Life and Death of a Beer
What happens when it's time to let go of a beer brand?
There’s a change happening to your beer.
As thousands of new brands take up tap and shelf space, drinkers are bombarded with more choices than ever before. But that shift in what we see—and ultimately what we drink—has an impact. For every action there is a reaction.
Breweries and beer lovers across the country may be celebrating a Golden Age of American beer with new IPAs, wheat and sour beers every week, but there’s a growing collection of beers that paved the way, slowly going into hiding, if not being lost altogether.
Some beloved beers, no longer relevant to today’s standards, trends and tastes, are going away. It’s a byproduct of breweries rapidly innovating to meet consumer expectations. As drinkers want new flavor experiences, brewers are happy to offer just that—but it can come at the expense of the beers that brought them to that point.
“Sometimes when you come up with something new and exciting, you have to consider retiring a brand that isn’t as fresh or exciting as what your brew team creates,” says Ben Savage, chief marketing officer at Flying Dog Brewery, which retired its In-Heat Wheat in May. “We don’t have a flagship mentality, which allows us to innovate month-to-month, year-to-year.”
The reason Flying Dog decided to do away with its two-time Great American Beer Festival (GABF) winner hefeweizen highlights a growing issue for many breweries: As new brands created for today’s tastes catch fire, long-tenured ones, like the 20-year-old In-Heat Wheat, simply don’t have a place in people’s pint glasses. Success of Flying Dog’s Bloodline Blood Orange IPA has created a need for more capacity for the fruited IPA, and Numero Uno Summer Cerveza tripled the sales volume of the brewery’s previous summer seasonal, Woody Creek Belgian White, prompting Flying Dog to eye the Mexican lager as a new year-round brand. Choosing to focus on both styles reflects popular trends from the past year.
“It’s a calculated strategy, but the more flexible you are, the more you’re able to adapt to industry changes,” Savage says.
Of course, Flying Dog’s situation isn’t unique. In recent years, many of the brewery’s peers have had to face the same situation, often being forced to choose between flagship brews of their past and business decisions that will shape their future. Like losing a good friend, sometimes discontinuing a beer isn’t easy—on both the people who drink it and those who create it.
When Beer Gets Personal
“I hope your plant disappears into a sinkhole into the farthest reaches of hell.”
And that was the only one of three angry sentences that didn’t contain expletives.
It didn’t necessarily come as a surprise to Jed Nelson, marketing director at Long Trail Brewing Co., when he spotted the message on the company’s Facebook page. Every week, for over a year, fans of the brewery have asked about Long Trail’s discontinued Blackbeary Wheat, a beer that was dropped from the brewery’s lineup in June 2014 after 18 years.
Messages can range widely, from polite reminders like “still missing your Blackbeary,” to a photo posted on the Facebook page of a Long Trail logo drawn in marker on a forearm with a large black cross through it.
“The most shocking thing was the tone people decided to use in a public space,” Nelson says. “One guy made calls every morning for 30 days straight telling us it was a horrible decision, the owner should be fired, and he hoped the brewery fell off the face of the earth. I mean, it’s only beer. We’re not trying to ruin anybody’s life.”
Those phone calls stopped, but not the occasional request on Twitter, weekly comments on Facebook or the roughly dozen emails a month. So now, in addition to replying to each comment directly, Long Trail staff also point to a permanent fixture on the brewery’s online FAQs, answering the question, “What happened to Blackbeary Wheat?”
The answer is pretty simple. At its peak, the beer was the brewery’s second-best selling beer. By 2014, it slipped to seventh among the brewery’s packaged brands. By discontinuing Blackbeary Wheat, capacity was opened up for a new year-round brand, Limbo IPA. That beer is now a top-three seller.
“We pour our heart and soul and spend months developing new recipes, but when we come out with a new offering, we get always get the question, “How about Blackbeary Wheat?” Nelson says. “It might have been a favorite beer of all time for some, but people just weren’t buying it.”
Fade to Black?
It was early 2014 when Nick and Fred Matt, along with members of the brewery’s sales group, started entertaining the possibility of removing Black Forest from Saranac’s everyday lineup. With year-to-year sales declining since 2010, talks circled around the idea of a “hibernation period,” Fred Matt says, allowing the brewery to focus production on other beers, like its fast-growing Legacy IPA. Saranac had hit its brewing capacity at about 400,000 barrels, and other brands needed to grow, even if that meant losing a beer that had won awards at the U.S. Open Beer Championship and GABF.
It took about 18 months to come to a consensus to set aside the schwarzbier. What was once a top-selling, core beer had slipped out of Saranac’s top 10 brands, overtaken by more hop-forward brews. First bottled in 1996, the beer had simply run its course nearly 20 years later.
“It was a decision lengthened by the fact of emotion versus the right thing to do,” Matt says. “You know what you have to do, but a lot of people are going to be grumpy about it.”
One important aspect to consider, Matt says, was timing the end of Black Forest’s run with available packaging in stock. Enough of the beer would be brewed to prepare as many six-packs as possible, but by the end of October 2015, the final bottles would be included in Saranac’s Adirondack Trail Mix variety pack, which sold Black Forest among the brewery’s other core offerings.
The expectation was some amount of labels and cartons would need to be recycled. If Black Forest does eventually return—Matt says it could happen after Matt Brewing adds additional capacity—its branding would have a new look.
“As soon as it got announced, I started getting emails from people,” Matt says. “But I don’t think it’s gone forever.”
Sometimes the forces behind a change in brand portfolio aren’t man-made, but from Mother Nature herself.
Founders Brewing Co.’s Jeremy Kosmicki needed to adapt after a series of destructive frosts swept through Michigan in spring 2012. Above-average temperatures in March followed by an abnormally cold April wiped out around 90 percent of the state’s cherry crop, including Founders’ supply from Traverse City on the western coast of the state.
After selling the cherry-laced beer, Cerise, in 2011 and 2012, the fruit used to create the beer’s tart taste simply wouldn’t be available for another batch. The beer would go away in 2013.
“It was a reminder that we work in an industry where agricultural products change, whether that’s availability or quality,” says Kosmicki, brewmaster at Founders. “You always have to be flexible.”
Coincidentally, the loss of Cerise wasn’t the first for Kosmicki. Years earlier, the brewery went through the same process when Founders had to discontinue Rübæus, a raspberry ale. That beer debuted in 2004 and was available only on draft between 2008 and 2013. A raspberry shortage in Washington State caused a huge spike in cost for the fruit, pricing out the brewery and prompting the need to suspend Rübæus.
As Kosmicki considered a fruit-forward replacement for Founders’ lineup, it meant he could refocus on a locally sourced fruit from the Mitten State, which produces about three-quarters of tart cherries in the United States.
Luckily, there was no backlash at the loss of Rübæus, and Kosmicki says visitors to the brewery’s taproom even welcomed the addition of a beer that focused on fruit grown nearby.
“Optimal freshness and quality was big for us, but there’s always consumer appreciation when they know ingredients come from close to home,” he says.
Even with that in mind, there was no drama or social media vitriol when Cerise went away, completing a cycle as Founders rotated back to Rübæus in 2013 with a healthier, more cost-efficient raspberry crop.
“So many things can happen beyond what a brewery can do before drinkers get a beer,” Kosmicki says. “It starts with the farmers growing the grain, hops and even fruit. It’s a big picture thing.”
Till Death Do You Part
For some, taking that kind of long view can mean losing a good friend, even if that relationship is with a beer.
On Nov. 29, 2013, Dave Thibodeau laid to rest one of his oldest buddies—Ten Pin Porter. Decked out in suits alongside colleagues from Ska Brewing Co. for “Black Friday,” Thibodeau dug a hole in the southern end of a beer garden outside his brewery in Durango, Colorado, and placed a custom-made, jet-black coffin, about a foot in length. In it, a bottle of his beloved porter he had made since 1996.
“It’s really hard to let go of a beer you made your entire career,” says Thibodeau, president and co-founder of Ska. “But maybe it can be the right decision.”
For Thibodeau, it had to be. He had spent months discussing with his partners and sales team the need for a change not just to open up capacity for other beers like Modus Hoperandi IPA, but also to allow for the creation of more small-scale, experimental beers. Most important, the conversations led to a larger philosophical question about the business: Should a brewery feel forever wed to its original, “legacy” beers?
Or, like Ska and Ten Pin, is it literally “till death do you part?”
Thibodeau says he needed to focus on the reasons for making Ten Pin, which started with the sheer fact it was a beer he loved to drink. But he also needed to factor in where his porter fit within Ska’s own lineup and its future creative abilities. What made the situation difficult was a consumer shift away from that kind of beer.
“The crazy thing was there aren’t that many porters out there to begin with, so it was even harder to give up brewing it when you can’t find that elsewhere,” he says.
Which is why back in November 2013, as a white rose was gently placed atop Ten Pin’s coffin and a celebratory beer poured out in its honor, fans of the beer left notes of condolence and sorrow online and in a guest book at the beer’s funeral.
“Lost but not forgotten. RIP old friend,” wrote one fan.
“We both came a long way in the last 18 years,” one person shared. “We will never forget you.”
Lamented another: “There’s a collective hole in our glasses that can never be filled.”
“This is going to become a regular part of the business,” Thibodeau says. “Tastes are evolving and [drinkers] may be loyal to a brewery, but not a beer. I think a lot of people are going to have to give up the idea of flagships.”
Life After Death
While some breweries have recently said goodbye to some of their beers, one brewery welcomed back one of its own. After all, not everything that goes away has to stay that way.
In August 2015, Samuel Adams announced the winner of its first-ever “Brewer’s Vault” vote, which allowed the public to vote over several months for the brewery to bring back one of 16 beers that had previously been released and discontinued. Selections ranged from beers of the ’90s like Sam Adams’ Golden Pilsner to 2011’s Black & Brew Coffee Stout.
After about 27,000 votes were cast, it was 1995’s Scotch Ale that came out on top. It was welcome news to Jim Koch, who fondly remembered the beer’s recipe for its use of smoked malt, the first time he used the ingredient for a batch at Sam Adams and made him imagine maple-cured bacon.
Naturally, there would be plenty of happy Sam Adams fans, too, when the beer formerly found year-round in six-packs returned via a special Sam Adams variety pack this past winter.
“Beer occupies such a unique and special place in people’s lives as part of meaningful moments of sharing and community,” says Koch, founder and chairman of Boston Beer, the parent company of Samuel Adams. “These connections of great times make beer and brewing very personal beyond what’s in a glass.”
Fittingly, Koch’s own memories extend deeply into each of his beers, like Noble Pils, which went from seasonal to year-round and was discontinued between 2010 and 2015. It temporarily returned in variety packs alongside Scotch Ale in January.
Back in 2007, Koch invited his daughter to work with him on creating a beer especially for her wedding.
“She put her boots and overalls on, and we talked about this idea I had about using all five noble hops in her beer,” Koch recalls. “We went out and brewed it and brought 20 one-sixth barrels to the wedding. When it’s done right, brewing is very personal like that.”
Then there’s his connection to the Brewer’s Vault-winning Scotch Ale, which extends beyond the recipe creation. Before its release in 1995, Koch traveled to the Boston Public Library to check out a book about the history of plaid and its colors. With the help of his family’s former babysitter-turned-designer for Boston Beer, the pair conceptualized the layout of the beer’s label using a tartan design of MacGregor plaid.
If anything, Koch says, his 32-year career in the industry has taught him to not just appreciate the beers that come and go, but also the stories behind them and the people they affect.
“As a brewer, you make a beer, send it out into the cold world and give it up for adoption,” he says. “You can only hope people appreciate the work that went into it because you never know if that beer will get the same chance again.”
On-Again, Off-Again Beers
The following beers were tasted by our beer editor Ken Weaver.
Samuel Adams Noble PilsABV: 4.9% | Czech-Style Pilsner
STATUS: Currently in the Adventures in Lager variety pack
This here-today-gone-tomorrow release from Sam Adams arguably remains one of its best lagers, despite the difficulties of finding it available on its own. Its aroma is spicy, herbaceous and a bit oxidized—conjuring stateside Pilsner Urquell. There are welcome grape-like sugars, layered pilsner malt, even some honeyed sweetness unfolding. But it’s the generous doses of spicy hops that steal the show.
Founders RübæusABV: 5.7% | Raspberry Ale
STATUS: Upgraded to year-round and now available in cans
The current fruit-beer fascination seems in tune with Rübæus’ ascent. Fresh raspberry additions are made at various stages, and the net result is full-on berry: red, bright, pulpy and just sweet enough, then maybe a touch more. Highly successful as a summer rosé replacement, and an excellent inlet for those seeking fruit first.
Stone Smoked PorterABV: 5.9% | Smoked Porter
STATUS: Retiring this November
Originally launched Dec. 1, 1996, Stone’s ever-reliable Smoked Porter heads out to pasture this fall. A smoky (but never too-smoky) staple, this porter launched many down the path to more deeply charred beers from Alaskan Brewing Co., Left Hand Brewing Co. and Schlenkerla. We’re better for it. Here, a tightly spun core of caramel and cocoa syncs with the burnt edges of peat-smoked malt. Both out-there and wisely cautious, given its smoke type. Rest in peat?
Bryan Roth is a North Carolina-based writer. Find him tweeting about beer at @bryandroth.