Amid a myriad of fascinating craft beer storylines, one that I keep coming back to is the how do legacy brewers navigate this world that they have created. It is one increasingly unforgiving to brewers who get a little too old and too successful. Boston Beer Company released their 2016 4th quarter earnings yesterday and they were not good. Neither are their projections for 2017.
I was struck in reading the article that Boston Beer Company thinks of itself as just that, a beer company. I see a distinction between a beer company and a brewery. I always refer to ABI and MillerCoors/SABMiller/whatever as big beer companies. They own breweries, but as a company they are concerned more with selling beer than making beer. I think Boston Beer and the people that work there think of themselves as a brewery, but the rest of the world sees them as a beer company. That is in contrast to a brewery like Sierra Nevada.
I think craft beer drinkers still have respect for Sierra Nevada as a brewery and see Boston Beer Company as simply a beer company who owns a lot of different brands. One of the first things the article points out is that the company was hurt by flagging sales of Angry Orchard Cider.
Boston Beer jumped into cider the same way ABI jumped into craft beer. They bought a producer, then dumbed down the recipes while pumping up the production. While I think in his heart Jim Koch is a beer guy, his company has seemingly lost sight of its beer core.
It is something you see a lot. Your business starts to slow down and in an attempt to keep growth at a certain level, you begin to chase the new hot trends in your sector. Instead of innovating you begin imitating and in the process, you lose what you are best at and you fail anyways.
The brewers that best survive whatever is coming next in craft beer are the ones who stay true to the core of who they are. They will be the ones who may brew a hot new style, but won’t change their core products just to stay relevant. If a core beer is flagging and dragging the whole company down, they will shelve it, but they will come up with a replacement that still plays to their strengths.
Don’t chase trends and just brew the next hot beer style. Understand why beer drinkers are drawn to that style and why it became a thing and incorporate that into what you do. Understand that the haze in a NE-style IPA is simply a by-product of how the beer is made and concentrate on making a bright fresh hop forward beer.
David Bowie made vital and good music literally up to his dying days. He stayed relevant and successful so long because as trends changed he didn’t chase them, but he absorbed the cultures that spawned them into his music.
As craft beer matures, the brewers who operate like Bowie will be the ones left standing.