Are Classic Styles Getting Lost In The Haze?
This seems to be an ever prominent question in the beer world, especially with how connected it is to social media, and in many ways how dependent it is on social media. Craft beer drinkers can be a fickle bunch, and we do often make the most noise about what’s new. New releases will get a lot of buzz on Instagram, and Untappd is probably the medium most commonly associated with “ticker culture”, with many users eager to check-in as many new beers as possible and the app actually rewarding users with “badges” for reaching various milestones. So what does that mean for where the industry is going?
New breweries are still opening each year, so it is becoming more and more of a fight for them to be seen and get products in the hands of consumers. This is an even greater challenge for breweries who primarily offer a core lineup of traditional styles. A five-can lineup of a blonde, an amber, a pale ale, a brown, and an English bitter is going to have a tough time holding attention with so many people excitedly awaiting next week’s batch of haze coming out of another brewery.
It can put brewers in a tough spot. How do you continue to satisfy a customer base always wanting what’s next? Is your core lineup of classic styles enough to keep you in business? These are questions without obvious answers. I think breweries that pride themselves on their traditional or approachable lineup have a much tougher go of things in an environment where customers are inundated with choice and it’s hard not to get caught up in the hype.
Classic styles have less social media appeal, and they aren’t forgiving. A classic pilsner or red ale isn’t going to have any flaws hidden behind a shit load of dry hopping or fruit additions. When it comes to classic styles, mediocre doesn’t cut it. It will just be forgettable, and definitely won’t bring people back in the door. Though classic styles are seeing a resurgence, haze is still what’s hot. It’s got visual appeal and it lends itself to endless creativity with hop flavours as well as fruit and other adjunct additions. Haze can also be a lot more forgiving in that the bold flavours can mask some of the flaws or other subtleties that have nothing to hide behind in a traditional pils or a straight-up saison. What this ends up meaning is that for traditional styles to bring people in the door, you have to be making the best of that style. People have to start knowing you as the brewery that makes the lager they want to go back to over and over again.
This of course doesn’t mean that brewing mediocre versions of what’s hot is a sustainable strategy either. We’ve all seen it happen where a brewery will put out some haze purely because it’s hyped and they’re trying to catch up with the trend. It might get some attention at first but it will usually fall flat. New England-style IPAs are so prominent now that customers don’t have to get it from a brewery that’s half-assing it. It might get people buying product in the short term, but if it keeps being mediocre, no one’s going to come back for it, and this ultimately feeds the desire for what’s new and fresh. If you start being known for making a mediocre product, even a hyped one, customers will find it somewhere else.
Tooth and Nail Brewing Co. in Ottawa is a case of a brewery succeeding despite not bending to hype. Head brewer Matt Tweedy is known to not be on board the haze train, and rather favours classic German and Belgian styles which is evident by their tap list. Tooth and Nail have a reputation for unmatched precision and consistency and are perhaps most widely regarded for Vim & Vigor, arguably one of the best classic pilsners in Ontario. I personally love visiting the taproom for their oatmeal stout Fortitude, which they serve on nitro. I think they strike the right balance of making their range of classic styles VERY well, while also putting out some fantastic one-off and seasonal releases such as Fortified and Fortissimo (their imperial and bourbon-barrel aged versions of Fortitude), and Truce, their rich and flavour packed holiday winter warmer. Even when branching out from their core range, they do so with impressive refinement.
It’s also important to remember that not all craft beer drinkers are Instagram haze hunters. While those of us on social media are certainly the ones who make the most noise, there are plenty of customers who just quietly buy and enjoy the beer. These may be the ones who regularly order the amber, the brown ale or the no-frills sessionable oatmeal stout. Lots of drinkers who are active on social media regularly enjoy these styles too, they’re just not the ones we talk about nearly as much. However, social-focused campaigns like #FlagshipFebruary have certainly brought more attention recently to breweries’ core brands.
All this considered, it is obvious that ticker culture does contribute to bad attitudes and habits. As drinkers, it’s easy to fall into the trap of only wanting to try what’s new and overlooking the great beers we’ve had before. In some extreme cases, it can lead to overblown hype, whale hunting, and inexplicable lineup release madness.
But is it ruining craft beer? Ultimately, I think not. For better or worse, it’s where the industry is right now. Like in any business, breweries have to adapt to the demands of the consumer culture, especially in a field which is still growing. It is approaching (and some would argue has already reached) a point of saturation, which makes it inevitable that the cream will rise to the top, regardless of the styles you build your business on. There are obviously many factors that influence a brewery’s choices of what to brew. Their location, age in the industry, customer demographics, distribution range and many other elements are all going to have a big impact on what beers are going to sell best, and what they’re going to become known for. If breweries don’t want to be brewing the styles that are hyped, they need to accept that they are taking on a greater challenge to make people desire what they want to brew. That means that their amber, pale ale, or lager is going to have to stand out as something customers are going to want to drink again. Staying the course and blaming ticker culture for a lack of customer interest is a sure path to being left behind.