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Friday, March 16, 2012

Experimental IPAs Reinforce Widmer Objectives

If you follow Widmer's Rotator IPA Series, you know they have released four beers during the past 15 or so months: X-114, Falconer, O'Ryely and Spiced. The Rotator Series is not about Widmer trying to find an identity. Far from it. These are short release, experimental beers. They are all about variety.

There will be another Rotator IPA in the near future, Captain Shaddock. An early rendition of Shaddock was poured at the 2010 Oregon Brewers Festival. It's an interesting beer. To create a unique citrus character common to some of the most popular IPAs, Widmer brewers use grapefruit peel. You can be the judge. And soon.

The experimental IPAs lean on the same base as this one
But the good folks at Widmer have a lot more going on than just the Rotator Series. They just announced the launch of four experimental IPAs: X-430, X-431, X-443 and X-467. These beers all use the same base recipe as the original Rotator IPA, X-114; but each new beer showcases the unique qualities of an experimental hop variety.

If you aren't aware, there's quite a bit of hop research being done at the moment, much of it at Oregon State University. Brewers are looking for hops that provide specific flavors and aromas. Researchers are developing new varieties that meet the bill. There are already some great designer hops out there, with more on the way.

With respect to the experimental IPAs, Widmer sent out a press release outlining the flavors present in each beer. I'm not going to delve into the details because expectations can be a dubious business. If you go down to the Gasthaus, which I intend to do in the next day or so, try ignoring the tasting guides. Taste the beers and come up with your own version of what you taste. Then compare notes with the table tent.

The IPAs will be available at the Gasthaus Pub through the end of the month, depending on demand. You'll be able to get a flight of the four or enjoy them by the pint.

Some perspective
If you want to understand why Widmer has embarked on an aggressive experimental program over the last couple of years, you need some perspective you won't find in the official press release announcing these experimental IPAs. You also won't find that perspective on many blogs. That's because it's all too easy to simply copy a press release and post it. But never mind.

The Craft Brew Alliance (CBA) annual report released this week shows what's driving change. The CBA is represented by the brands Widmer, Kona and Redhook. Overall sales were up from 2010 and net profits nearly doubled from $1.7 million to $3.2 million. There's a somewhat rosier picture in the gross numbers, which include a one-time profit of $6.5 million on the sale of Fulton Street (Goose Island Beer) Brewery.

The problem for the CBA is that Widmer's longtime core beer, Hefeweizen wheat beer, is losing market share. Widmer segment shipments declined by 6,000 barrels in 2011, while Redhook and (especially) Kona numbers increased. The decline of Hefeweizen has to be a concern. It is, in some sense, the beer that made Widmer famous. It's been around a long time with a good following. Until now.

Big growth in 2011
Why is Hefeweizen slumping? I suspect it has a lot to do with changing pallets and the rising popularity of the IPA style, now the most popular craft style in the country. Competition is apparently also a factor, as there are light craft beers, some of them wheat beers, competing in the same space as Hefeweizen. Too many fresh, interesting beers can be a problem.

The solution for Widmer is clear enough. If your core beer is being attacked by the popularity of hoppier beers, go on the offensive and start turning out those kinds of beers yourself. Create buzz with experimental beers and rotating special releases. Lead the way in creative brewing and marketing. This is what they're doing and it is driving a renewed awareness of the Widmer brand. Pretty cool.

Update: As part of pushing its renewed identity, the CBA has changed it's Nasdaq ticker symbol from HOOK to BREW. This completes the rebranding effort that began in January when the company name changed from Craft Brewers Alliance to Craft Brew Alliance. Just more evidence that they are on the move. There's more here.

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