The summer is almost over and breweries will slowly be ramping down production as their busiest season comes to an end. Fermenters will be freeing up for new seasonals and stronger winter beers. It is a good time for breweries to look at their sales numbers and figure out what beers people are buying a lot of and if there are brands that can should maybe be phased out of production.
The beer industry is dynamic and tastes are always changing. Ontario is undergoing a rapid change right now and the breweries are doing a decent job of keeping up with the evolving demands of the consumer. But one area that breweries could improve is by looking at their core brands and figure out if any of them are under performing. There are a good number of breweries, especially those that have existed for ten or more years, that have brands that are too similar.
I understand that the best-selling beers for most breweries is an easy drinking lager or ale. It sells well and makes money, even if the more adventurous offerings are doing well and likely growing at a larger rate. The best-selling beer can be sold to the greatest amount of bars and is easy to take to summer festivals around the province. People won’t be scared away by it when they come for a brewery tour. It may act as a gateway beer or just be the everyday beer that people in the local community can drink. I’m not advocating getting rid of that beer. It’s that beer you’ve got right beside it, the cream ale or stock ale, that leaves me puzzled.
Two Ontario breweries that I can think of (Muskoka and Cameron’s) have lagers and cream ales. Mill Street has their Organic Lager and a Stock Ale. Wellington has the Special Pale Ale and Best Bitter. (Read the descriptions of the beers and tell me they don’t sound almost exactly the same.) Maybe these beers seemed vastly different they were introduced to the market, but now the breweries are left pushing what seem like very similar beers. The longer they keep both brands alive, the more time and effort they are wasting in the brand that sells less. (They’re also wasting valuable LCBO shelf space, which will become more important in the coming years.)
This isn’t a judgment on any of the beers. And yes, I am well aware that lagers and ales are very different, nor am I claiming that any of the above beers taste the same. It just seems like a bizarre business move to have beers that are close to being interchangeable. Are reps going into bars and saying, “Well, maybe you don’t like our lager but have you tried our cream ale?” You might as well say, “Here’s a variation of the beer you just turned down.” Why not get rid of the brand that sells less, push more of the better selling beer and use the extra fermenter space to try something new?
A good example of a brewery that does this right is Beau’s. The Lug Tread is their flagship and none of the seasonal beers could be confused with that beer. They realize what their main money maker is and don’t undercut that brand by releasing something similar. The fact that the Lug Tread is also their only year-round beer also helps in that regard.
Stopping production on beers is not unheard of in Ontario. Muskoka tried a Pilsner Light beer but eventually canned it after a couple of years (pun intended). Their Hefe Weiss went from year-round in cans to a seasonal product, so it’s not as if there isn’t a precedent. As the craft beer industry becomes more competitive in the coming years, my theory is that breweries will have to talk a hard look at what they are making and figure out how to distinguish themselves from the competition. Hopefully they will realize that focusing more energy on one or two core brands will help them in the long run. The short-term pains of angering beer drinkers losing their favourite beer will be met by bigger long-term gains.