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Good Beer Hunting

Apr 30, 2016

I feel like the past 18 months have been a sort of reconciliation for craft beer drinkers and brewers, with a lot of folks focusing on beers that are highly drinkable, or sessionable, but still quite flavorful, exciting, and ultimately easy to find. There’s been a surge in the market of craft Lagers, Pilsners, Session IPAs and Sours, along with some renewed appreciation for beers like Sierra Nevada Pale Ale. And in about a month we’ll be seeing an ode to Fat Tire in a collaboration 12-pack from New Belgium. So even as some craft brewers and their fans are finding more and more obscure, niche areas to explore, a lot of folks in craft beer are backing up a bit and asking themselves, "What’s good?" And, "Can we get more of that, please?" So with that kind of a swing back toward the middle, you’d expect a classic craft beer like Sam Adam’s Boston Lager to be in a bit of a resurgence. But as the nation’s largest craft brewer (right behind the recently re-defined-as-craft brewer, Yuengling), Boston Beer Company hasn’t been seeing the love—at least when you look at the numbers.  The numbers for Sam Adams mimics the glacial decline of macro lagers more than it does the consistent double-digit growth of smaller craft brewers. Is it just that Boston Beer has gotten so big that it simply isn’t part of the consideration set anymore? Maybe. Is the profile of Boston Lager outdated? Maybe. But I’d like to offer a different view—one that sets aside this specific beer for a second, and takes a look at the entirely of the Boston Beer business.  Boston Beer is so much more than Sam Adams. And its future seems geared toward diversity—not just a single beer they’ve been making since the 1980s.  In the past few years, they’ve taken a run at IPA with Rebel, and it instantly became one of the biggest launches in craft beer history. They followed that with a spread of different IPAs all playing off that success.  They’ve recently introduce a series of nitro beers that are sure to get the word "nitro" on the minds of consumers in a big way for the first time since Guinness.  Boston Beer is also the owner of Angry Orchard, a cider company they started from scratch, and now owns about 60% of the cider market in just three years. And now makes more than a million barrels and growing.  Even before that, they launched Twisted Tea, a brand that sells 640,000 barrels’ worth of booze a year. That’s nearly the volume of Lagunitas, and it’s still growing by double digits.  Through their Coney Island Brand, part of their Alchemy & Science wing, they entered the FMB space with a line of hard sodas.  They’ve also recently launched a line of alcoholic sparkling waters called Truly.  All this to say, it’d be foolish to talk about Boston Beer as Sam Adams anymore. Boston Beer is a mature, well-diversified company that’s placing big bets on the next thing in alcohol that it feels it has the opportunity and expertise to pursue. Through that lens, they’re not the slow-moving, classic craft beer that we should all take pity on as it slowly loses share. Rather, they’re one of the leading companies in the U.S. when it comes to new alcoholic beverage entries. And by that account, they’re killing it.  Now, that might take some of the sheen off an idol for you—especially if you were holding up Jim Koch as some sort of purist in craft beer. Although I think he’s also that. But the larger view of Koch should certainly take an honest look at the things this guy—and his company, of which he still holds all the controlling shares—puts in to the world on a regular basis. So yeah, when it comes to something like Boston Lager, this guy is as pure as they come. And when it comes to new opportunities, new ventures, new ideas—this guy is as cunning as it gets. And you don’t really have to worry about reconciling all that, of course, because Koch is nothing is not indifferent to other people’s opinions. And I kind of love him for it.