It’s a tale as old as time, or at least as old as Ticketmaster: “Shut up and play the hits.” At a concert it means sticking to the old classics, but in the contemporary American craft brewing business, nostalgia will never please a crowd like novelty does. What happens to a 32 year-old brewery when its hottest hits are all new and its beloved old classics are, well, old? We don’t have to guess, because New Belgium Brewing, as it rolls out a remastered version of its venerable former flagship, Fat Tire, and introduces drinkers to Fruit Force, the latest addition to its red-hot Voodoo Ranger roster, is going to play it out for us in real time.
In the intervening years since the Fort Collins, Colo., firm was acquired by an Australian division of Japan’s Kirin Brewery Company called Little Lion World Beverages in 2019, New Belgium has avoided the bleak, back-of-the-cooler fate that has befallen some of its fellow craft brewing pioneers once in the clutches of other macrobrewers. Which is nice! But its record-setting post-acquisition performance, coming as it has on the strength of high-ABV fruit-forward beers that bear little resemblance to its legacy portfolio, also illustrates the tension industry trailblazers like New Belgium must navigate as they age. Namely: The back catalog and hard-won pedigree that got you to the top isn’t enough to keep you there in a hits-based business, no matter how much your old fans claim to love it.
Consider the series of events that have brought Fruit Force to… ah, fruition. Five years removed from slapping a skeleton on the original (and very boneless) Ranger Series, and three and a half years into New Belgium’s Little Lion era, the Voodoo Ranger line has exploded into a legitimate juggernaut as vast as it is lucrative. Last year alone, the brand family — comprised of the eponymous flagship, four other year-round India pale ales, plus the occasional seasonally appropriate cameo — racked up over $325 million in off-premise sales on their own, according to IRI scan data analyzed by Brewbound. That performance put it up 30 percent year-over-year, compared to the overall craft beer category’s nearly eight-point slide in the same period.
And the brand’s momentum is accelerating. Voodoo Ranger Juice Force, a hazy imperial IPA that debuted in 2022, emerged as New Belgium’s second-best seller overall in its rookie year, thanks in no small part to its 9.5 percent ABV and availability in 19.2-ounce cans favored among grab-and-go gas-station customers. “The traditional craft audience is probably changing,” New Belgium senior marketing manager Dave Knospe told Brewbound editor Justin Kendall in December, speculating on the significance of Juice Force’s staggering freshman-year success in big packages and small retail stores. (New Belgium declined Hop Take’s request for an interview for this column.) “I think there was a time when craft [beer] or IPA just didn’t fit in the [convenience] store environment, and I think that’s changed a lot.”
Thus the latest addition to the bony brood: Voodoo Ranger Fruit Force, an “American-style Hazy Imperial IPA with a fruit punch twist.” (For those keeping score at home: “Fruit punch IPA” isn’t an official style per se, more of a neologism triangulating contemporary drinkers’ unquenchable thirst for approachable, uncomplicated flavors.) The beer smells like Kool-Aid in the glass and delivers molar-rattling sweetness with each sip, making it an obvious, albeit slightly pricier, alternative to the saccharine “stovepipes” of Twisted Tea, Four Loko, and Steel Reserve that have long dominated your local corner store’s coldbox. Crucially, Fruit Force comes in the same 19.2-ounce package and clocks in at that same 9.5 percent ABV as its vaguely militarized brethren. Fruit Force is New Belgium’s latest colorful, single-serve step away from the well-balanced 4-6 percent ABV range that once bracketed American craft beer’s comfort zone, and if it sells anything like Juice Force, expect the brewery to roll out more crowd-pleasing costumes for its superstar skeleton.
Where does all this leave Fat Tire, New Belgium’s aged amber ale? Nowhere good, as far as your humble Hop Take columnist can tell. Once the proud, full-bodied flagship of a first-wave American craft brewing frontrunner, the beer is now a stodgy elder roommate to a bunch of skeletons dressed like Macklemore in a “house of brands” with an overseas landlord. Who could perform in these conditions?! Not Fat Tire: The stalwart skidded through the back half of last decade and into this one, with national chain retail volumes tumbling over 50 percent since its 2016 peak, per IRI scan data crunched by Good Beer Hunting. At the end of 2022, it made up just over 13 percent of New Belgium’s volume in that channel, running third in the portfolio behind Voodoo Ranger Imperial and Juice Force.
If Fat Tire were an actual bicycle, most people would put it on Craigslist and call it a day. But New Belgium can’t toss its former glory on the junk heap just yet. Even as younger drinkers gravitate toward the Voodoo Ranger clan’s bolder flavors and packaging, there are plenty of Gen Xers and millennials with plenty of money for whom Fat Tire represents the golden era of early 21st-century American craft brewing. People still drink it! And despite its diminished stature, Fat Tire is still a top-20 craft brand overall. So New Belgium went for an overhaul instead, reformulating a “crisper, brighter” liquid and giving it a slick new package that calls attention to its eco-friendly credentials and omits its middling 5 percent ABV and outmoded style. “There’s a challenge to recharge heritage brands,” New Belgium vice president of marketing Kyle Bradshaw told Brewbound earlier this month, adding that the move “feels like a big risk” given Fat Tire’s outsized legacy.
Frankly, the environmental angle feels like a big mistake, given how consistently customers say they care about the environment and then spend money in ways that demonstrate they don’t. But New Belgium was an early and active standard-bearer for improving craft brewing’s sustainability, and like… what else is there to do? The brewery couldn’t turn Fat Tire into a fruit-forward bruiser with a skeleton on its side, or scrap it entirely, for fear of alienating an aging-but-still-vital customer base (and workforce, distribution network, etc.). Burnishing its progressive bona fides on the package and nudging the liquid inside toward more mainstream golden ale territory was one of the only smart moves on the table. New Belgium took it: The new Fat Tire rolled out this month, mild despair on social-media notwithstanding.
Will New Belgium’s sterling craft brewing past be enough to earn it a pass from longtime fans as it forges further into the Fruit Force future? Will Fat Tire’s makeover make a difference in its half-a-dozen-year decline? Sales will tell the story soon enough — and in a hits-based business, that’s always what matters most.
🤯 Hop-ocalypse Now
Artificial intelligence has exploded into the mainstream consciousness over the past few months thanks to software like ChatGPT and Stable Diffusion that are easy enough for normies to use. And also me: Late last year, I took one of the programs for a spin, proclaiming, “It’s not hard to imagine a near-ish future where ChatGPT or AI programs like it are writing marketing copy, pitch decks, even grain bills for America’s craft brewers.” Turns out the future is hurtling towards the industry even faster than I predicted, with Molson Coors craft subsidiary Atwater Brewery announcing last week that its brewers used that very program to draft an IPA recipe, then scale it to 20 barrels for production at its Detroit brewhouse. For now, the brewery’s Artificial Intelligence IPA is a novelty; Atwater’s president says the computer is “no replica” for human brewers. Longer-term labor market implications for the beer industry: still unclear!
Natural Light’s retro rebrand is permanent, and spectacular… Off-premise beer sales up a smidge in dollars (though down a bigger smidge in volume) last year… Over a year since acquiring CANarchy Craft Brewery Collective, the long-awaited FMB from Monster Beverage Corporation will hit shelves in February… Rogue Ales & Spirits launches Dead Guy IPA to build a Voodoo-esque brand family around its eponymous German maibock…
📉 …and downs
U.S. craft beer lost almost 10 percent of volume in grocery stores last year, mama mia… Lawmakers in North Dakota and Washington State will debate tax equivalency for spirits-based RTDs… Also in Wash., Kroger/Albertsons cleared by court to pay out special $4B dividend that critics liken to pre-merger looting… Sazerac Company’s red-hot Fireball Cinnamon “beer” brand faces class-action suit from the same “vanilla vigilante” going after Topo Chico Margs…