Located off Rhode Island’s coast, the Atlantic Ocean isle is filled with bluffs, beaches, and rolling hills, such as the one atop which the Atlantic Inn is perched. Here, on the lush lawn in front of the 1879 hotel, you can sit in white Adirondack chairs and watch the rippled waters. Or, on a recent summer morning, you could plop beside Dogfish Head president Sam Calagione and discuss craft beer’s coming bottleneck.
“We’re heading into an incredibly competitive era of craft brewing,” he says. “There’s a bloodbath coming.”
This may seem alarmist. After all, the Brewers Association just announced that 3,000-plus craft breweries now operate in America. Last year’s craft sales climbed 17.2 percent, overseas exports have escalated, and breweries such as Lagunitas, Sierra Nevada, and Oskar Blues recently constructed second breweries to spread their bitter ales farther, wider, and fresher. Heck, Stone is building a brewery in Berlin. Berlin!
I’m onboard with America abandoning middle-of-the-road beer and exploring flavorful new directions. The highway, however, is getting mighty crowded. Hundreds of different beers debut weekly, creating a scrum of session IPAs, spiced witbiers, and barrel-aged stouts scuffling for shelf space. For consumers, the situation is doubly confusing. How can you pick a pint on a 100-brew tap list? Moreover, beer shops are chockablock with pale this and imperial that, each one boasting a different hop pun. When buying beer, I can’t count how many times I’ve assisted overwhelmed shoppers, playing the benevolent Sherpa in the wilds of modern brewing.
In the ’90s, it was effortless to select a craft beer: It was the one that tasted different. Today, quality is no longer the sole differentiator. To stand apart, breweries must enlist new tricks to make consumers look at their beer. “We’ve looked at our packaging for 20-plus years, and we felt that we needed to see something new,” says New Belgium PR director Bryan Simpson. After much debate, New Belgium swapped its iconic watercolor imagery for a colorful contemporary look featuring hand-painted imagery. “New labels provide people with a reason to give a beer a second look and perhaps try something they’ve walked past for years,” Simpson says.
A second chance for a first impression is an appealing proposition. In California, Firestone Walker, Ballast Point, and Green Flash have freshened their face. Same goes double for Utah’s Uinta, Pennsylvania’s Weyerbacher, Indiana’s Upland, and Scotland’s BrewDog. In North Carolina, Lonerider and Natty Greene’s have followed suit, while Minnesota’s Summit recently altered its packaging for the third time in 28 years.
Beyond painting a new face and calling quitting time, founder Mark Stutrud went one step beyond and launched the one-off Union Series. The mission is combing the globe for unusual ingredients and highlighting them in beers such as Rebellion Stout, which uses a British dwarf hop. “We have a strong history of being a pioneer and a pacesetter, as well as establishing benchmarks within the industry,” Stutrud says. “It’s a platform to present to beer drinkers new experiences.”
The notion also appeals to New Belgium. “The biggest way to stay relevant is by pushing yourself to innovate,” says Simpson, who notes that the Coloradans release three new beers quarterly. “It engages people and gives them something fresh to check out.” That’s why Alaskan Brewingoperates its experimental Pilot Series, and Pennsylvania’s Tröegs runs the Scratch Beer series, which to date has included 155 different beers. Oregon’s Full Sail features the Brewer’s Share, and Stone just started up the Stochasticity Project to create conceptual beers, such as the Grapefruit Slam IPA.
Endless choice is not always the be-all and end-all. “The promiscuous drinkers are never satisfied,” says Summit’s Stutrud. Besides, brewing more beer, and more styles, is a bet that more drinkers will be converted to craft. Yes, last year, craft beer accounted for just 7.8 percent of the market, but consumers are fickle. When I was in high school, Red Wolf and Pete’s Wicked Ale were the rage. Remember them? Probably not.
Hence, making more beer is not always the best solution. “We grew 15 to 16 percent last year,” Calagione told me on Block Island, “but we’re no longer America’s fastest-growing brewery.” Instead of accelerating sales velocity, Calagione says, “we’re putting more focus on the world around our beer.”
Calagione has applied the brewery’s nonconformist, do-gooder philosophy to far-reaching endeavors like the Dogfish Inn, Dogfish-brand food, and a music label, which this fall will release a Guided By Voices record. This is not to infer that Dogfish Head is turning its attention away from alcohol. “The beer side will always be the heart of our business,” he says, “but our halo will protect us.”
It’s why Stillwater runs the Sensory Series, interpreting bands’ songs in liquid form, while Goose Island just made a Sharon Van Etten–approved kölsch for Chicago’s Pitchfork Music Festival. On the fest circuit, Lagunitas runs the roving Beer Circus, and New Belgium operates the whimsical, bike-focused Tour de Fat. For its recent brand expansion, Pennsylvania’s Victory recently unveiled a lineup of cheese spreads, as well as ice creams concocted from its unfermented beer. “Strategically, that broadens our brand impact,” says cofounder Bill Covaleski. “It puts our flavors and brands in places where they’ve never been.”
I get it. As a freelance writer for 13 years, I operate under the “20-legged table” philosophy. If a single leg supports a table—your business—it’s easy to get knocked down. With 20 legs, it’s simple to stay upright if you lose a leg. And you will lose a leg. That’s the nature of business. Trends come, trends go. Thirty years ago, brewers rebelled against mainstream lager. Today that overlooked style could be a craft brewery’s biggest advantage.
“The best way to stand out from the crowd right now,” says Covaleski, ”is to make really damn good lager beers.”