If you felt a disturbance in the craft beer force last week, it was this: A beloved, longtime craft brewer, one I have referred to in these pages as “perhaps the national paragon of innovation and outside-the-box thinking in brewing,” sold out.
It’s a potent epithet in the craft beer world, and we’ve seen many breweries wither after sales to the wrong buyer. But I’m optimistic that Dogfish Head Craft Brewery will not go that direction after the $300 million sale announced Thursday.
That’s because the buyer is Boston Beer Co., the maker of Samuel Adams and, these days, a whole bunch of alcoholic beverages that are not Sam Adams — a hallmark of a company that has shown adaptability and innovation well beyond its heritage as one of the original craft beers.
Boston Beer has branched out aggressively into the hottest categories in the beverage market, often well ahead of competitors. Its portfolio includes Angry Orchard Hard Cider, Twisted Tea and Truly Hard Seltzer, whose growth have have more than offset declines in the flagship Sam Adams beer line.
The publicly traded company ended 2018 just short of $1 billion in sales on 4.3 million barrels of production, giving Boston Beer something resembling the distribution clout of Big Beer.
While Boston Beer has found success largely with its innovation outside beer lately, Dogfish Head has been growing in a beer market that has been challenging for all and extremely so for the large, nearly national craft brewers like itself.
Dogfish Head founder and co-owner Sam Calagione told the State Journal in late 2017 that the brewery’s growth that year owed largely to a new hit, the SeaQuench Ale session sour — a beer whose sales grew another 45% in the first quarter of 2019, according to Good Beer Hunting. Dogfish Head grew again in 2018, and the companies said in their merger announcement that Dogfish Head was on track for “high single digit growth” for 2019 to about 300,000 barrels. (For comparison, New Glarus Brewing sold about 250,000 barrels last year.)
So these two breweries joining forces in a sluggish beer industry seems to make sense, and both Dogfish Head and Boston Beer say steady-as-she-goes will be the mantra in their combined company. They say they’re not interested in reducing costs, which almost always means cutting loose employees. While I’m reflexively skeptical of such claims, that approach seems to make business sense in this case.
For some, this kind of transaction is a reason to stop buying a beer. I’ve largely stopped buying Goose Island and Ballast Point after their sales, and I have little to no interest in far-flung breweries like Elysian, 10 Barrel and Terrapin that are being thrust into Wisconsin only through their corporate parent’s distributorship might.
This one, in my view, is very different. Like many beer geeks, I respect Dogfish Head immensely. Calagione has been a evangelist for beer for decades, both challenging common notions of what beer can be and proselytizing on the importance of brewers’ independence. I suspect he’ll do the same under the Boston Beer umbrella, and I don’t think that message loses any of its potency just because he’s not signing his own checks.
In Boston Beer, Calagione joins craft beer’s original ambassador, Jim Koch. Boston Beer’s founder has been in national TV spots for years, talking in dad jeans and denim shirts about the craft and superior ingredients that go into Samuel Adams Boston Lager (which despite its struggles remains a prototypical Vienna lager). There’s no question the new Boston Beer is winning in charisma.
Despite the success in ciders and flavored malt beverages, what has clearly been bothering Koch in recent years is where Boston Beer has not been winning: the Sam Adams line. Boston Lager just doesn’t interest enough of today’s drinkers, and I’ve watched Sam Adams cast about in attempts to reinvent itself. None of these attempts — increasingly wacky new seasonals, the Rebel IPA line, a New England IPA — has hit home.
But there have been some good beers among them, and today we’re going to take a look at one you probably haven’t tried that you probably should, as well as one from its new corporate nephew. Both, incidentally, will perform well in warm weather, if that ever comes.
Samuel Adams Sam ’76
What it’s like: Billed as an American ale mysteriously crossed with a lager, Sam ’76 is a bit without peer. If you took one of those India pale lagers that were going around in 2013-14, updated the hop bill and converted half to dry-hopping, and cut its ABV by about a third, you’d be close.
Where, how much: Six-packs come with Sam Adams’ ubiquity (a large grocery store might be a better bet than a great bottle shop) and its comfortable price point, in the $8-$9 ballpark.
Up close: The lively, effervescent pour of clear, pale gold releases a slightly pithy citrus aroma atop good ol’ fashioned malted barley. It’s one of those beers that you can drink really quickly if you need to: light, refreshing and just the right amount of fizz, with a clean, dry finish. But if you want to slow down and pay attention, there’s reward, too: a lemony, grassy hop palette that tastes like outside with just enough malt to hold it all together. But it’s all subtle enough to stay out of the way of its quenching.
Alcohol by volume: 4.7%
Bottom line: 4.5 stars (out of five)
Dogfish Head SeaQuench Ale
What it’s like: Like a lot of Dogfish Head beers, there’s really nothing else like this one. It combines separately brewed threads of three distinct light, German-style ales: the fruity-floral kölsch; gose, which is slightly tart and brewed with salt and in this version black (dried) limes; and Berliner weisse, a sour, bubbly wheat ale augmented here with lime juice. The three beers are blended together in sequence (get it, SeaQuench?) during fermentation.
Where, how much: A moderately easy find, SeaQuench will set you back $10-$11 per six-pack.
Up close: A hazy pale gold, SeaQuench wafts a muddled nose that speaks to its components: sweet grains, lemon-lime and brine. I find myself alternating between trying to dissect the beer’s three style threads and ingredients — with mixed success — and simply pounding it. But my job here is the former, so: It opens with a grainy sweetness with a touch of citrusy tartness that builds through the swallow before circling back unexpectedly to a little malt on the finish. The salt is detectable but doesn’t jump out. Same with the lime. SeaQuench is intriguingly complex, deploying many exotic flourishes unusual to the “crushable beer” category while remaining exemplary within it.
Alcohol by volume: 4.9%
Bottom line: 4.5 stars (out of five)