Early in August, beer publications began to whisper and spread word about a potential new double IPA from Samuel Adams that sounded, let’s just say … uncannily familiar. The story really broke and received attention earlier this month following a feature in BostInno, titled “Sam Adams’ New Double IPA is Making Alcohol Distributors Nervous.” The reason for the supposed anxiety was the fact that this new DIPA, Rebel Raw, was a hop-bombed release with a shorter shelf life, designed to be pulled out of the market after a mere 35 days. Oh dear! How would those distributors get used to such a concept?
Well, presumably they’ll just continue doing exactly what they’ve been doing to distribute the nationally available Stone Enjoy By IPA for the past three years. You know, that other DIPA with 35-day freshness dating (now 37 days) that the BostInno story somehow forgot to mention, until reader comments forced them to add an update in the middle of the text. This much can’t really be argued: When it comes to the “super fresh, short shelf-life” DIPA, Stone institutionalized the way to not only put that beer (and it’s an excellent beer) on the shelf nationwide, but to forge the distributor relationships necessary to then reclaim its bottles when the 35 days are up. And so, perhaps you can imagine Stone co-founder Greg Koch bristling a bit when he reads a piece describing Boston Beer Co.’s new innovation.
“It’s an imaginative retelling of history saying ‘never before has this been attempted,’ which of course causes us to mutter under our breath ‘horseshit,’” said Koch, a figure in the brewing industry not exactly known for an aversion to confrontation, in a phone call to Paste from San Diego. “When companies are clearly grasping at straws to try and justify it, it comes off derivative. Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, but taking credit for something is not cool.”
Clearly, a nerve had been struck. Greg Koch sees Rebel Raw tackling a similar market as Enjoy By, which is to be expected—this is business, after all. Competition does tend to happen in business. What draws his ire is the suggestion of innovation, along with quotes from Sam Adams co-founder Jim Koch (no relation) that imply a certain reckless, devil-may-care image for the brewery that just so happens to fit the name of their “Rebel” series of IPAs. And that’s a tough image for Boston Beer Co. to project earnestly, especially given the historical precedent—this is not a company that has ever been fond of American IPA. In that sense, they’re a philosophical opposite of Stone.
Indeed, the company’s distaste for American hops has long been the subject of good-natured beer geek ribbing. Although many craft beer obsessives, myself included, hold a soft spot in their heart for the company’s famed Boston Lager, the brew is also representative of many qualities that Sam Adams beers have tended to share over the years. It’s crisp, easily approachable and features noble (European) hops. For decades, that’s usually what it meant to be a Sam Adams beer. For years, the company willfully ignored the growth of IPA as the standard-bearer of the entire American craft brewing movement. It wasn’t their thing, and I honestly respected their decision to simply acknowledge that. Breweries should not, after all, be forced into producing styles they don’t want to produce strictly for economic reasons. If you don’t want to make IPA, it’s not like there’s a shortage of them.
Then 2014 came along, and Sam Adams suddenly changed its tune, seemingly buckling to the market’s pressure. The Rebel IPA marked their first-ever exploration into a year-round American-style India pale ale, only 30 years after the company produced its first batches of Boston Lager. It performed well enough to merit a full range of follow-ups; the Rebel Rider session IPA and Rebel Rouser DIPA. We’re familiar with them all, and indeed we tasted all three next to each other at the time. They’re fine beers, especially on a budget, but none set the craft beer world ablaze. The last word you’d use to describe any of them is “extreme.”
And that’s what makes a beer like Rebel Raw seem so immediately disingenuous to those familiar with the Sam Adams brand. Packaged in 16 oz cans and featuring a description that says the brewery “recklessly shoved hops in here,” it evokes East Coast DIPA unicorn Heady Topper in appearances while simultaneously evoking Stone’s Arrogant Bastard by saying “if you don’t like big hop bitterness, this beer isn’t for you.” And oh, by the way—this comes a mere two years after Jim Koch gave the following quote to Boston.com:
There are a few fair points in those words, but it’s impossible to miss the general undertone of contempt for hop-bombs. For every time Koch says “it’s not that they’re bad,” he immediately makes a comparison to Anheuser and implies that the making of such beers is an artless affair compared to his own sophisticated Boston Lager. The final quote illustrates his state of mind most clearly—this is someone who genuinely believes that craft beer fans only drink intensely hoppy beer because their poor, unrefined palates haven’t caught up to his yet, and they can’t appreciate true quality. He doesn’t seem to think that the same person can have equal love for the subtleties of a kolsch and the hedonism of a 100-IBU DIPA, and that there’s an equal amount of room in those two styles for a brewer’s artistic expression. Rather, he’s simply been waiting for beer drinkers to “grow up,” to come to the inexorable conclusion that more subtle session beers are the truth path to enlightenment. It is, in short, a dated viewpoint that ignores individual choice. It is perhaps the viewpoint one might expect to hear from a decorated, 66-year-old veteran of the brewing industry who most assuredly did not want to change his brewery’s identity. You can’t blame him for that. I don’t blame him at all.
And yet, that identity is now changing, and it’s Jim Koch as the company spokesman who is tasked with selling the concept and acting as if he thought this was a great idea all along. And thus we return to his quotes to BostInno, describing the way his “disruptive” brewery’s shockingly original plan is rankling the distributors.
This is of course where Greg Koch, over at Stone, unsurprisingly disagrees on multiple levels. He disagrees that consumers “don’t currently think” about beer freshness and born-on dates. And he certainly disagrees with the notion that “distributors are nonplussed” at the thought of selling a shorter shelf-life product … especially considering that many of them have been distributing his own Stone Enjoy By IPA for the past three years.
“Our wholesalers know we work hard with them to create scenarios where everybody wins,” he said. “The beer goes in and out quickly, which is good for everyone’s inventory and cash flow … both distributors and retailers.”
The key, unsurprisingly, is making sure the correct amount of Enjoy By IPA heads to those distributors (and thus the retailers) in the first place, to minimize the amount that would ever need to be reclaimed, unsold. Greg Koch knows that any given batch of Enjoy By is essentially a calculated risk, even moreso than his other beers. The brewery spends time and a frankly ridiculous amount of resources creating a massively hoppy, resinous DIPA with a nearly unheard-of 13-hop blend (Ahtanum, Super Galena, Simcoe, Amarillo, Delta, Target, Calypso, Cascade, Citra, Galaxy, Nelson Sauvin, Motueka and Helga, if you were wondering), then has only a few weeks to get it everywhere it needs to go before starting all over again. Every bottle left on the shelves is seen as a sort of indictment, because no one is ever meant to drink “past date” Enjoy By. Despite the fact that the unsold amount of each batch is “well under 1%” according to Koch, you’d better believe the brewery hears about it when those (relatively) old bottles are spotted.
“If you have thousands of black specks that need to be cleaned off a wall and get 99.9% of them, the first thing someone will notice is the three specks that are left,” he said. “Every time that some Enjoy By is left on some random shelf, people are all over it with comments. Which is great!”
Great? Yes, great. That peer overview has been an integral part of the beer’s design from the start. Knowing that retailers and distributors will inevitably let old bottles of Enjoy By slip through the cracks, Stone set up an online system for consumers to use in reporting “old” bottles directly to the brewery. I should know that as well—I’ve personally used the website in the last year to report some old bottles of Enjoy By in Atlanta to Stone. It’s an issue that comes into play with breweries the size of Sam Adams or Stone, but not so much with say, The Alchemist, which makes Heady Topper. That beer, believe it or not, doesn’t even bear a brewed-on date, and the reason is simple: It doesn’t need one. There’s such a small quantity and it sells out so fast that if you find some Heady Topper in the wild, you already know it’s fresh as a rule. For a brewery of Stone’s size, though, the challenges are greater. And yet, the owner says, if you’re ready to admit that you can’t control the quality of your product in the field, perhaps you’re spread too thin.
“Honestly, if you’re so far flung that you can’t control how your beer is being represented on the shelf, maybe you’ve got a wider territory than works well for your brand,” Koch said. “I’ll admit that we aren’t and have never been perfect at this, but if you work as hard as you can in sending the message out every day to your partners in the trade, you can make some pretty significant inroads.”
Of course, assuming this is all there is to it from a distributor’s perspective would simply be taking Greg Koch at his word. Annoyed by the fact that the original piece simply quoted Jim Koch’s opinion on distribution without interviewing any of those workers, I contacted several distributors of Enjoy By IPA in Atlanta and the Midwest. I asked them the obvious question: Were their “apple carts” upset by the introduction of shorter shelf-life DIPAs into the equation? The answers came back: No, not in so many folksy words.
“Shorter shelf-life might be a slight disadvantage, but that’s what the customers and the market is dictating right now,” said Shawn Trauger, a beer manager for Savannah Distributing Co., which delivers Stone beer to Atlanta. “Freshness is a huge thing in American brewing right now, a huge thing. You know, you get some customers these days who claim a two-week-old IPA is ruined. That’s the minority, but it tells you that they want their beer as fresh as possible, so that’s our priority.”
To whit, other short shelf-life, heavily hopped beers are starting to appear on shelves, albeit at a slow clip, especially given the resources it takes to pull off such an ambitious brew. Lagunitas’ Born Yesterday is another that qualifies, a fresh-hopped pale ale that is shipped out the same day it’s bottled for maximum theoretical freshness. Still, it’s not quite as complex as the Enjoy By system, with its bold-faced freshness dating and website for reporting past-due bottles. That system helps make all three parties somewhat culpable for enforcement of the rules—the brewery receives reports, sends them to distributors, and distributors inform retailers and reclaim the old bottles.
“It’s a style of beer, for us, that presents both challenges and great opportunities,” said Mike Mauloff, a beer manager for Chicago-based Windy City Distribution. “It took conversations with our retailers on what made it unique and why they should treat it differently. Freshness is king today, and the system helps us police that freshness with the help of the consumers. It’s really helpful to get an email and be able to clear up the issue of old beer on the shelf within 48 hours.”
Ultimately, it’s that ability to react, to make corrections and to serve the beer drinkers on a micro level that make the country’s ninth largest craft brewer, Stone, invest the time and effort it has into a beer like Enjoy By, which sooner rather than later will also be produced via their upcoming expansions in Virginia and Berlin, Germany. Boston Beer Co. is presumably capable of doing the same, and undoubtedly has the necessary infrastructure in place, but it’s hard not to question the brewery’s genuine interest in a beer of this style when it runs all but contrary to what they’ve been doing every day since 1984. Time will tell if the beer itself is enjoyable—whether the beer drinkers accept the legitimacy of the brewery’s change of heart may be another matter entirely.
Until then, drink fresh beer.
Jim Vorel is Paste’s news editor. You can follow him on Twitter for more beer coverage.