‘Legacy’ Breweries and the Fight for Attention in 2016

beer aisle-2

A little yin and yang as we close out the year:

  • In 2015, Blue Moon, which popularized Belgian wheat beers in the U.S., saw its White IPA become a top-3 selling new beer brand.
  • Meanwhile, the fastest growing beer for Dogfish Head, known for its IPAs, was a Belgian white-style beer, Namaste.

It was that kind of year for the industry’s most “off-centered” brewer.

This past year was the slowest in growth for Dogfish in over a decade, although revenue and barrelage still increased. Founder Sam Calagione noted the reasons surrounded a refusal to discount beers and entering no new markets. All the same, changes are afoot for 2016, and it’s not just because of an influx of money from a private equity stake in the company.

Dogfish recently released its updated production calendar for 2016, which includes slight shifts in production for their 21st year that also reflects changes among their peers. When others are winning at Dogfish’s game – whether that’s with IPAs or extreme beers – it’s time to shake things up.

After all, Calagione is the guy, who just over a year ago, said the industry was heading into an incredibly competitive era of craft brewing.

Or rather, he so famously remarked, “There’s a bloodbath coming.”

In 2013, Dogfish debuted Sixty-One, the first new core beer added since 2007. That kind of hiatus hasn’t happened in the years since, with production changes and additions making each of the last three release calendars, including 2016’s loss of Sixty-One and the gluten-free Tweason’ale.

Dogfish's new entry in 2016.
Dogfish’s new entry in 2016.

Burton Baton is going from year-round to a May-only release, presumably to help make room for brewing other beers, like Squall IPA, a double IPA for spring release. Seasonals are shifting, as Aprihop (7 percent apricot-infused IPA) is replaced by Romantic Chemistry, an 8 percent mango/apricot/ginger-infused IPA.

Winter’s Piercing Pils is going away in lieu of Beer for Breakfast, a quintessential Dogfish beer made with ingredients like maple syrup and scrapple.

An outsider may see these changes as an opportunity to capitalize on America’s fascination with hops and expand Dogfish’s grasp on exotic beers at a time when everyone else is doing the same thing. While Dogfish set the stage for extreme or innovative brewing years ago, there are plenty of results from other creative brewers when you’ve got over 4,000 breweries around the country.

But Delaware’s flagship brewer isn’t the only one resolving to change in the New Year.

Founders Brewing will also adjust their 2016 calendar, bringing on two hop-forward seasonals – Azacca IPA and Mosaic Promise. Most notably, raspberry-flavored Rubaeus becomes year-round at a time when “sweet” is a hot topic in beer. In addition to its traditional bottles, it’s also debuting in cans and getting nitro draft release.

RubaeusThe Rubaeus change is of particular note, because that beer is not cheap to make. I spoke with head brewer Jeremy Kosmicki over the summer, who said one of the early troubles of producing that beer was because of the cost of the fruit, which is shipped from Washington State, paired with its lack of popularity compared to other Founders brands. And that was before Rubaeus was expanded to 12 months of release.

“We don’t make a lot of money on it,” Kosmicki told me, adding that “we sell it for a little more than our standard beers” to try and match up margins for production across brands.

Perhaps Founders’ 30 percent stake sale to Mahou San Miguel is coming in handy as the soon-to-be 19-year old company looks to capitalize on its influx of cash. Taking a risk on Rubaeus seems worthwhile if it makes financial sense.

Even here in North Carolina, things are changing for one of the Tar Heel State’s Old Guard. Highland Brewing, founded in 1994, is releasing 12 new beers in 2016. Depending on how you count their current lineup, they already have 11 or 13 core/seasonal/specialty releases. Of the new ones, three will be year-round offerings. Two of those will be IPAs.

Long known for its UK-inspired styles, Highland brought on former Stone brewer Hollie Stephenson in 2015 with an eye toward shaking up their lineup. In 2015, leadership of the brewery was also passed down from founder Oscar Wong to daughter Leah Wong Ashburn.

“If I asked you who is a quality, consistent brewer, I’m used to hearing Highland come up quickly in that conversation,” Ashburn told a group of beer enthusiasts in Durham, NC in September. “If I asked who is the most exciting brewery, I’m not used to hearing my own brewery come up.”

Screenshot 2015-12-26 at 6.21.05 PM
The top story on Highland Brewing’s website is … its new IPA.

Like Dogfish and Founders, Highland is another brewery that’s tweaking its lineup as it looks toward its third decade of existence. It comes as no surprise in hyper-competitive North Carolina, which is approaching 150 breweries state wide, not to mention Highland’s hometown is Asheville, NC, a three-time Beer City, USA designate.

“What a balanced beer was 21 years ago is not the same definition of a balanced beer anymore,” Ashburn said. “We have to recognize that and adjust.”

Sometimes I feel it’s like beating a dead horse, but over and over in 2015 I’ve pointed to this story I wrote for All About Beer about how long-tenured “legacy breweries” have been trying to play catch up, specifically with America’s defining style, the IPA. In any industry, businesses run the risk of falling behind if they don’t innovate and experiment. Considering the incredible growth in beer over the last few years, this feels doubly so.

After a year full of buyouts, investments and sales of all sorts, 2016 just seems like a really big deal for breweries like these. They’ve been around long enough to establish brands and have success, but it just simply can’t stand when everyone else is adding something new to the marketplace.

A little yin and yang to end the year? The more things change in the beer industry, the more they can’t stay the same for some.

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

Header image via quityourhorriblejob.


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