Innovation is a hallmark of craft beer. It started in more restrained fashion with simply being different than big corporate beer. Lacking consumer recognition and credibility at first, microbrewers in the 1980’s tended to brew more traditional styles, whether faithful renditions or an homage to historical recipes with a modern twist. Quality was often hit or miss, and consumers were reluctant to venture too far beyond the amber, brown, pale ale, or stout found on most beer boards.
Thankfully, most brewers refined their brewing chops and elevated the overall quality of microbeer, reducing the incidence of bad surprises for drinkers. Buoyed by fewer “misses” and developing a palate for stronger, more bitter beers, consumers began to adopt bigger, more flavorful, and exotic styles. The innovation race was on!
So how does a successful brewery manage its portfolio in this environment of explosive innovation? And what is the role of innovation in developing brewing credentials?
LEAD FROM THE BREWHOUSE
The more successful breweries I know let brewers lead. They don’t lead innovation from the board room, or the finance department, or even the marketing department. Sure, these resources are valuable stakeholders in the process. But there is no substitute for a sharp brewer with an open mind, proper resources, and creative itch to scratch.
It is a balancing game, however. Brewers are wise to listen to input from other functions in the brewery. They can benefit from some sense of business strategy behind their innovation. Brewers sometimes chase their creative whims to a fault, without sufficient regard for commercial factors and enterprise survival. Yet at times they also need the latitude to brew just for the art of it.
I advocate a lot of leeway for brewers to pursue their passion, both for ultimate commercial success but also to retain the best brewers. I’ve seen behind the curtain at a few of the former craft breweries bought out by the big guys. No MBA (and I am one) with a financial analyst in tow should ever have too much say in a brewery’s innovation plans. It just doesn’t work well.
Let the brewers lead. But provide guardrails and goals to drive commercial success as well as artistic achievement.
TAKE A REFRESHING APPROACH
One innovation gap is the reluctance of brewers to embrace more refreshing and sessionable styles. There’s a reason 72% of beer is still macro American lagers. Not everyone likes a DIPA, and not every situation is right for a DIPA, even for those who adore them. Refreshment is still a valid foundational consumer need for beer. Yet well crafted, refreshing beers don’t always get the respect they deserve. Even when elegantly brewed and commercially successful, they just don’t carry the cache of a big hop bomb or barrel-aged beauty in the brewer’s trophy case.
Point taken. But there are a lot of potential craft drinkers to reach with more refreshing beers. Over time, they might also develop a taste for a brewer’s more heartfelt, flavorful efforts. Even the most mature craft beer aficionados of today didn’t just jump into sours right away.
HOW DRINKERS SCORE INNOVATION
For the exploring and newer craft enthusiasts, a brewery’s innovation weighs heavily in their assessment of the brewery’s quality and brewing prowess. The algorithm starts with avoiding too many mistakes. It’s not about perfection, though. The presence of a few misses actually can be a positive. It shows the brewery is willing to take chances. But too many mistakes severely damages the brewer’s reputation. And this is about missing on style, not basic quality control issues. QC problems are infinitely less forgivable than a quirky beer.
The next element in the algorithm is an anchor portfolio with solid flagship brands. These are the go-to brands when trying something new just isn’t in order, or when suggesting a beer to a friend still exploring craft who values something they can enjoy and find again easily. Bonus points are clearly given for flagship brands that stand out from the crowd. But flagship brands that have lost their luster are a real liability. In over two decades in beer, I’ve seen more than a few brands soar to high heights only to stagnate and eventually become a net liability to a brewer’s credentials.
Having a solid portfolio of anchor brands with few misses elevates a brewer to “solid” status. Not bad, not great. Just solid. In baseball terms, you don’t make it to the Hall of Fame hitting just singles for average. Home runs count disproportionately to an exceptional legacy.
To rise about “solid” takes inspired innovation. Innovation in seasonal beers, bomber series, barrel aged one-offs, etc. are what separate an “excellent” brewer from only a “solid” brewer. A brewery’s regard is only as high as its most special beer.
These marque brands (usually sold at a high premium with limited availability) elevate the esteem of these otherwise “solid” breweries. The sad fact is many of these now “solid” breweries were once the innovation leaders in the market. But to their detriment, they rested on their laurels. Encouragingly, many are making inroads in returning to their previous levels of esteem through innovation. It remains to be seen how far back up the ladder they can climb.
SO INNOVATE, OR RISK A STEADY DECLINE
Continuous innovation is critical to elevating and maintaining a brewery’s esteem in the marketplace. Job one is to eliminate big misses, but not be paralyzed by fear of failing. Job two is to establish a solid core of flagship beers. Then the fun begins!
Innovation is the key to driving marketplace success in the long run. And the best place to manage innovation is in the brewhouse and taproom, though someone needs to keep tabs on the overall commercial trajectory of the brewery.
What’s new at your brewery?
John Mann (@beermktguy)
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