includes hard root beer.

At a time when IPAs are doing well and Sam Adams has needed a savior, America’s favorite craft style has come to the rescue. In 2014, the introduction of Rebel IPA was the biggest in craft history, amassing $21.1 million in sales. This year, that luck has continued.

Of the top-10 selling new craft beer brands of 2015, Sam Adams owned three of them at the end of October. Rebel Rouser (double IPA), Rebel Rider (session IPA) and their Pack of Rebels variety pack (all three Rebel beers) could all end up among the hottest new beers among a list that is almost exclusively IPA. Sierra Nevada Nooner pilsner being the lone hold out, even if it does advertise itself as “a crisp, hoppy take on the original session beer.”

On top of that, Sam Adams had the super-limited release of double IPA Rebel Raw, which brought in thousands of media hits despite a distribution of just five major metro cities. As Joshua Bernstein noted, Rebel Raw is the “Cult Beer for the Everyman,” even if it may never return again.

As we turn our eyes toward what 2016 holds for Sam Adams, they continue to be filled with hops. Among recent filings and updates from the brewery:

It’s an odd time for businesses like Boston Beer, who have been around for so long and have meant so much to the beer industry. People continue to buy Sam Adams, but the attention and fervor its brands once received isn’t as strong among the biggest beer enthusiasts. It’s not necessary time to play catch up, per se, but Boston Beer chairman Jim Koch has been forthcoming the competitiveness of the craft category is changing things for his company.

I mean, Sam Adams is working on a cucumber gose, after all.

The last 12 to 18 months for Boston Beer have been telling, as it continues to evolve Sam Adams brands to adapt to today’s marketplace. The size and scale of Boston Beer’s company certainly offers a competitive edge when it comes to raw materials and advertising – they’ve spent millions more on marketing the last few years – but they’re still on an even playing field when trying to win over drinkers with America’s beloved hop taste.

Which is why, moving forward, it makes sense we’ll continue to see how the most popular craft style influences one of America’s biggest craft brewers.

rebel beers


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

Some 2015 beer sales data included in this piece was provided by Chis Shepard, assistant editor of Craft Brew News.


17 thoughts on “Sam Adams and the Power of IPA

  1. I know 22 0z. “bombers” are popular, and 12 oz. cans and bottles are doing great[ but the margins are low on the 12 oz. product ] do you see an upcoming market for 16 oz. cans or 16.9 oz. bottles in the future ???

    1. Those 16.9-ounce bottles are so specific, but I have seen a slight uptick in their use around North Carolina. Wicked Weed has made regular use of them for several releases. My (uneducated) guess is that because of the specific size/shape, it’s probably only more established breweries that are taking the plunge, as more “traditional” glass bottles would be more cost effective.

      As for cans, they’re certainly the darlings of the industry in terms of packaging right now. So much over the past year, I’ve read and heard about how breweries need to meet customers where their preferences lie, and portability is certainly a big deal. Long-term, aluminum has the potential to have lower packaging and shipping costs over glass, too. However, the current discussion over aluminum cans has to do with availability:

  2. Do you know what “REM Flavored is?”

    1. Found my note! Updated the graph with a cutline. Thank you!

      1. Is this the new vernacular for Flavored Malt Beverages (FMB), like Mike’s and Smirnof Ice?

      2. I’m thinking it’s just native vernacular for Nielsen? As far as I know, FMB is still standard for others…

  3. I guess the encouraging thing for porter (if I read the graphs correctly) is that it gained in market share. Hefeweizen might fall off before porter. and porter likely sticks around in the “Assorted” category, by which i assume mixed 12-packs or some such?

    1. Because the two charts include different categorization of styles, I’m not sure if this is apples-to-apples, but “imperial porter” is marked as a top grower in the first and just “porter” is at the bottom of the second chart.

      Otherwise, I may be a bit lost by your question in reference to porter being *in* the Assorted category. I’d also assume that means variety packs.

      (We run into the difficult definition of jargon here between different companies, rotating between IRI, which has a screwy categorical system as it is, and Nielsen)

      1. I apologize, for two reasons! First, because I was brought to your article from one by Jeff Alworth, who was lamenting the decline of porter, and I mistakenly commented here thinking I was commenting there. And second, for not being clear — my remark re: porter being in the “assorted” categpry was me guessing that even if porter six-packs aren’t super-available, you’d still see porters in the many mixed packs that are available. Basically, I was trying to assure Jeff that he’d be able to find porters beyond brewpubs! Thanks for your patience, and for your writing — I always learn something when I come here.

      2. Ah ha! Mystery solved.

        Thanks a bunch for following Jeff’s note and your kind words. My goal is always to offer something new for readers and it means a lot you’re picking up things from my work.

        But yes! Porters! I imagine they’ll certainly stick around for off-premise sales, but your note about variety packs is a good one. Sam Adams has long included them in seasonal offerings, and so long as brewers can throw some other flavors or fruit at a porter, it seems like a great style to appease a drinker’s sweet tooth.

        Fittingly, I’ve had a couple really good ones lately that fit that bill. NoDa Brewing (Charlotte, NC) makes a coconut/chocolate porter and Wicked Weed (Asheville, NC) just released their “milk and cookies” imperial porter in bottles. Dessert in a glass!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this:
search previous next tag category expand menu location phone mail time cart zoom edit close