Death of a Beer: In a fickle market, brewers grapple with axing the beers that once defined their brands

Illustration by DWITT

A great beer with mass appeal is the result of a brewer’s time, effort, and passion, but hard work isn’t what dictates a drink’s success. Whether or not a beer becomes a mainstay for a brewery depends on the consumer’s reaction. If a lot of people love it, then a lot of people drink it—it’s simple, right? 

But with shelves chock-full of unique beers and almost 200 breweries in Minnesota alone, it’s easy for beer drinkers to reach for the next new thing—the zesty sour ale, the flavorful double-barrel aged porter, the vanilla milkshake IPA—leaving once-sought-after, well-brewed flagships to collect dust on the shelves. 

Castle Danger Danger Ale. Indeed Midnight Ryder. Bauhaus Wagon Party. These beers once defined their respective breweries—now they’re quaint memories. So when does a brewery know that their once-heralded beer is DNR?

In the winter of 2018, Surly Brewing Company killed two of the first beers they ever released from their packaged product lineup: Bender Oatmeal Brown Ale and Cynic, their Belgian-style pale ale. A post on their website touched on their decision to discontinue the two brews: 

“The reality of the craft beer industry in 2019 is that there are literally thousands of breweries vying for limited shelf space. Certain beer styles simply don’t move with the velocity of others, and those styles will get the short end of the stick on the market. Continuing to can Cynic and Bender, despite how much we love them, was throwing good money after bad.”

Cynic was difficult to handle from an ingredients perspective because it used a strain of Belgian yeast that was only used for that beer. The declining sales made maintaining the complex recipe even more difficult. 

(And Cynic’s death is just the tip of the sinking Belgian-style iceberg in the Twin Cities. Bauhaus Hairbanger, Fulton Expat, Harriet Brewing and all their Belgians—all relegated to the history books. Even Boom Island Brewing, which started as an exclusively Belgian-style brewery in 2011, has shifted their portfolio to include styles such as session IPA, Russian imperial stout, and West Coast IPA.)

A variation of Bender, Coffee Bender had stronger sales and a similar taste profile as the original, so Surly decided to let the initial brew go. Surly’s vice president of marketing, Bill Manley explained that both Bender and Cynic were long-time brands that served as portfolio enhancers in the market. However, in recent years both brands’ sales were in decline. 

“We felt that there was an opportunity to introduce new beers and brands to the market which, sadly, meant we had to lose some familiar favorites in the process. We always hate to see some old friends go, but it’s nice to make way for new things as well.”  

For every brand, Surly outlines their expectations for that beer. They decide whether that brew will be a big volume beverage or a portfolio enhancer. 

“We look at what has performed well in the past, what our fans are asking for, and whether we’re making the right thing for the right tastes in today’s market,” explained Manley. 

Surly has learned from experience. Their Hopshifter, a gluten-reduced IPA, was essentially DOA—it lived for about five months before Surly pulled the plug, which, according to Manley was about two months too many. The beer didn’t come close to meeting their expectations. 

“With such a saturated market, it’s easy to get seduced by newness,” says Manley. “We’re all guilty of occasionally trading in the ‘what’s good’ for ‘what’s new.’ It’s up to brewers and marketing teams to remember and remind consumers what makes the classics, classic. Great storytelling about the core brands makes people remember how much value there is in returning to them.”

Head brewer at Fair State Brewing Cooperative, Niko Tonks agrees that the churn of new beer makes it difficult to capture a consumer’s attention with the classics. Fair State’s Du Pounde, a Belgian saison, and Vienna Lager were both meant to be year-round staples and yet neither of the brews lasted more than a year in packaged form. The brewery wasn’t able to justify keeping them as core packaged products when other brands would move off the shelves more quickly. 

“It can be really hard to let things go when you like them […] especially if the people you see on the day-to-day tell you they like it, too,” says Tonks. “That’s an interesting thing I’ve observed. The things people say and market data do not always line up. Similarly, taproom sales are not always a good indicator of how a beer will move outside of our doors.” 

To that end, Fair State’s Vienna Lager will continue as a year-round product within the taproom for the foreseeable future. Although the product didn’t fly off the shelves, it does move well in-house. 

Along with the plethora of quirky beverages on the market, Tonks expressed that social media has made a big impact on the craft beer world by putting more importance on physical appearance and causing fads to move more quickly. 

“Trends move faster and shift more brutally than ever,” Tonks says. “Take Brut IPA for example: it went viral and was poised to be a huge thing. But it turned out that once most people tried it, they decided it was not their thing. That was probably the biggest DOA trend I can remember.” 

Tonks says that despite fast-moving trends, the idea of a flagship brand isn’t necessarily dead; it’s just more likely that breweries will realize that their products have a lifespan. 

“It’s possible to update a flagship brew in an attempt to keep up with changing tastes, but that risks turning off the core constituency of drinkers that supported the beer in the first place,” says Tonks. 

Illustration by Stacey Combs

On the contrary, founder of Summit Brewing Company, Mark Stutrud expresses that Summit thrives off of flagships. Since Summit’s humble beginnings in 1986, the brewery has found success and pride in tradition and perfection of their classics. 

“For a brewery to have legacy and longevity, they need to be noted for a certain style,” says Stutrud. “When a brewery says they won’t have a flagship, I just tell them, ‘Good luck with that.’” 

Summit’s flagships get a lot of attention. For example, Summit EPA is over 50 percent of their production. On the opposite end of the success spectrum is Summit’s Hopvale Organic IPA. 

“There isn’t much importance on the organic segment of the craft beer industry,” says Stutrud. “The consumer demand just wasn’t there.” 

For a brew at Summit to be considered successful, they look to sell 600 barrels and 10,000 cases or more. It’s crucial to stick with their margins and brew what they’re confident their customers will love. 

Summit’s Skip Rock White Ale was another brew that didn’t quite make the cut. With Blue Moon and Shock Top on the shelves, Stutrud felt that there may have already been adequate white ale representation in the market at the time. 

“Skip Rock was a delicious and beautiful brew,” says Mark. “But the timing was off.” 

Summit’s passion for the classics doesn’t mean their beers don’t ever change. Summit utilizes the changing seasons to update their beers. For example, they tweak the ABV and play with the hop characteristics of their Winter Ale to keep their consumers interested. Other times they decide to hold onto a beer for a year with no re-release. When they did this with their Winter Ale, consumers reacted strongly, making the decision to bring the beer back an easy one. 

“It’s simple—we listen to what our customers and distributors want, and we produce it,” says Stutrud. “Our seasonal beers have definitely not lost their luster. Both our Winter Ale and Oktoberfest are selling really well.” 

Summit focuses less on special styles and more on their core brands. They don’t feel the need to have a new shiny object every week because their goal is to have their consumers rely on them for quality and consistency. 

Consumers hold the power. Choosing a classic over the sour, sweet, or quirky is crucial for keeping a brand alive. When there’s a brew you’d like to see on shelves year after year, buy it. When there’s a brew you claim is your favorite, don’t be finicky, drink it. Behind every good beer is a story. Consumers decide which stories live on.