I find legacy brewers’ fight to stay relevant in an ever-changing craft beer world fascinating not because of them but because of us. Our culture at large gravitates towards the new. We conflate newness with good and innovative. Where does that leave a brewery that has been around for 20 years in an industry that always leans towards the new hot thing?
You can go the Boston Beer route and pretend you’re not a huge beer company and flounder around like the old guy at the club (I stole that from Ryan Self). Or, you can do what Highland Brewing has done over the last two years. Highland has reinvented itself adding new more hop forward beers outside the English tradition while managing to keep the soul of the company intact.
One of the hardest things in life is to admit when something is not working. That is true in every aspect of life. From romantic relationships, jobs, you name it, it is hard to say, “I need to do something different.” It is especially hard when you have built a successful business doing things a certain way. However, if the landscape you built that business in changes you must change with it. That is the first hurdle for legacy brewers.
A successful brewery that has been around for 20-plus years must absorb the idea that the world they helped create is leaving them behind. If they can do that. If they can admit what they have always done isn’t working as it used to, then they can move on the next step, which is how do they adapt.
That is an easier step to make but a harder one to execute. Deciding you need to brew a couple of IPAs and start a barrel program is easy and obvious. Making good beer is where it gets difficult. It always comes back to the liquid in the glass. You can decide you need to do more IPAs, but if you do them badly or in a way that doesn’t stay within your brand identity, it will be worse than not brewing them at all.
Highland did not allow itself to become wedded to the way it has always done things at the expense of being successful for the next 20 years. Yet, they have managed to keep their core identity.
We are a strange culture. On one hand, we seek out the new, the innovative, the bright shiny thing that is slightly better than the thing we already have. Yet, we also venerate tradition to the point of fetish. While we love new stuff, we seek the comfort of knowing exactly what is going to happen next. It is not that we love history. In fact, many if not most of the people who venerate tradition barely understand history. It’s that we seek comfort. More accurately, we seek to not be uncomfortable.
To stay relevant and to continue to grow, breweries must learn to embrace that feeling of being uncomfortable.