2017 may long be remembered as the year when economic reality set in for a lot of the craft beer industry’s biggest players. As it turns out, with more than 6,000 breweries operating in the country (and hundreds more still in planning), there was a point at which the growth of the smallest segment of the market began to cannibalize the growth of established regional brands. Many breweries felt the pinch, whether they bore the “craft” label or not. Iconic brands such as Sierra Nevada, New Belgium and Boston Beer Co. were all down on the year in terms of beer sold. Even AB InBev-owned and backed breweries such as Goose Island were way down. And the less said about what happened to Green Flash, the better.
Amid all that shuffle, another quality regional brewery was also going through a downturn: Kansas City’s largest craft brewery, Boulevard Brewing Co.Dipping about 5 percent in total volume, to about 178,000 barrels, it was a year that apparently has Duvel USA executives (the owners of Boulevard, Firestone Walker and Ommegang) rethinking several aspects of how the brewery does business. In particular, they’re reexamining the brand’s dependence upon 750 ml bottles while exploring other packaging options, and simultaneously planning to launch a new line of premium-priced beers that will target the highest price strata of the craft beer industry. All of this information comes via an excellent Brewbound interview with multiple Duvel executives.
“There’s a world of small brews, smaller ideas that we want to bring to the world,” Jeff Krum, the president of Duvel USA. Bobby Dykstra, Duvel USA vice president of sales, echoes the same sentiment in his own statement: “We have to become more relevant in the high-end. We have to become relevant with the young drinking-age consumers. We’ve got to be cool. We’ve got to be new. We’ve got to hit the flavor profiles that they’re looking for.”
According to Krum, Duvel USA—currently listed as the fifth largest craft beer producer by the Brewers Association thanks to the combination of Boulevard, Firestone and Ommegang—was several years ago the country’s single largest producer/supplier of 750 ml bottles, but that is now the area of the company in steepest decline. The company will respond by redistributing around half of the 30,000 barrels of beer it had planned for 750 ml bottles into smaller format bottles. It’s a familiar move, the same thing having been done by Firestone Walker. As Firestone brewmaster Matt Brynildson said about the shift to smaller bottles when we interviewed him in 2017, “I’ve never liked the beer industry standard of putting the biggest, highest ABV beers into the biggest containers. This just seemed like the best pure way to get as much barrel-aged beer as possible to the widest possible group of our fans.”
Meanwhile, the unnamed new series of premium releases will project to sell for $20 or more, but will offer a great degree of freedom in terms of packaging—including 750 ml bottles, 4-packs of 12 oz bottles and—our favorite—”individual small bottles.” Many will take advantage of the company’s barrel-aging program, such as the company’s eclectic seasonal sour series, Love Child.
At the same time, it’s not as if Boulevard will be completely ignoring the more accessible side of the market. The company hopes a $10 million canning line investment will help amp up production and boost sales of canned core brands, which currently make up about 20 percent of production. Some of these include the brand’s fastest growers, such as Jam Band Berry Ale, but also it’s biggest loser—flagship Boulevard Unfiltered Wheat, which was down in 2017.
“I think cans someday could be the majority of our package business,” Dykstra said.
Hopefully, Boulevard will be able to find the balance they’re seeking, and a return to single digit growth. For more information, check out the full interview at Brewbound.