CAPTURE THE FLAGSHIP

Commercial brewing is, first and foremost, a business.

It’s something that members of Alehead Nation (myself included) tend to forget. We bristle at the thought of another boring pale ale or one-note brown ale being released onto the shelves of our local package stores. Why can’t breweries just focus on aggressively hopped double IPAs or dark-as-sin, coffee-infused, oatmeal imperial stouts? Simple…those beers don’t pay the bills.

There are a ton of aleheads around these days, and our numbers are quickly growing. Still…what’s the market for an ambitious, “extreme” beer? For a local microbrewery…it’s maybe a couple hundred people. And what’s the market for an easy-to-drink, smooth, accessible pale ale? Pretty much every beer drinker in the brewer’s region. It would be wonderful if every brewer could tinker in their malt-laboratory, devising unique masterpieces the likes of which the beer snobs of the world have never seen. But that brewer has to pay rent on their brewery. They have to pay salaries for their employees. They have to buy barley, yeast, hops…plus bottling, shipping, etc. That basic amber ale that makes up 65% of their sales? That’s the one keeping your favorite brewery in business. That’s their flagship.

There are very few one-beer breweries these days. Sure, there are companies like Guinness and Bass who make such legendary brews that they don’t really need to produce anything else (although, both of those companies are part of such huge conglomerates these days that considering them “one-beer” brewers is laughable). For the most part, breweries produce one or two major flagship offerings that make up the bulk of their sales…and the rest of their stable of brews is comprised of more “challenging” fare.

So generally, a brewery’s flagship isn’t considered their best beer, but it’s definitely their bread and butter brew. It’s the one you’re most likely to find on tap in a bar or in a six-pack in your local liquor store. Think Sierra Nevada Pale Ale, New Belgium Fat Tire, or Sam Adams Boston Lager. The best flagships give you a sense of what that brewery is all about, but don’t overwhelm you with overly aggressive or complex flavors. They’re usually easy-drinking, session beers that appeal to the entire spectrum of beer drinkers. Making a great flagship is tricky business. The best-reviewed brews on a site like BeerAdvocate tend to be big, bold beers that don’t necessarily connect with the masses. That obviously won’t work for a flagship. But an insipid, bland flagship will alienate the aleheads of the world and keep them from trying your more exciting brews. And then you’re just another piddling, local alehouse that no one will ever care about.

So who makes the best flagship brews? Dr. van Drinkale asked that someone undertake some statistical analysis to determine this all-important question.  But who would actually believe they could determine something as subjective as “quality of flagship beers”? Who would be stupid enough to take on the challenge? That’s where I come in.

Thanks to my ground-breaking GPA-analysis of 107* of the top breweries in the country, I happened to have the complete line-ups for essentially every major craft brewer in the US.

*Why 107? Because that was the number I was on when my wife came in and told me that I was a loser.

Since I had every beer, plus the BeerAdvocate grade and number of reviews for each beer, I figured it would be as simple as looking for the beer with the most ratings per brewer. That would be the flagship, right? But, like all things in life, I quickly realized how absolutely fucking wrong I was. As it turns out, a brewery’s flagship beer is RARELY their most reviewed brew. Why? I alluded to it earlier. Last night, I drank a Cask-Conditioned Great Divide Hibernation Ale. You bet I’m going to do a tasting note for that beer. But what if I had a Sam Adams Boston Lager out of a bottle instead? Who cares? Why would I review that beer? Everyone knows what it tastes like…hell, my tasting note would probably just say “It tastes like a goddamn Sam Adams Boston Lager.”

The truth is, the most reviewed beers for a brewery tend to be the Russian Imperial Stouts, Double IPAs, funky fruit/spice offerings, or high-ABV styles. Those are the ones aleheads are seeking out and trying. Those are the ones that are fun to write about. No one likes writing reviews for the boring ol’ pale ale that every brewery makes. So while the flagship beers certainly tended to have a fair amount of ratings, they were only the most-reviewed beer in a handful of cases. To truly determine the flagship brews, I had to delve a little deeper. Thankfully, I had access to the interwebs.

The interwebs allowed me to googlefy my list of breweries and, for the most part, it was fairly easy to discover a brewery’s flagship beer. Often, the brewery itself would simply say “XXX beer is our flagship and biggest seller.” I liked when that happened. Sometimes it was trickier and I had to search through some reviews of beers until I hit on the beer that most people considered the flagship. In a few cases, I had to make an educated guess, but I think my list is fairly accurate, all things considered.

Not surprisingly, flagships tend to be pale ales and amber ales…with a few brown ales and IPAs thrown on. Not a ton of jaw-droppers on my list. Russian River topped everyone with the only A+ for their flagship Pliny the Elder (an amazing brew). Spoetzl brought up the rear with their uninspired Shiner Bock. In between, most of the high-ranked breweries (based on my GPA list) also produced high-ranked flagships (and the opposite was generally true for my lower-ranked alehouses). All five of the A+ and straight A flagships came from top-20 breweries. And if you look at the A- offerings, there are only two breweries with that flagship grade that fell in the bottom half of my GPA-list. Those breweries were Sierra Nevada and Dogfish Head whose Pale Ale and 60 Minute IPA are considered amongst the best every-day beers out there.

70 of the 107 beers fell in the B or B+ range. That’s to be expected with flagships…the workmanlike beers won’t usually get high ratings on Beer Advocate because there just isn’t enough complexity to the brew. But the flipside is also true…because these are carefully calibrated, highly drinkable beers, there are very few flagships that have a grade below a B. Only 13 of the 107 have below a B average. And only 4 have below a B- (the Ithaca Apricot Wheat which just sounds like a terrible idea, the Breckenridge Avalanche Ale which is about as bland a beer as you can create, the Pyramid Hefeweizen, and the aforementioned Shiner Bock).

The full list will follow shortly. Just remember, don’t judge a brewery by its flagship. Chances are, it’s just a gateway to much better brews…we all have bills to pay, after all.

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