Category Archives: Opinion

Can Craft Brewers Expand Their Market Share by Brewing Light Lagers?

There is a significant movement in craft beer right now, and it comes as a surprise to many. The craft sector is best known for their bold flavors, beer geeks go wild for hop bomb IPAs, boozy imperial stouts and mouth puckering sours, and these styles dominate craft tap lists and rating sites. Many popular breweries are now also embracing light and drinkable beer styles, cream ales, golden ales, pilsners, and even beers in the adjunct light lager style that the craft community long derided. Some significant examples include Night Shift Nite Lite, Founders Solid Gold and Firestone Walker Lager. Each of these beers is low alcohol and eschews bold flavors in favor of easy drinkability. While the craft sector has continued to grow and take a larger share of the overall beer market, it is still a very small segment of total beer sales, and these new beers look like a more direct challenge to big beer. It makes sense for these breweries to try to expand their potential market instead of continuously competing over the same relatively small group of IPA and stout drinkers, but do they have any shot in a very different marketplace long dominated by a few large conglomerations?

Night Shift Nite LiteFirst, lets clear up a common misconception. While the majority of craft beers are ales the idea of craft lagers is far from new. Many of the beers that played a huge role in the rise of craft beer were lagers, including Sam Adams Boston Lager, Brooklyn Lager and Victory Prima Pils. These brewers found a balance between the familiarity and accessibility of lager styles and vibrant flavor than separated them from the macro adjunct lagers that dominated the market. With the recent explosion of new breweries and the resulting increase in competition many brewers have re-visited lager styles as a way to differentiate themselves, including a few breweries that exclusively brew lager beers. Many of these beers are designed for the craft market, with significant hop additions or high ABVs, and even the lighter styles like pilsner are sold as a premium product with a price point much closer to other craft styles than macros. While some of the oldest craft breweries like Yuengling and Narragansett continuously brewed beers that are reminiscent of macro lagers, light adjunct lager was a style that most upstart craft brewers intentionally avoided.

There are two types of light lagers that are quickly gaining popularity with craft brewers. One is Mexican style lagers, modeled after beers like Corona or Modelo. This sub-style has seen significant growth during a period when many other beer styles are in decline, so there is clearly a market for these beers. The other sub style is adjunct light lagers, like Bud Light or Coors Light. After years deriding fizzy yellow beers we are now seeing popular and highly respected breweries take the plunge into this space. This isn’t out of nowhere. While beer geeks sing the praises of bigger and bolder beers and wait in line for rare releases, they represent a very small subset of the beer drinking community. Some of the biggest growth in craft has been in lighter and easier to drink beers. A large portion of the beer drinking population enjoys a beer that has some flavor but is also crisp and easy drinking. Even many hop heads find the need to drink lighter beers every so often. It’s hard to pound a bunch of DIPAs to an afternoon BBQ unless your plan is to be in bed well before sunset.

Founders Solid GoldBreweries have a couple major hurdles when they try to take on big beer at their own game. The biggest is probably the brand loyalty of macro drinkers. Most Bud, Coors or even Heineken drinkers drink that brand nearly exclusively. I have seen more than one heated argument about the merits of one of these beers, or the short comings of another in comparison. I guess these craft breweries can hope to build this type of brand loyalty for their new beers, but they will have a hard time converting customers that have been loyal to another brand for years. The other hurdle is price point. Some people have no issue dropping large sums of money on their beers of choice, but for many macro drinkers an extra couple of bucks for a 12 pack is a non-starter. Small breweries might be able to compete with Heineken or even Corona on price, but they probably have no shot at Budweiser or Miller. Craft breweries also have a severe disadvantage in the marketing department. Big beers spends massive dollars to create a brand and sell an alleged lifestyle to accompany the brand. Corona wants you to feel like you are on vacation at a beach whenever you open a bottle and drop in a slice of lime, Bud Light tells you to feel like every day is a party and Coors Light wants to assure you that their beer is very cold (which is apparently a good thing). I doubt Founders or Firestone Walker will be advertising their products during the Super Bowl.

Craft Brewers also have a few big advantages in this competition. The major one is volume, the amount of these beers that a small brewery needs to sell for the release to be a success is relatively tiny compared to a macro beer. This is one beer in each breweries portfolio, it doesn’t need to drive their bottom line as much as complement the other things they already do well. There are also examples of light lagers outside the big three brands gaining popularity without traditional marketing and advertising, Pabst Blue Ribbon is a good example, I’ve never seen a PBR ad on TV but they have a strong cult following. Finally, these breweries have a built in fan base. I’m probably not going to choose Nite Lite over Whirlpool or Morph for myself, but if I’m hosting a BBQ I would definitely buy a 12pk of that over a macro to offer to my guests that prefer light beers. If these breweries focus on attracting customers who prefer lighter beer but want a premium product they have a chance to build solid followings. It will be interesting to see if these beers become staple brands or fade away quickly. While I doubt my friends who are loyal macro drinkers will buy these instead, I imagine the light lager styles will quickly become solid sellers for the breweries involved.

Firestone Lager

So I’ll throw it to my readers: What do you think of the craft light lager trend? Will you buy these beers? If you do will it be a one-time try, occasional purchase or regular part of your rotation? Let me know here or on social media!

I’ve found a few other well written articles on this trend that I feel like I should pass along:

Good Beer Hunting on Nite Lite

The Fervent Few on Craft Light Lagers

Jason Notte on How Craft Lagers Became Cool

 

 

 

 

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How short is the shelf life of a NEIPA? A (kind-of) scientific study

One of the major criticisms of New England style IPAs is their extremely short shelf life. While all hop-forward beers suffer from this shortcoming, it especially hurts a beer that relies on late/dry-hopping for flavor and aroma as a predominant feature. The aromatic compounds that give these beers their fruit juice flavor and pungent nose dissipate or degrade quickly, so it is extremely important to drink the beers as close to the packaging date as possible. This wasn’t an issue with many of the original versions of the style, they were brewed in small batches and sold directly to the consumer within days, ensuring optimal freshness in most cases. Now that some bigger breweries like Sam Adams an Sierra Nevada are taking a crack at the NEIPA style it is important to see how sitting on a shelf in a bottle shop will effect the quality of the beers. I read constantly about how short the shelf lives of these beers are, but I haven’t seen an in depth study that proves this. Fortunately, in addition to writing about beer, I am a research scientist, so I designed a fun experiment where I intentionally ruined one of my favorite beers in the name of science.

Melcher Day 1Materials: For this study I obtained a couple 4 packs of Trillium Melcher Street IPA, one of my all time favorite versions of the NEIPA sub-style. You can read my full review of Melcher Street IPA HERE. I bought the beer in December within days of canning, directly from the brewery in Canton. I wanted a beer I had enjoyed  number of times so I had a solid foundation of what the beer should taste like under optimal conditions.

Study Design: Ideally I would have a number of beers brewed/canned on different days and then aged, so that I could sample them in parallel, but logistically this is nearly impossible. For one, most of these breweries have rotating release schedules, so you never know when a particular beer will be brewed. I also don’t have the ability to drop everything and run out to a brewery at any time. There is also the potential for variation batch-to-batch that has nothing to do with the aging process. Instead I purchased a couple 4 packs in December and left three cans to age on a shelf in the glassware cabinet in my dining room. I was hoping to mimic the environment of a shelf of a liquor store, which is much different from a proper storage cellar. I sampled beers on the day of purchase and again after 1, 2 and 3 months of warm storage. I also sampled a beer that had been stored in the fridge for the first month. Each beer was transferred to the fridge for a day before consuming, and then consumed to check the changes in taste and aroma. Here is what I found:

Month 0: This beer is world class when it is fresh. A giant burst of fruity hops on the nose followed by big hop flavor, peach, grapefruit and mango with a little resin and a very subtle bitter bite. There is just a hint of sweetness here, but more from the fruity hop flavors tricking the palate than any lingering malts. A great beer.

Month 1 (warm storage): I was amazed at how much this beer changed. I was initially going to do 1, 3 and 6 month time points, but tasting this beer led to a shift in the study design. The flavor is still top notch, plenty of citrus and tropical fruit, but I was amazed at how much aroma was lost in just a month on the shelf. You still get some aromatics with a good deep breath, but the pungent hop aroma that helps make this a world class NEIPA is gone. If this was my first time trying the beer I would have still enjoyed it, but my evaluation would take a hit due to the lowered aromatics.

Melcher on the shelfMonth 1 (cold storage): After I finished the warm stored beer I immediately opened up another can that had spent the month in my beer fridge and the difference was striking. The big nose was very much present, and the beer was stellar. If anything the month in the fridge mellowed out a few of the more assertive notes from the fresh beer and improved it. I wish I’d saved 2 more cans in cold storage for the other time points, but I honestly didn’t think of it and I have limits on the amount of amazing beer I am willing to ruin, even if it’s for science.

Month 2: The first month on the shelf dissipated a substantial amount of the beers aroma, and after two months it was completely gone. There is still solid hop flavor, but the malts start to assert themselves a little more. This isn’t a bad beer, but it is a huge downgrade from the fresh version. I really wish I had saved a can for two weeks in the fridge to see if it held up.

Month 3: No nose on this beer at all. The flavor is OK, some fruity hops come through along with some bready malt. The change from month two to month three is much less dramatic than the changes over the first two months. Not a terrible beer by any stretch, but not at all what you would expect from the style.

Melcher FinalConclusions: New England style IPAs have a reputation for incredibly short shelf lives, and this study helps back up that reputation. After even a month on the shelf you notice a substantial decline in quality, and after 3 months even a top shelf NEIPA is pretty much ruined. It is always important for breweries to date their packaging and for consumers to check dates before they buy the beer, but it is especially critical with this sub-style. As NEIPAs hit distribution I’ve seen a number of freshness dating strategies. One of the best is Springdale Brewing who clearly marks the canned on date, the best by date (2 months after canning for hoppy beers) and a directive to store the beer cold. Other breweries just have a single date with no explanation of what the date means, have numbers that are impossible to read or decipher, or even worse have no date coding at all. If a brewery really cares about delivering the optimal product to their consumers they will clearly date all of their cans and work with distributors to keep the freshest possible beer on shelves and encourage bottle shops to store the beer cold whenever possible. It is also critical for consumers to check the dates and store the beer cold once they buy it.

It was fun to delve into a little science as part of Hoppy Boston!

A Beer for Everyone at Your Super Bowl Party: 2018 Edition

As a bit of a joke in 2015 I wrote a satirical article suggesting a beer for each “type” of person that might attend your Super Bowl party. Then this happened:

Malcolm-Butler-interception

With the Patriots return to the Super Bowl last year I knocked out a follow up article, and then we saw this:

28 to 3

The logical part of me fully realizes that the Hoppy Boston articles had no effect on the dramatic wins by my favorite team, even suggesting such a thing would be ridiculous. That being said, there was a 100% chance I was writing another version of this article as soon as the Patriots completed their epic comeback against Jacksonville in the AFC Championship game. This article is flagrantly pro-Patriots, so fans of every other team, who are probably rooting for the Eagles on Sunday, might want to skip it.

Trillium Night and Day: For all Patriots fans of a certain age who cut their teeth on the late 80’s/early 90’s teams that were the laughingstock of the league and now get to enjoy the dominance of the last 17 years. This rich and boozy stout is perfect to sip and contemplate.

Mystic Day of Doom: An even boozier beer to remind us all that this run of excellence will end (and probably pretty soon), so we need to enjoy it while it lasts.

Harpoon Take 5: A smooth and easy to drink session IPA to celebrate the 5 championships the Patriots already have while still hoping for more.

Lamplighter Major Tom: A bold and hoppy IPA to that might be named for a David Bowie song, but is perfect for the G.O.A.T.

Night Shift 87: For Rob Gronkowski fans, and really how can you not be a fan of Gronk, he is such a unique talent. So glad he is cleared to play this weekend. Plus, while I think he is more of a macro-beer drinker, I think Gronk would appreciate a boozy DIPA with his number on the can.

CBC Tripel Threat: For receiver, runner and punt returner extraordinaire Danny Amendola. I almost chose another CBC beer called Little Creatures, which would be appropriate if a little mean.

Jack’s Abby’s Post Shift Pilsner: A working man’s pilsner perfect for a team whose motto is Do Your Job.

Night Shift Dynasty: Goes without explanation (I haven’t actually tried this beer yet, but I’ve heard it’s amazing).

Slumbrew Flagraiser: To celebrate the raising of banner #6 in the fall (we hope).

That’s it for this year. Go Pats, hopefully we are celebrating a win on Sunday and I am writing this article again next winter!

 

Brewery in Planning: Pitkin Point

This article is part of a series called “So you want to start a craft brewery?” organized by the Mass Brew Bros. Five separate articles published on different blogs will profile a local brewery in planning, and then a final article will cover what the authors have learned about the challenges of opening a brewery in Massachusetts. I will add links for all of the articles in the series to the end of this piece as they go live, so check back in or follow on social media.

Pitkin Point logoAfter more than a decade as an acclaimed home brewer, Pitkin Point co-founder Tayler Pitkin is excited to share his beer with a wider audience. While he has two additional co-founders who are committed to helping out with finance and operations, Tayler is essentially Pitkin Point. He will be the head brewer, run the business and even self-distribute the beer to start. He still has a number of hurdles to clear before the brewery begins operations, applications for a federal license are processing now and they will be followed by a massive amount of paperwork to receive the appropriate licenses from the state. Once those hurdles are cleared he hopes to provide local drinkers with a stable of flavorful ales, ranging from hop-bomb IPAs to rich and malty stouts.

Pitkin Point is planning to start as a contract brewery, the beer will be produced at an existing brewery (he is not yet at liberty to divulge where) and packaged for distribution to local bars, restaurants and bottle shops. Tayler and his family live in Carlisle, and he had initially hoped to open a full taproom in town, something that his community doesn’t have. Unfortunately he had issue finding a good space for a brewery. Most breweries are built in established industrial lots, usually repurposed mills, factories or warehouses. One of the reasons many residential-focused communities don’t have their own breweries is that these types of buildings don’t exist. Starting as a contract brewer has many advantages, there is a much lower start-up cost both in money and time, and it allows the brewery to establish the brand before committing to a taproom. He hopes to establish relationships with the brewery where he contracts, using the expertise of the brewers at the facility to enable seamless scale up of his developed homebrew recipes into production levels.

Pitkin Point The Doctor

One of the big issues that contract brewers can face is that they don’t get the immediate community that a taproom can generate for a new brewery. People feel an immediate connection to a brewery in their town and want to help it succeed. Tayler wants Pitkin Point to be Carlisle’s brewery and has a number of plans to make this happen without having a taproom at launch. He is hoping to set up pop-up or seasonal beer gardens in Carlisle featuring Pitkin Point beers, similar to what Trillium did on the Greenway this summer. These beer gardens will help introduce the beers to people in town and allow Tayler to receive feedback directly from his customers.

Pitkin Point is going to emphasize family heritage, each beer is named after a specific ancestor and includes a story about the inspiration for the beer. One of the flagship beers will be The General, a New England style IPA named after one of Tayler’s ancestors who was quartermaster general for the army of the Potomac. Another beer, The Doctor, is a brown ale brewed with local honey and named for Tayler’s grandfather. A rotating IPA called The Immigrant will feature a new hop profile with every batch, and is named in honor of the first Pitkin ancestors to immigrate to the US. The beers are not available for sale yet, and won’t be until the proper licenses are acquired, but Tayler has been scaling and perfecting the recipes and sharing the beers with interested drinkers, creating some positive buzz for the brewery.

Pitkin Point the general

Pitkin Point is also planning on releasing a cider named Hunter Cove. Hunter Cove is a tart cider made from wild apples and yeast sourced from Hunter Cove Cabins in Rangely, Maine, which is owned by Tayler’s in-laws, keeping with the family stories that drives the beers. This release will make Pitkin Point one of a small number of breweries that also make their own cider. This cider is slightly tart, dry, flavorful and very easy drinking, it should appeal to cider fans and as well as beer fans looking to branch out. When Pitkin Point is able to open a taproom or beer garden many visitors will appreciate having a cider option in addition to the variety of beers.

With the increasing competitive market for local brewers there are a few key factors that lead to success. The first is obviously to brew amazing beer. Outside of that it is important to develop a cohesive and interesting brand, tell a good story and build a community of support. It sounds like Pitkin Point is off to a good start, it will be interesting to watch as they take the next steps and start selling their beer in the near future!

Hoppy Boston Heads into 2018

The New Year is always a good time for some reflection on the past year and planning for the next, so I thought it would be a good idea to do a quick re-cap of 2017 on Hoppy Boston and set up a few things for 2018. I want to start by thanking everyone who regularly reads the blog, and my followers on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram. I have met an awesome community of beer fans through the blog and social media, and the interaction with others is what keeps me excited to continue writing Hoppy Boston.

cropped-hoppy-boston-1.jpgThe biggest change on the blog this year was definitely the new logo. I’ve been hoping to develop a professional looking logo for a while and finally took the plunge this year. I’m happy with how it came out and got great feedback. I’m planning on pasting this logo onto every piece of relevant merchandise I can think of, I already did stickers and glassware. The first batch of the stickers flew, but I got in more of the same, so anyone who is interested in a Hoppy Boston sticker (no charge) just send a email to ryan.brawn80@gmail.com with your address and “sticker” in the subject line and I will send you one.

I am trying to mix up the blog and include more different types of articles, from news about local breweries to opinion pieces. I started the random beer thoughts/links articles at the end of 2016 but it became a blog staple this year. I typically post it on the last Thursday of the month, with a collection of links to the most interesting beer writing I come across that month and other news, notes and opinions. The articles have been very well received, they are always amongst my most viewed article of a given month. You can find the log of monthly links articles HERE.

I don’t do a best beers of the year article because I recap the best beers I reviewed every 3 months, you can find the quarterly summaries HERE. While I am doing more diverse blog posts beer reviews are still in heavy rotation, with a goal of identifying the best beers being brewed in the region and passing along my recommendations. The most popular beer reviews of 2017 (based on number of page views) were the dual review of Hipster Apocalypse and Liquid Rapture from buzzy Maine brewery Mason’s Brewing and my review of Vermont standout Sip of Sunshine from Lawson’s Finest Liquids. No surprise that IPAs reign supreme. My most popular opinion article was a recent post questioning whether large and mid-sized breweries can have success brewing New England style IPAs. I think this question will be answered in 2018 when breweries like Sam Adams and Sierra Nevada try to mass produce and distribute this style.

Looking ahead to 2018 I have some fun stuff planned for the blog. I am working with some other local beer writers on a series of collaboration articles. I have a special beer-related scientific study in progress right now that you’ll be able to read about this summer. The monthly links column will continue along with reviews of the best beers I come across and a variety of other articles relevant to the constantly changing local beer scene. My goal is to keep Hoppy Boston informative and entertaining, I hope I am doing a reasonable job. My life is going to get even more crazy in 2018, but I am hoping to do a little more traveling around New England and spend more time writing about less-heralded breweries and beer styles. I am always open to ideas, so if there is anything else you’d like to see on Hoppy Boston leave me a message here or on social media. Thank you again for making 2017 another great year for the blog, and I look forward to more fun exploring the world of local beer in 2018!

Cheers!

Ryan