How did craft brewers lose their grip on white ales, the most popular craft beer style?
For nearly three decades, small, independent brewing companies—craft brewers, specialty brewers and microbrewers—have brought long-lost variety back to the American beer scene. Against a backdrop of light, mass-marketed lager, these pioneering companies offered diversity: pale ales, porters, dunkels and doppelbocks. After years of scraping by, the craft beer niche regularly enjoys growth in the double digits.
Naturally, the big brewing companies noticed, not so much because craft beer siphoned much from their own bottom line—the craft segment in total is still less than 10 percent of the beer market—but because no successful company can afford to overlook growth of 15 percent-plus in a corner of its own industry.
Over the past 30 years, the big companies have tried their luck with brands based on craft-beer styles. For the most part, Big Beer didn't do well with this experiment. Not that Anheuser-Busch or MillerCoors couldn't master the necessary technique; their brewers can make anything they decide to. Instead, their efforts faltered in marketing and execution. Bold craft styles were reformulated in a manner meant to appeal to a wider (read "more timid") audience, which resulted in beers that were still too odd to win over Bud Light drinkers, but too boring to lure beer enthusiasts—at any price point.
Then came a little "craft beer" called Blue Moon. This pale, cloudy, spicy brew seemed to appear out of nowhere, an overnight success that was actually years in the making. Garnished with a slice of fresh orange, Blue Moon was refreshing, approachable, sophisticated—and brewed by Coors.
Blue Moon is based on the white ales, or witbiers, of Belgium. The history of witbier is a story of the near extinction of an ancient beer style, its rebirth in America and acceptance by the craft brewing community, and the successful re-establishment of the style on home soil. It parallels the narratives of other styles—porters and imperial stouts, for example—and has all the passion and triumph-of-the-underdog elements that craft drinkers admire.
White beers were once widespread, not only in Belgium but also across a swath of Europe. The style lost popularity and, by the middle of the 20th century was being brewed only at a single site in Flanders. A young man named Pierre Celis, a milkman in the town of Hoegaarden, hoped to revive the style. In an unlikely move, he relocated to Texas, built a brewery and began producing Celis White, at that time the only commercial witbier in the world.
Drinkers appreciated the marriage of lightness with intense flavor. A traditional witbier is pale and cloudy—hence the name wit, or "white." It is brewed with wheat as well as barley, which gives it a light, citrusy tang. Belgian yeast, curaçao orange peel and coriander, and sometimes chamomile or grains of paradise add spicy notes. It's an intriguing beer, complex and refreshing, and a great companion for food.
Celis' fortunes rose and fell. Miller bought his brewery but then closed it. A Michigan company acquired his brand and distributed it with modest success. But by the time Celis died last year, his real legacy was the return to viability of the witbier style, a feat for which he deserves credit. The original Belgian brand, Hoegaarden, is doing well, as are other Belgian versions. And witbiers have enjoyed the support of brewpub patrons and craft beer lovers here in the U.S.
Flavor, tradition, novelty, romance: These should have made witbier the ideal gateway style for craft brews. And yet, the style has gone in another direction. Instead of serving as an approachable introduction to the world of craft beer, wit is the bold outpost for mainstream drinkers.
For comparison, in two weeks early this summer, Sierra Nevada Pale Ale sold almost 130,000 cases. Samuel Adams Boston Lager, the other giant among craft beer brands, moved about 101,000 cases. Blue Moon Belgian White sold more than 381,000 cases. Blue Moon outsold the entire India pale ale category, currently the most popular style of craft beer.
Add Blue Moon's figures to those of Shock Top, the Belgian-style wit produced by Anheuser-Busch, and the sales of these two craft-ish beers made by mainstream mega-brewers was upward of $18 million. The sales of all the witbiers brewed by craft brewers? About 1 1/2 percent of that amount, or $266,000, according to brand data excerpted from industry reports.
Is it worth lamenting that this Belgian beer style has become hugely popular in the hands of corporate brewing companies and not American craft brewers? A few small breweries have embraced the white ale, Allagash White from Maine has a complex flavor and slightly creamy texture, with subtle peppery notes. Ommegang Witte or Avery's White Rascal will reward you with their depth and spicing, without overwhelming a meal.
Closer to home, Triangle Brewing Co. features a Belgian White in its regular lineup, and Top of the Hill and Mystery both include wit styles in their rotations.
But for every one of these craft-made wits, there are probably 10 or more IPAs on the market. Did the wit style never really catch on with craft drinkers or did we abandon it too quickly? What potential did the big breweries grasp that craft brewers didn't see? I can't help but think that we let a great opportunity—and a beautiful style—slip away.