Deservedly or not, millennials get blamed for a lot of things, not least of all the slow demise of the flagship beer. Called everything from fickle to promiscuous, millennial craft beer drinkers stereotypically flit between the newest, hottest, rarest releases with no regard for the workhorse core brands that, to apply the most common cliché, “keep the lights on” for brewers who bank on their steady sales for sturdy ongoing revenue.
Beer writers like me do a lot of hand wringing over this, particularly as it pertains to the old classics–Sierra Nevada Pale Ale gets mentioned most often–that built the craft beer industry in the first place. Our laments are more than sentimental. The nation’s most pioneering and influential old craft breweries, all of which built their businesses on a flagship or two, are struggling mightily – and not so successfully — to compete in a world where a decent number of upstarts don’t even craft a core beer.
“A lot of beer drinkers have developed a sort of ADD with respect to the beers they drink, so going for a glass of beer at the bar or pub becomes less a pleasant distraction and more a relentless search for what’s new and exciting. In this mad rush towards the unusual and unknown, we tend to forget the great, familiar and still-wonderful beers that guided us all along the path to the craft beer renaissance,” emails globally renowned beer journalist Stephen Beaumont, who’s authored 13 books on the subject.
On Tuesday, Beaumont decided to officially do something about this important but admittedly first-world problem. He’s launching a campaign called #FlagshipFebruary, a month-long international celebration of flagship beers. So far, The Olympic Tavern in Rockford, Illinois, has committed to sell Sierra Nevada Pale Ale, Anchor Brewing Steam, Samuel Adams Boston Lager and New Belgium Brewing Fat Tire for $5 a pint all month long. In Seattle, the Beveridge Place Pub will showcase flagships on draught throughout February, Portland, Oregon’s Belmont Station will devote a tap or two to the cause, and Philadelphia’s Memphis Taproom has agreed to participate somehow. There’s already a pledge to spread the word in South Africa and social media conversations are taking place in New Zealand.
Beaumont says he’s not planning to set any standards for the events. He just wants to raise awareness and spending on these oldies but goodies, and maybe set a few millennials straight in the process.
“ Just because a beer is new or unusual doesn’t mean that it’s good , and in my non-professional time I’ve found myself retreating more and more to proven greats rather than the ballyhooed unknowns of the ‘special release’ world,” he writes. “Of course, as a beer writer focused on new releases, I have to take my share of the blame for the current state of affairs, so I guess this is part of my penance.”
Beaumont, who’s been pondering the idea for a while, got lovingly bullied by colleagues (including myself) into finally taking this on after he tweeted a comment in response to an article posted last week about another year of drastically declining sales of stalwarts like Anchor Steam. Despite a pressing deadline for his next book, Beaumont has enlisted beer historian Jay Brooks and Toronto creative agency Porter Hughes to develop a website that will list worldwide events and showcase a daily paean to flagships written by a cast of 28 noted beer writers.
The project has theoretical precedent. Lew Bryson, a beer and whiskey writer who used his now-defunct blog, The Session Beer Project, to help promote low-alcohol beers and launch a global Session Beer Day in 2012, succeeded in making “session beer” a household word. Bryson, a longtime friend of Beaumont’s, says he’s “all in” on #FlagshipFebruary.
“I’ve got a case and a half of Sierra Nevada Pale Ale cold in my garage right now that I’m working on, what’s left of a case of Great Lakes Ed Fitz Porter, and some Guinness Draught. I drink Allagash White, I drink Victory HopDevil, and I drink a LOT of Bells Two Hearted. I would hate to see those beers dry up and blow away,” he says, listing a few famous flagships. “I remember some beer snob bartender telling me ‘I don’t think Sierra Nevada Pale has much to say anymore.’ Yeah, actually, it does. And one of the things it’s saying is ‘Shut up and drink me.’”
Though much attention will likely be paid to those longstanding legends of craft brewing, Beaumont invites any brewery with at least one flagship to take part any way they want.
“I think that it’s a matter of intent rather than age,” he says.
That means an eight-year-old brewery like Kane Brewing in Ocean, New Jersey, can join in by featuring its flagships Head High IPA, Overhead DIPA and Sneakbox pale ale in its taproom if it so wishes. Whether Kane decides to or not, the philosophy is one that Vice President of Operations Glenn Lewis understands and appreciates.
“I think as a brewery starting out small and growing slowly and carefully, your flagship is your reliable source of production and sales volume week in and week out,” he says.
It’s exhausting to write enough recipes and keep up with a production schedule that has to adjust to an ever-changing bevy of beers, not to mention time-consuming to seek approval for each beer from the federal government. It’s expensive to design and order hundreds if not thousands of unique labels and laborious to convince wholesalers and retailers to take in an untested package every week or month.
That said, most breweries enjoy some degree of experimentation, and Kane makes a few limited beers that attract massive lines to the brewery on release days. #FlagshipFebruary will hopefully appeal to young peripatetic beer drinkers as much as the old guard because as Lewis explains, without a flagship, most breweries couldn’t afford to put out exciting experimental styles.
“Strong flagship sales open the door for experimentation – small batch beers that might have less commercial appeal but are important to us, or for barrel aging, where you’re spending a lot of money and time and taking up valuable square footage on beers that might not generate revenue for two years,” he says.
Speaking of time, Bryson warns that it may take a while for #FlagshipFebruary to fully catch on. The session beer “thing,” as he calls it, took four years to gain enough momentum to reach a mass craft beer audience, and he suggests that brewers should take it over once “this freebie proof of concept run happens.”
But he feels strongly that it should happen before it’s too late.
“Save the great beers we have,” he says. “Don’t let them be buried under a wriggling mass of mayfly beers that will be beautiful for a day…and then gone.”