On this episode of the “VinePair Podcast,” hosts Adam Teeter, Joanna Sciarrino, and Zach Geballe look into the ongoing trend of one-offs in craft beer. The industry is constantly releasing new projects, limited releases, and seasonal beers. But why are special-edition brews so pervasive in the world of craft beer? From short consumer attention spans to brewers’ cravings for endless creativity, our hosts give their two cents on the impetus for this widespread trend.
For this Friday’s tasting, join Teeter, Geballe, and Sciarrino as they try two different special releases from breweries on both coasts: Yuzu Cold IPA from Seattle’s Lucky Envelope Brewing and Boston’s Harpoon Dunkin’ Midnight.
Tune in to learn more.
Or Check Out the Conversation Here
Adam Teeter: From VinePair’s New York City headquarters, I’m Adam Teeter.
Joanna Sciarrino: And I’m Joanna Sciarrino.
Zach Geballe: In Seattle, Wash., I’m Zach Geballe.
A: And this is the Friday “VinePair Podcast.”
Z: It’s so nice to have that voice back, telling me it’s Friday.
A: You already had it on Monday. We talked about Valentine’s Day. Now, I’m back for real.
Z: I guess we did it last week with Jake. But that episode was so frenetic, because Jake is such a high-energy dude, which is awesome, but this one is more like I’m entering the weekend clean.
A: He’s the best. It was a great show, he’s a funny guy. I really respect and love that story about how he would have a spoiled bottle of wine behind the bar for anyone that wanted it really natty. Come on.
J: He’s brilliant.
A: It just proves that people who work in natural wine are trolling everybody else.
Z: I don’t know about all of them, but undoubtedly at least some of them are.
A: Actually we should write that article. People who work in natural wine are just trolling everybody. Keith, do you want to write it?
Z: I was going to say, What’s he doing? He should write it.
A: Keith will totally write it. Today we’re talking about something else that feels kind of troll-y. And that is the fact that most breweries have now gone to this world of special release drops.
J: Endless one-offs.
A: Right? It’s almost like we’re on Complex or Hypebeast or something, right? It’s all about the shoe drops. This is what’s happening in the world of craft beer. It’s been happening for a while now, but it’s like such a fever pitch now that you almost can’t guarantee that the beer you have one week will even be there the next, or that you’ll be able to buy it next. There are so many special releases. And the question is, is that good for craft beer? Is that good for the consumer at the end of the day? I have some opinions here, obviously. But I’m curious, Zach, this was something you proposed. What do you think, man?
Z: I’ve noticed this a lot at the breweries in the Seattle area that I, in particular, keep an eye on and frequent. It’s obviously something that I’ve seen around the country. It is interesting to me because I was someone who got interested in craft beer as I was becoming of drinking age, in a very different era of craft beer where it was really about the flagship beers. And it was kind of a big deal when a craft brewery would add a new beer to their lineup. There were definitely breweries in the Seattle area at that time 15 years ago that made five beers, and that was it. They maybe made a seasonal beer. Maybe there was one beer that would rotate every few months, right? They’d have a dark beer in the winter, they’d have a pilsner or something in the summer, and maybe an Oktoberfest or a pumpkin beer or something like that in the fall. But the idea that you would walk into their taproom, and that you would find their 6-packs and it would always be the same beers, was just a central piece of what craft beer was at the time. Now, I go to some of the breweries — we were just at a brewery in our old neighborhood this past weekend, and it was amazing. All of the beers were, with the exception of two, special releases. They were perhaps one-offs, perhaps something that would come back at some point in the future. It was interesting to me, because I was thinking about this and then proposing this as a topic for us to talk about. I wondered, does it make it harder for those breweries to create long-term relationships with drinkers? Or, conversely, and I’m open to the conversation and I’m not sure how I personally feel, is that constant novelty actually what keeps people coming back in? They don’t feel like, “I’ve done that brewery now, let’s go on to the next one.” Do you need to have this constant innovation and change of your lineup to stay attractive to drinkers?
J: I think that’s an interesting question, because what I think of is, which came first? People going to two breweries to kind of check off beers on their Untappd or whatever to say like, “Oh, I went there and I had it, and I don’t plan to return.” That kind of thing. So are breweries pivoting to do this as an incentive for people to actually return, to try something that they’ve never had before? Or, did breweries start doing this and then it kind of led to people only going there and not having return customers, I suppose? Or people who are loyal to or who can return for specific beers because they like them?
A: I think it really depends on the brewery. If you’re a brewery that’s become known for brewing lots of different things well, then maybe specialties are interesting for you. Like, I really want to try their new pilsner or their new porter or whatever. The thing that for me as a consumer is tiring is going to a brewery that’s become known for hazy IPAs and so this week is just another hazy IPA that basically tastes the same under a different name with different hops. I’m wondering if there’s going to be fatigue there because they are a little bit different. Let’s say I’m a haze bro.
J: Let’s say you’re a haze bro.
Z: In this wild hypothetical. Nothing wrong with hazy IPA, man, they’re delicious.
A: Don’t put me in a corner here. Don’t put me in a corner. I like my hazies, but don’t you dare label me. Anyways, I think the deal is that I don’t need to go to this brewery to have seven different hazies that all taste the same. Well, what if I did discover one that I like and it’s never going to be there again? That, to me as a consumer, is very frustrating.
J: Yeah, I get that. But I think that consumers have very short attention spans.
A: I have a short attention span. I don’t know. But I also do think it is just the state of craft beer that we’re in. The flagship, again, only works, at this point, for brands that are trying to dominate a market or dominate a region or dominate the nation. If you’re going to take a brewery that I love, let’s say Threes. Three’s decided that they are going to make a bunch of different special releases. But they are going to have two flagships: Vliet and Logical Conclusion. Those two beers, they do really push into the New York metro area market. They’re going in saying, “If you’re going to have one pilsner on your draft line, it should be Vliet.” So they’re going to try to push out Prima Pils or whoever else is there to be the pilsner on the draft line. And then their Logical Conclusion, their hazy IPA, you can get almost anywhere. I think that’s a tactic. If you are trying to be a major regional player, you want to be a brewery that’s known throughout the region. Once it becomes an even larger player, national or in the East or West Coast, then you’re talking about thinking in the realm of a Sierra Nevada. OK, we’re going to really push into having Hazy Little Thing, and we’re going to put marketing behind it and it’s going to become the standard bearer for the country. If you want a hazy IPA from Sierra Nevada, this is what we think a hazy IPA should taste like, or this is what we think pale ale should taste like, which they’ve done forever. But if you’re like a smaller brewery, like a neighborhood brewery or a brewery up in the Catskills or whatever, then maybe the rotator program works for you. It keeps your staff excited. It keeps you, as a brewer, excited. As we’ve talked about before, it’s more of a lifestyle business at that point. And I think that’s what the majority of these — now over 6,000 — breweries in the country are. They are these lifestyle businesses. So if it’s a lifestyle business, you do want to continue to be innovating. You don’t want to be brewing the same f*cking five beers for the rest of your life. That sounds really boring. That’s why winemakers continue to experiment, rip up vines, and pull vines down. They probably always make one wine, especially in Italy. They’re like, “We make this Barolo all the time.” But everyone’s always experimenting and everyone is trying to make different things. So I kind of see it more in the neighborhood world of why you would do it.
J: Isn’t the on-premise a really big part of this conversation, though?
A: They always want new new.
J: Right. So you want people to come to your taproom. If people are familiar with your flagship, because they were able to get it in their state, they’re like, “Oh, I’m going to New York. I want to go to Threes because I know that they’re going to have a bunch of these interesting seasonal, limited releases that I can only get there.” I think that’s a draw.
A: That is, but the reason you go to Threes is because they do still invest in that non-limited release. In that flagship. Whereas with some other breweries, they could tell you they have a flagship, but most of their drinkers would know that’s the one thing they think they’re known for. They have an audience because they’re the one really good brewery in Livingston Manor, for example. And so they’re going to do a bunch of different kinds of beers because they are up there, and that’s fun for them.
Z: I think it’s important to differentiate here, too, that there can be a couple of different motivations behind this kind of approach for a brewery. You hit on a couple of them, Adam. Maintaining employee interest is an important piece of this, that’s definitely true. The problem with some flagship beers is that they become formulas and no one making them cares that much. They probably do a perfectly fine job, but there’s nothing left to discover there. Especially when you get to a certain size, the remaining challenges as you grow as a brewery is how do you scale up recipes? That can actually be trickier than you think, because the ratios don’t remain the same in larger formats and larger vessels for the bigger batches you’re doing. But I also think that part of it is, how do you keep your niche current in a landscape that is always changing? How do you have some cool new can to put on Instagram? I think that is a big part of this. We’re long past the era in craft beer where you could succeed in most levels of the industry, even the big side of it, but certainly the medium and small side, by just making the same things over and over again and by counting on the quality of your beer to carry you. Especially in medium-sized cities, to say nothing of big cities, you need reasons for people to come back to your tap house or taproom. You need reasons for people to seek out your beers on store shelves. And you need reasons for people to request your beer in their local bars. To ask, “Oh, what do you have from Threes?” What do you have from here in Seattle, from Reubens or from Fremont Brewing? The way you do that, I think, is now through this kind of novelty, through these innovations, through this idea. Even if you’re really just repackaging the same basic beer under a different label with a very slightly different formulation that most people wouldn’t be able to really distinguish from your previous, just having a new thing has become important. I also want to ask you guys a question in this vein, too, which is connected but isn’t exactly the same. When we think about these changes that have come about, how much of it feels like it has been prompted or at least accelerated by the pandemic? It’s this need for breweries to be able to keep people coming out, even when it might have been unsafe. You were fighting a larger, more uphill battle, in summer 2020 or summer 2021 to get someone to come to your brewery than you were in summer of 2019. Even when we were all outside, you had to give people novelty to bring them in. At the same time, now that novelty is so crucial in this industry, I don’t think it’s going to recede.
J: Yeah, I definitely agree with that. I definitely think that it accelerated this trend that we’re seeing. I even remember, in the middle of the pandemic, going to different breweries and picking up beers and feeling like that was an exciting and interesting thing to do. I also think, given the context of the conversation that we had with Dave Infante a few weeks ago about supply chain issues, isn’t this an effective way to utilize what’s local and available as well? Maybe you can’t get that lychee that you’re known for for your IPA, but now you can actually get something else. So you have this limited release of a blueberry or peach beer that you can use local fruit for.
A: It’s a similar recipe to something you were known for, but you’re playing with something else as one of the ingredients.
J: Exactly, and it changes week to week. So this trend is actually maybe beneficial to breweries because they’re less beholden to the recipes that they’re known for or something.
A: I think it’s the nature of the beast at this point. A lot of it comes from the realization that a lot of breweries have had, that you need to stay relevant and you need to stay relevant in your community. You see a lot less breweries who really are striving for that acquisition, or are pushing to say, “We’re going to become a national brand.” Because of that, you’re seeing less Allagash Whites. People are like, I’m going to perfect this. Allagash White is 70 percent, I think, of Allagash’s sales or something like that. Hazy Little Thing for Sierra Nevada is somewhere insane like that as well. Dogfish Head is similar. These more historic OG craft breweries have the flagships, because that’s how they became known. They were just trying to say, “Just drink one of our f*cking beers. Just drink one to get you off of Bud Light.” Now, you have the culture who’s saying, “Well, now we know we like craft beer. So now we want variety, we want fun, we want different.” So that’s just the nature of limited releases, is that people want to go to different breweries and experience different things. You don’t want to keep going to the same brewery in your town, or the same three, and only and always having the same three beers.
J: But I feel like we’re seeing this across beverage as well.
Z: Well, no one wants their brewery to feel stodgy, right? No one wants the people in their community to say, “Oh, I’ve been there. I’ve had their beers. I never need to go back.” They want you to keep coming back for something new over and over and over again. And that, I think, is a fundamental change in craft beer over the last half decade or so — that need to constantly be providing more options, in part because competition has gotten more fierce. There’s a greater density of breweries almost everywhere, and you just can’t make the same beers over and over again and expect to remain relevant.
A: With that being said, let’s drink some limited-release beer. Zach, what do you have?
Z: From Lucky Envelope Brewing, which is here in Seattle, I have their Yuzu Cold IPA. This is a collaboration with another brewery, Arbeiter Brewing in Minneapolis. It’s unclear to me how these collabs work. I assume they just work on a recipe together. Obviously, the beer doesn’t get brewed in one place and shipped to the other.
A: Sometimes, the brewers will come together and brew together, and then they have a fun brew day! Sometimes, it’s just the recipe.
J: That sounds really good though, Zach.
Z: It does. I’m going to open it up right now.
A: I like Lucky Envelope, it’s a good name.
Z: Yes, it’s owned by a couple of guys of Chinese descent. Not that the entirety of what they do is centered around their heritage, but they do some really interesting things with some ancient ingredients. I think they found an old recipe for a Chinese rice beer that they make seasonally around the Lunar New Year. And they do a lot of things with Chinese or East Asian spices and fruits and stuff like that, from time to time, including, of course, this Yuzu Cold IPA. What do you guys have?
Z: My goodness.
J: From fall of last year…
A: Shhh, why did you have to say that Joanna? We did see the can on date was 8/23/21. But it’s fine.
J: It’s the idea. Talk about novelty, right?
A: Hey, America runs on it. It smells like a stout.
J: It’s called Dunkin’ Midnight. It doesn’t say more.
A: I feel like it should say Dunkin’ Morning. Nobody’s having Dunkin’ at night.
Z: There’s nothing like a morning beer, you know?
A: Limited releases, guys. How’s yours, Zach?
Z: It’s good. It definitely has a little bit of that distinctive yuzu character. That pithy, citrusy kind of vibe. It pairs nicely with the cold IPA style. It’s good. One of the weird things, too, about some of these one-offs is I sometimes will buy the 4-pack, and that’s plenty. This is a tall boy, I think a 4-pack of 16 ounces. For me, most of the time, that’s plenty. I’m not sure if I’ll get through all four of these, honestly. Not because there’s anything wrong with them, just because I have only so much time to drink beer.
A: Joanna, without knowing: What from Dunkin’ is in this beer?
J: Like what ingredients? Oh my God, is it not coffee?
A: It is the coffee. I just wanted you to be like, “the donuts?”
J: Adam, what else could be in here?
A: It could have been a donut stout. But it’s Dunkin’ coffee.
J: Like I said, people love Dunkin’ Donuts. Harpoon is a Massachusetts brewery.
A: It’s a Masshole beer.
J: Yeah, exactly. So there’s nothing more Masshole-y than Dunkin’ Donuts beer.
Z: Does the can have a Red Sox cap on it? What’s going on?
A: No, it’s all Dunkin’ colors, though. As Joanna said, it would be amazing if there were a Patriot there, too.
J: Or Red Sox.
Z: Did the can go to Brandeis? What’s the deal?
J: No, a different Boston school.
A: That’s not even really Boston. It’s outside the city. Anyways, this has been good, guys.
J: Tell us about your favorite limited-edition beers. Or if you run a brewery, let us know.
A: Yeah, let us know. Hit us up at [email protected]. We love hearing what you think. But before we go…
J: We got a shout-out today.
A: As everyone who listens to the pod knows, we have a special email program. If you tell enough of your friends about the VinePair newsletter and they sign up for the VP Pro newsletter specifically, you then get a shout-out on the podcast.
J: Yes, there’s a special shout-out to Gate Hospitality, the landmark clubs of North Florida. Stephen Jones, the vice president of food and beverage operations: Thank you, Stephen.
A: Thanks, Stephen, for telling your friends. We really appreciate it. We really love to have more readers of the site and listeners of the pod. So again, if you tell enough people, it could be you we’re shouting out. With that, I will see you both on Monday.
J: See you next week.
Z: Sounds great.
Thanks so much for listening to the “VinePair Podcast.” If you love this show as much as we love making it, please leave us a rating or review on iTunes, Spotify, Stitcher, or wherever it is you get your podcasts. It really helps everyone else discover the show.
Now for the credits. VinePair is produced and recorded in New York City and Seattle, Washington, by myself and Zach Geballe, who does all the editing and loves to get the credit. Also, I would love to give a special shout-out to my VinePair co-founder, Josh Malin, for helping make all of this possible, and also to Keith Beavers, VinePair’s tastings director, who is additionally a producer on the show. I also want to, of course, thank every other member of the VinePair team, who are instrumental in all of the ideas that go into making the show every week. Thanks so much for listening, and we’ll see you again.
Ed. note: This episode has been edited for length and clarity.