What’s the Ideal Beer Lineup?

by Billy Broas


How does a brewery decide what beers to make?

It used to be simpler. You had a handful of year-round beers which almost always included a pale ale, wheat, and porter. Then you had four seasonals where you could be a bit more bold. Maybe a pumpkin beer or a holiday spice brew.

Take a look a present-day beer lineups and you’ll see there is no simple formula for success. In general, portfolios have grown dramatically. Now there are far more categories beyond year-round and seasonal. Some of the new lines you’ll see are:

  • Limited release
  • Barrel aged
  • Collaborations
  • Specialty series
  • Sour series

Then you have the brewery-specific lines like Dogfish Head’s Ancient Ales Series.

To get a better understanding of this “portfolio chaos”, take a look at the table below which shows the beer lineups from the five largest craft breweries in Colorado.

 New BelgiumOdellBreckenridgeLeft HandOskar Blues
Year round96585
Seasonal33442
Specialty1110750
Total231916177

A few notes:

  • These only includes beers that are packaged, not tap-room only brews. Oskar Blues makes much more than 7 beers but they are only available at their tap-room or restaurants.
  • Anything outside of year-round and seasonal I lumped into the specialty category.
  • These numbers will change constantly. If the table doesn’t jive with current offerings, that’s because there’s no way I’m going to keep updating this thing.

So on one end you have New Belgium which packages and distributes a whopping 23 beers. On the other end you have Oskar Blues with only 7. Both are very successful companies.

We can easily see the products on the shelves, but what we don’t see are the business decisions that go on behind the scenes. “What do we want to make? What will sell? Can we get those ingredients? Do we have the fermenter space? What are the incremental costs of adding a beer?”

But perhaps the biggest question of all is, “Can we get shelf space?”

There are only so many SKUs that can fit on the shelves and the beer aisle is packed as it is. I don’t envy a new brewery trying to get their first beer on the shelves when New Belgium can easily get all 24 of theirs stocked.

It’s overwhelming..

Personally I wish breweries would focus on quality over quantity. Specialty/limited/barrel beers are great for tap-rooms but I think breweries are often too-quick to push an unproven beer into 750s. As someone who’s goal is to try as many different beers as possible, I feel like Harry in Gringotts with so many new beers popping up around me.

Ok well if I’ve got such great ideas then what would my ideal beer lineup be? Good question!

My ideal beer lineup:

  • 6 year-rounds. For sellability it must include popular styles like IPAs but could we maybe get a sessionable sour in there too? Please?
  • 4 seasonals. 4 seasons, 4 beers. Why isn’t this a law?
  • 5 specialties. This is where the barrel aged brews, DIPAs, and more intense sours will go.

There you have it, a 15 beer lineup. Many will argue for double or even triple this amount but like I said above, I prefer quality over quantity and it is very difficult to make 20+ different beers and make them all taste great.

My questions for you:

  1. What would you put in your ideal beer lineup?
  2. Which brewery do you think has the best lineup in terms of number, variety, and quality?

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{ 12 comments… read them below or add one }

Ding September 5, 2012 at 11:20 am

You’re in the wrong country for ‘quality over quantity’. I’ve been saying that for over a decade. Same goes for # of taps in bars – American’s have a blindspot when it comes to, ‘bigger is not ALWAYS better’.

As for what I would like to see, that’s easy; simply a higher ratio of good beer to bad beer. At the moment, ‘craft’s’ dirty little secret is that there is simply a TON of really, really bad beer being touted as ‘good’, when it is nothing of the sort. Same goes for the nonsense of blindly promoting local without considering quality. Some local beer is crap.

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Billy Broas September 5, 2012 at 3:44 pm

Good to see you here Ding. I know you’re adamant about a lack of quality in American brewing. I don’t feel quite as strongly but I do agree. Since we’re in an election season, put it this way: If I were president I’d order a 25% cut of all SKUs and reinvestment of those resources into improving the remaining 75%.

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Star Bar September 5, 2012 at 11:28 am

Great post, would be for as many as physically possible as long as they all were great in some way, but; that is the tipping point. It’s the who – based on demand / sales, that is determining that factor. Would love to see a table sour in a regular lineup, and the market would probably support that at this point, it’s just that current production programs are not up to the required volume to do so. 4 seasonal brews is a great number, just think outside the box, get Holidays, special events, anniversaries in the mix as well. Shake things up yearly. Seasonal / Specialty offerings were originally designed as a way to test the market with something new. Make sure they last throughout the intended season – hey Great Divide, talking to you about Colette. We know a summer seasonal should be out by September, but; the beginning of July is ridiculous.

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Billy Broas September 5, 2012 at 3:48 pm

Total agree about shaking things up. It doesn’t need to be the same 4 seasonals for decades, but keep it at 4. New Belgium does that a lot. I enjoyed the winter switch to Snow Day (strangely that one is no longer listed on their site though). The early releases get me too. None more so than early pumpkin beers…

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dale September 5, 2012 at 11:46 am

I think the answer is “it depends”. While I agree that there are a lot of breweries, including some of my favorites that are flooding the market with different specialty beers, 1 offs, etc, I wouldn’t want to quash anyone’s creative urges. I agree with Ding regarding the “bigger is better” mentality. It’s that mentality that puts so many DIPA’s RIS’s and other high alcohol beers on local taps.

A little brewery just opened near my home and they call themselves an artisan brewery. I was speaking to one of the owners recently, and he told me that they didn’t have any plans to have a set menu of regular beers. They were going to brew what they felt like brewing and exercise their creative juices. I kind of like that.

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Billy Broas September 5, 2012 at 3:50 pm

Yea my main gripe with the 1 offs is that they are largely unproven and take up valuable shelf space. They can also be very expensive which lead’s to buyer’s remorse when they’re no good (which happens a lot). I have no problem paying a few bucks for a glass of one in a bar or tasting room though.

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TCBC September 5, 2012 at 1:18 pm

1. I’d say the idea lineup would be a fixed at an IPA, stout, wheat beer, saison, porter, dark larger, and one of the following: spice beer, pilz, light lager, pale ale, bitter ale, belgian ale, or a barlywine. Then the same as you suggest 4 seasonal, and up to 5 “specialty” beers when they fit into the season and into production.

2. Brewery’s that come to mind are. Bell’s, Great Lakes Brewing Co, Six Point, Anchor Steam, Brooklyn, Goose Island, Allagash, Trogues, Victory, Southern Tier, Maine Beer Co, Hill Farmstead, Duck Rabbit, there are so many that fit into you’re “ideal format”.

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Billy Broas September 5, 2012 at 3:52 pm

I really like the dark lager suggestion. Wynkoop has a schwarzbier available year round and it’s the beer I drink the most from them.

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A.J. September 5, 2012 at 5:45 pm

I agree with quality over quantity, but I think most people would. It’s the unwillingness to realize that quantity too often impacts quality that is the problem there. That is, no one sets out to make 20 mediocre beers, but they lost the ability to focus on each of them.

To me, the discussion about the number of beers to make and how to rotate them to work within the confines of shelf space, demand, etcetera, is a very interesting one. I have a much tougher time seeing a list of styles a brewery should make. Along with an increase in the number of breweries in the country, I feel like the breweries who have risen to the top have strong identities. While many of the older (relatively, of course) craft breweries do have a pale, IPA, porter, etc., seeing that plan from a new brewery bores me. Not every new brewery will be Crooked Stave, but I see an all-Saison brewery opening near me soon and another that will focus on English styles. These are their identities, and they dictate their portfolios. To create a portfolio that covers anything I may want when I walk to the fridge is one approach, but I’d prefer a brewery with a few beers (maybe even within a narrow variety of styles) that I salivate for once a week. I guess that’s the diner vs. bistro approach and we’ll probably always see both.

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Billy Broas September 7, 2012 at 1:58 pm

Great comment A.J. The breweries that specialize in one style are interesting. Craft beer is already a niche, so they are operating in a niche within a niche. It certainly reduces the market size, but the people you do nab are usually very passionate and loyal.

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Brett S September 5, 2012 at 9:21 pm

Great post, and even better discussion taking place here in the comments section. I think a breweries number of offerings has a great deal to do with their reputation and marketing as a whole. If you know, and enjoy, all of a breweries core offerings you are more likely to try one of their seasonals or specialties, right? A lot of the breweries with larger offerings have been around longer and experienced tremendous growth. This allows them to expand into the specialty markets, as well as continuing to grow customers with their core beers.

Recently, in the Brew Strong show, Jamil Z has been talking about “Going Pro.” He discussed how his brewery had to make and I.P.A. as one of his flagship beers because it was something distributors could guarantee shelf space. After this and some other higher ABV core beers were established, he was able to do some more abnormal styles or session beers. So I am basically saying a solid core is needed to allow flexibility to do more, or whatever the brewery wants.

To answer your posed questions:
1) 5 Year Rounds – Pale Ale, IPA, Porter, Stout, Wheat – Personally I would like to see a brown ale on this list (maybe switch out the porter), but these don’t seem to get much love!
2) Some breweries that fit the bill (i know there are many more): Sierra Nevada, Deschuttes. These two have a solid core and other nice offerings off of it.

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Billy Broas September 7, 2012 at 1:59 pm

I’m glad you brought up that Brew Strong series. They do a good job discussing this topic. If I remember right, Jamil calls it “building a bridge” when you use a popular style to get a foot in the door before selling the weird stuff.

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