Highland Cold Mountain was released last week. It is a good beer. It isn’t a great beer nor is it the best of its style. I prefer Triple C White Blaze or Anderson Valley Winter Solstice. But that’s just me. While Cold Mountain may not top my list of beers, it does top another list. It is one of the best marketed beers produced in the southeast. The basis of their marketing is limiting production to increase scarcity. It sells out quickly because there is a finite amount and it is spread all over Highland’s territory. Without letting anyone know we had it, we sold all our bottles in less than a week.
This post isn’t about Cold Mountain, but it is about Highland. After reading this article, it dawned on me that I grew up as a craft beer drinker with Highland. I remember buying my first six-pack of Gaelic Ale back in 1996 after I moved back to Shelby after college. However, over the years I stopped buying Gaelic Ale. I really stopped buying Highland except for the Oatmeal Stout or the Mocha Stout. Their beers were good, not great, and they didn’t do much to make their experience exciting for old and especially new craft beer drinkers.
That is why I have been so happy about the last year in the life of Highland. Head brewer Hollie Stephenson came to Highland from Stone Brewing in January. In that time, she has introduced the Mandarina IPA, which has already changed the trajectory of the brewery. Now there are apparently four more new beers expected to all debut in the first quarter of 2017. It would be an overstatement to say these changes have saved the brewery. It wasn’t going anywhere, they still sell a ton of Gaelic. However, it isn’t a stretch to say these changes saved the brewery from irrelevance in the changing craft beer market.
Twenty years is a long time and it is an eternity in craft brewing. There is only a handful of breweries around the country 20 years or older that are still operating independently. The thing that distinguishes the ones who are still around is that they have adapted to the changing beer world. They survived the late 90s/early 2000s purging of bad business models and worst beer. Now, they are managing to stay relevant in an ever-changing craft beer world.
Craft beer drinkers, in general, and newer craft beer drinkers are fickle. They flit from style to style and brewery to brewery chasing the hot style. They always seem to chase the next big thing. However, if you look at the breweries that last, they have one or two beers at the core of their product lines that people always come back to. Sierra Nevada has the Pale Ale. Boston Beer has Samuel Adams. Highland has Gaelic.
It is like any business. You must have that thing that people like and that you do extraordinarily well that you can count on in times of trouble. Newer breweries should take note of that. Try your hand at all the hot styles drinkers flock to, but have 1 or 2 beers that you know you do well and that people like. Those two beers could be the difference between survival and watching some startup buy your used brewery equipment.