Strange Brew

CRAFT BEER GETS WEIRD – FOR GOOD REASON

Oysters and beer are a classic food and beverage combination – but brewing a beer with oysters is sure to raise some eyebrows. Perhaps that’s why Harpoon’s newly released 100 Barrel Series Oyster Stout generated considerable buzz.

“People were coming in asking about the oyster stout before I had heard about it from the reps,” says Kristen Todeschini, the beer manager at Downtown Wine and Spirits, a Boston area liquor store. “I ordered three cases but now I wonder if that was enough.”

Selling out of a beer brewed with shellfish is reminiscent of the surprise success of Jones Soda’s Turkey and Gravy Soda in 2003. Though both Harpoon and Jones were appealing to consumer curiosity with an odd-ball beverage, Jones knowingly made their Thanksgiving themed drink unpalatable; Harpoon aimed to please the palate. Either way, though, the purpose is the same – standing out in a crowded aisle. To do that, craft brewers have begun to push the envelope of brewing convention to attract notice in an increasingly competitive craft beer market. According to the Brewers Association, craft brewing has grown rapidly, increasing production 5 percent by volume and 10 percent by dollars in the first half of 2009 – and this took place at a time marked by stagnating premium beer sales. Though craft beer only represents 6 percent of the beer market, it encompasses 90 percent of the nation’s breweries. With 1400 craft breweries competing over a small – but growing and curious – segment of beer drinkers, the struggle to get noticed has become intense.

Jay Frary, the marketing manager from New York City-based Union Beer Distributors, says, “The market has become so competitive that breweries are trying crazy things to distinguish themselves.” One strategy is unconventional beers.

Todeschini says that beer with high alcohol content and extreme hoppy-ness attracted attention three years ago. She says now the new trend is unique ingredients. Brewers generally aim for unique but palatable beers, to reward curiosity rather than scare people away from the brand. Katie Tame, the brewer at Harpoon who led the oyster stout project, found that oysters, when used in moderation, make a delicious beer. Oysters, when cooked into the wort, add proteins that give body, mouth-feel and head retention to the beer while the oyster brine contributes mineral flavors. Harpoon’s brew has 180 oysters in the hundred-barrel batch, enough to push conventional thinking about brewing, but not enough to give it a fishy flavor.

Of course, there are some that don’t work so well. Boston Beer Co. founder Jim Koch ruefully remembered a chicken beer and chocolate-chili beer as less-than-successful flavor experiments. Despite such missteps, however, breweries that base their brand strategy on quirkiness and use unconventional ingredients to authenticate their image have found some real success. Matt Cohen, head brewer at Magic Hat, a brewery with a perennially-popular apricot-flavored pale ale as its flagship beer, sees value in unique ingredients as a way to differentiate Magic Hat. He says, “We use ingredients not usually associated with beer, like agave syrup, ginger, or beets” to brew beer that appeals to a wide range of consumers.

Dogfish Head is another brewery that has built a reputation for brewing high quality oddities. Its biggest seller, a 60 minute IPA, is unusual, not in the ingredients used but in the continuous hopping method used to brew it. Unconventional beers compose much of the rest of their standard line, some using unusual ingredients such as the Raison D’Etre that is brewed with green raisins. But many of the odd-ball beers crowding the cooler are only intended to appeal to a small number of truly curious drinkers. Often rolled out as a limited production beer, they contribute relatively minor sales numbers, yet they still play an important role for the brand.

Richard Doyle, CEO of Harpoon, says that it is hard to manage distribution of a wide range of beer styles with their IPA selling so well. He sees the oyster stout and others like it in the 100 Barrel Series, as “a way to be creative and innovative and not worry about managing shelf space.”

Adam Lambert, vice president of sales at Dogfish Head, says that many of Dogfish’s limited offerings are not intended to flood the market but rather to “tease the market.” While the 60 minute IPA represents 48 percent of Dogfish’s sales, Lambert pushes distributors to carry a full line of product. So when Dogfish comes out with a limited production beer, a product that tends to sell out quickly (such as a new Ancient Ale, a line of beers based on ancient recipes derived from actual archeological finds), Lambert rewards distributors who embrace their full line by offering it at good margins.

Limited production beers can also be an opportunity for innovation. For Shaun O’Sullivan, the cofounder and brew master of the 21st Amendment, a brewpub in San Francisco, small batch brewing is an opportunity for experimentation, searching for the next big seller. The Hell of High Watermelon Wheat Beer was a surprising success at the restaurant and now it leads their push into general distribution. And if Watermelon Wheat isn’t unusual enough, they are one of the few craft brewers to bottle in cans rather than glass.

Though using ancient artifacts, shellfish, and fruit to sell beer may seem like desperate tactics to carve out space in a crowded market, Frary from Union Beer Distributors generally sees cooperation with in the industry to promote overall growth. “Craft beer will always be here,” Frary says, “In general (craft brewers) are working together to grow the category because at the end of the day, they are still the little guys.”