Best Of A Year Of Beer: The Myth of the Flagship Beer

While this blogger is soaking up the cask ales of England and sour beers of Belgium for a couple of weeks, please enjoy these “Best Of” posts. This was originally posted on February 28th, 2011. It may still be true today.

There was some debate going on between myself and Matt from One Beer at a Time in the comments section of my post of the third tier of Ontario microbreweries. I was bemoaning the fact, as many beer geeks do, that new microbreweries tend to make their flagship beer a blond/pale lager/ale (or some variation, like Beau’s Lug-Tread. That beer is a kölsch, which is German for pale lagered ale). These flagship beers often result in very similar products, imbuing lots of delicious irony into an otherwise uninteresting product. The argument for flagship beers usually focuses on the fact that breweries need to make money and making a beer that appeals to a large cross-section of the population is the best way to pay the bills. My goal is to debunk this myth.

The first, and largest, error that I see with basing your business model on a generic flagship brew is that it does very little to promote growth and brand recognition with beer drinkers. The decline of brand loyalty in macro beer drinkers is well known, which is why the big brands have to spend so much in advertising too appeal to drinkers. There is no reason to think that this doesn’t carry over to people that drink craft beer: they do not just drink beers from one brewery, but vary their drinking habits based on availability, desire, etc. If you’re a brewery, why do you want to make a product that can easily be replaced by another beer made by someone else? Consumers will not go out of their way to find your beer – it will only be one they occasionally drink. Most microbreweries lack the money to differentiate themselves with significant marketing campaigns, so it is baffling why they do not take the opportunity to do it with their beer.

Countering my argument is fairly easy: breweries keep making these beers, so they must be making money off of these beers. And doesn’t that prove the necessity for flagship beers to be pale ales or lagers? In my opinion, this is a self-fulfilling prophecy because the flagship beer is likely to get the most promotion from the brewery. They will try to get it into the most bars, into the LCBO and will heavily feature that beer in advertisements, signage, coasters… pretty much everywhere possible. So it is no surprise that these beers become the best sellers from their breweries, because they are marketed to become exactly that.

Proponents of flagship beers say that most beer drinkers do not want anything too challenging. To twist those words around, flagship beers usually aim for drinkability. Sound familiar? Yup, the same word that the big breweries use to describe their beers can be applied to these boring beers that microbreweries make. This is the biggest reason that I get offended by having an uninspiring flagship beer – the aim is to make a beer that is inoffensive to most people in order to make money. Yes, it is easy to judge when my money and livelihood is not at stake, but doesn’t this go against the whole point of craft beer? What message is being sent by offering beer that tries to achieve the same result as most other beers?

I have no problem with trying to make a beer with mass-appeal, mainly because I think (perhaps naively) that an excellent beer can sell to a wide-spectrum of beer drinkers. This isn’t a call for a flagship beer that is an American-style IPA. A well made beer in a variety of styles (mild, bitter, ESB, German or Belgian wheat, saison, maybe even a Belgian ale) could offer something different while not eliminating large portions of the beer drinking community. The perfect example is Unibroue. Yes, they make a couple of shitty beers (the “U” series), but they are best known for the Belgian-style ales (Blanche de Chambly, Maudite, La Fin du Monde). These are beers that don’t sacrifice taste or quality, yet have still proven to be very popular. It can happen in Ontario too, and the first brewery to do so will hopefully make a lot of money to prove everyone else wrong.

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