This question comes up because the beer selection at home for the last couple of weeks has been the Sam Adams Spring Brews mix pack. Sam Adams (or the Boston Beer Company) is an interesting case because they are a national brand with a slice of the overall market big enough that, while you might be able to see it on a pie chart, is dwarfed by the truly large breweries like Anheuser-Busch and Molson Coors (each of which owns a few boutique labels and shares distributors with and/or owns a stake in still other small breweries). On the other hand, Sam Adams is at least three times larger than the #2 volume U.S. craft brewer (Sierra Nevada) and is roughly 20 times larger than what the industry defines as a microbrewery. (The scientist in me wants to rank them as a millibrewery, and I suppose that would put home brewers somewhere on the scale of nano- or picobrewery.) I have heard that some beer aficionados consider Sam Adams to have outgrown the category of craft brewery or dismiss them as just another large brewery. My take, however, is that they fill an interesting niche in the beer universe by being an accessible entry point leading from the black and white Kansas of traditional American lagers into the glorious Technicolor® Oz of the current craft beer landscape.
Some fact and figures to support this picture. Total U.S. beer consumption in 2012 was around 200 million barrels. Nearly half of that was from Anheuser-Busch, including 19% under the Bud Light label alone. Other single labels with a sizable market share include Coors Light (9%), Budweiser (8%), Miller Lite (7%), Natural Light (4%), and Corona (3%–that’s an awful lot of limes!) All craft beers together account for around 13 million barrels or 6.5%, and Boston Beer Company produces nearly a quarter of that total at something just shy of 3 million barrels, which if it were all under a single label would be getting close to the market share of Corona.
Part of what keeps Sam Adams in the craft brew category, despite their size, is that they were at the forefront of the craft brew movement and clearly remain committed to producing a high quality product. The fact that their beers are widely available is a nice plus–I can almost always count on a restaurant with draft beer having Sam Adams, often either the lager or the ale plus the current seasonal selection. The other piece is that they take pride in producing a wide variety of beers, some year-round and some seasonal, some meant to appeal to a wide audience and some clearly intended for a tiny niche (or for people like me who are actively seeking out a little variety). As a result, I pick up one of their mix packs fairly frequently in search of something a little different or just to have a selection of beers in the house to choose from depending on my mood (and maybe what’s on the menu for dinner).
The spring mix pack had six beers, a couple of which were new to me. The Boston Lager is their widely distributed flagship beer, a nicely flavorful version of a standard American lager. It seems to me that this is the beer that ought to persuade a Bud Light drinker that beer can be more than a slightly bitter, yellow-colored solution of ethanol and water, and as such I think it serves a useful function, even if it’s merely as a first step into the world of craft beers. The Irish Red Ale is a pretty obvious nod to St. Patrick’s Day and was probably the least memorable beer in this group. (Maybe part of what bothers people about Sam Adams is their Madison Avenue approach to marketing–the attitude being that anybody who needs to advertise that much must not have a product good enough to sell itself. I’m not sure I agree completely, but I can see the point.) The Maple Pecan Porter was pleasant, though probably still not a beer I would seek out if it weren’t part of a mix pack like this one. Escape Route is an unfiltered Kölsch which was nice and crisp and one of my favorites from this batch. Cold Snap is also unfiltered and has the same spice and citrus influences as Blue Moon, but either I’m getting to like these better as I try more of them or this is a better rendition of that style than some of the others I’ve tried. Finally, the Whitewater IPA is part of what they call their “Hopology” series (sometimes you can find a mix pack that features nothing but these beers) and they describe it as a fusion of a Belgian white and an American IPA–I would also consider this one a winner with the solid pine note from the hops that I usually enjoy.
These six now bring the total for the year to 33 and we’re barely into March. New beers will probably accumulate more slowly for awhile, since during today’s shopping trip economy won out over variety, but I’ll save that story for the next post. (And maybe there will be enough dinners out to add some interest on top of what’s in the house.) Cheers!