On this episode of the “VinePair Podcast,” hosts Adam Teeter, Joanna Sciarrino, and Zach Geballe explore the beast that is Hazy Little Thing. With the continued growth and success of Sierra Nevada Brewing Co.’s “Little Thing” line of beers, Adam, Joanna, and Zach discuss how the company decided to extend its brand into other beer styles, as well as ruminate on how and why Hazy Little Thing became such a juggernaut in craft beer.
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Adam Teeter: VinePair’s New York City headquarters, I’m Adam Teeter.
Joanna Sciarrino: I’m Joanna Sciarrino.
Zach Geballe: In Seattle Washington, I’m Zach Geballe.
A: This is the VinePair Friday Podcast. We have a dog on the table.
Z: Sound the alarm.
A: Seriously, there’s a small, tiny dog on the table in the recording studio.
J: She’s joining the pod.
A: I know.
A: Pod dog. Anyways, for this Friday’s episode as we kick it into high gear for the holidays, we thought we’d talk about the Little Thing line of beers from Sierra Nevada. We had a really interesting story on the site recently. Joanna, why don’t you chat about that?
J: Sure. We’ve been talking about this for a while, this idea of the Little Thing phenomenon of Sierra Nevada coming out with Hazy Little Thing, it’s hazy IPA, and its-
A: Some would say New England — Right, any IPA, and its success launching a whole line of this particular branding in different colors, and how they’ve managed to do that very successfully without losing the loyal consumers to their core Sierra Nevada brand. People love their Pale Ale, they love their Celebration IPA.
J: Torpedo. The Little Thing line stands apart from that and is just as successful, if not more. The article that we published this week was from — Sarah Kuta is the writer. It’s really fascinating. She dug deep into the data of it, but also the marketing efforts that Sierra Nevada has made to continue to propel this brand.
A: Are either of you either Sierra Nevada drinkers or Little Thing drinkers?
Z: I was a big Sierra Nevada Pale Ale drinker in my early beer days. That was one of my absolute go-to beers. I can’t say that I’ve had it all that often recently, although it’s really interesting; this was actually something I was going to bring up later, but I think it’s really interesting for me to note now, and I wonder if this is true for the two of you. Sierra Nevada Pale Ale used to be one of those very large production craft beers that you could count on finding a lot of places, your airport bars, your concert venues, et cetera. I feel like even if in sales terms Hazy Little Thing has not replaced Sierra Nevada Pale Ale — it’s basically just added to Sierra Nevada Pale Ale — I do think it’s really replaced it in that specific placement. I see Hazy Little Thing everywhere I go. I don’t see Sierra Nevada Pale Ale as much anymore, even in those big, like I said, places. At an airport, on an airplane, in an arena, whatever. It’s very much supplanted by it, which is fascinating. I don’t know if it’s the novelty or just it better fits the current beer landscape than 30-plus-year- old craft beer does.
A: Though what I thought was interesting in the article, the data that shows that where the majority of the consumers Hazel Little Thing are coming from is they’re coming from hard seltzer and things like that-
J: Yes, I thought that was super interesting.
A: -and that this brand speaks to them and feels like an easy entry point into craft beer. Whereas, let’s be honest, Sierra Nevada — especially Torpedo and Pale to some extent — those are very much West Coast- style, very hop-forward, bitter beers, and there’s a market for that. I love those beers. I agree with Zach. I see Sierra Nevada in every bodega I walk into and every grocery store in the city, but he is right. I don’t feel like I see it as much on draft lines as I used to. I definitely see Hazy Little Thing more.
J: Doesn’t that speak to the Haze craze?
A: Yes, I think it does. The people are looking for softer, more approachable IPAs that are fruitier and less bitter. If you’re thinking about what they’re coming from, they’re coming from seltzers that are fruity and kind of sweet and easy to drink. It definitely makes sense. What I found fascinating about this is this is very similar to what’s happened for New Belgium and Voodoo Ranger. They created this one beer that then basically became a whole line extension that’s now almost a different brand entirely. Sierra Nevada still puts their name on it but I almost think at this point they don’t even have to. It could literally just be Hazy Little Thing IPA, not even ever say Sierra Nevada, and most consumers would be like, “Cool, I’ll drink it.” I do think that initially it very much benefited the brand, especially from the brand’s ability to distribute. There’s a lot of really cool, approachable brands out there with great packaging that are delicious that they just don’t have the marketing, the distribution muscle to push into all of these different-
J: Or the reputation. Yes.
A: Yes, and Sierra Nevada did, so it was really easy for them to get on the shelves. Then once they’re on the shelves, the beer spoke for itself and was very drinkable and was the first nationally available hazy IPA, because they had figured it out in some regard. They were taking this style that the rest of the country was saying, “So hard to be shelf-stable and they got to be the freshest of the fresh,” and blah, blah, blah, and we’re like, “No, we figured out how to make something that tastes very similar to what everyone is obsessed with and it will last on the shelf forever, basically, and we can ship it across the country and not worry about what happens during the shipping process. Here you go.” I think that the innovation plus the brand really put them in a very enviable position, in a position that has caused them to grow leaps and bounds.
J: Do you think that people know it’s Sierra Nevada, though?
A: That’s what I say. I’m unclear about that. It says it on the can, it says it on the box, but I think most people just like the Little Thing. That’s why I think they’ve been smart to extend the line from Hazy Little Thing to Wild Little Thing, Sunny Little Thing, because people know Little Thing.
Z: That’s what I think is fascinating about this, because it’s so different from the approach that New Belgium is taking with the Voodoo Ranger line. The Voodoo Ranger line is all IPAs. The line extensions are Imperial IPAs, everything, but they’re not putting out a Voodoo Ranger sour ale. They’re not putting out a Voodoo Ranger wheat beer. Sierra Nevada with the Little Thing line is. I don’t mean to say, I don’t know, we might be able to talk about whether one of those seems like a better strategy or not. I’m not sure. I do think it’s really interesting that these two legacy craft breweries with these incredibly successful reinventions of their brand, or at least new brands that they’ve launched to great acclaim over the last few years, have taken dramatically different approaches to these line extensions.
J: And found similar success.
Z: Yes, I think the success of the Little Thing line is, because they’re a little bit newer it’s a little bit less of a proven fact. Hazy Little Thing is undeniably a huge success. I’m not sure that the others are, although obviously what you can do with this, as we’ll talk about, as we’re seeing, is you can put all four of those beers in a variety pack. Again, to the point of they’re capturing a lot of audience from seltzer drinkers. And what do seltzer drinkers like? They like variety packs. Giving them four different beers in a 12-pack, or whatever, that are decidedly different flavor profiles is going to meet those drinkers where they’re at in terms of what they’re looking for in their experience. It may be a huge success. I’m curious to know. I don’t have a great internal sense of which of these approaches is better. It could be that both work for each brand. Certainly, New Belgium is not suffering and the Voodoo Ranger line as a whole is doing great. It may be that that works for them and that what Sierra Nevada is doing with the Little Thing line is also going to work for them, and they’ll be different.
J: Yes. Also you said the Little Thing line is only two years old at this point, because those came out, I think, in 2020. I personally think that the Little Thing line extension makes more sense because you’re capturing more people who don’t necessarily like IPAs, but I also think the Voodoo Ranger line is capturing that very, very engaged, IPA-loving audience. Again, could work for each respective brand.
A: It blows me away how popular it’s become and how they were able to do it. I will say,
Z: How it’s different from Voodoo Ranger is the most surprising thing to me, because I would’ve thought they would have just expanded in the way that you’ve seen a lot of other brands expand. Maybe there’s a Hazy Little Thing with blood orange juice or there’s a Hazy Little Thing IPA that’s higher alcohol or the Sessionable Hazy Little Thing. The fact that they were like, “No, no, no, we are going to take a stab at doing a wheat beer and a sour,” is crazy and it’s working. That also speaks to what this brand feels like, which is this very cool — it’s almost like the craft beer cool kid starter pack. Here are the styles, people are liking craft beer, but they’re very approachable. Wild Little Thing, from the last time I had it, is not the most sour of sours. Hazy Little Thing is not the most hazy of hazies. It gives you an idea of what people are into who are craft beer nerds, but without it slamming you over the face so that you may or may not like it.
J: Right. It’s the entry point.
A: They’re entry levels, and then some people will just get stuck, because they’re good and you can find them everywhere. I think that is the brilliance here. Sierra Nevada is a national company, they want to be a big national company, and you do that by making beers that are as approachable as possible to the largest group of people. You don’t do that by making crazy esoteric beers that some people get and others don’t like. That’s the difference between what they’re doing and what a small brewery in someone’s town is doing with lines out the door from the craft beer nerds, but that’s about it.
J: Right. Yes. I think it’s also very catchy, too. I think both are, honestly. Voodoo Ranger has its whole very fun brand that they’re building there, and this is also very fun.
A: They’re very fun.
Z: I think that’s actually a really important point, too, because one thing that we’ve also seen with both the Voodoo Ranger line and the Little Thing line is it’s been a really needed brand refresh for breweries. I have a lot of fond memories of both, as mentioned before, Sierra Nevada Pale Ale and Fat Tire, New Belgium’s previous most popular, well-known beer, but those beers still look exactly the same and probably taste exactly the same as they were nearly 20 years ago when I started drinking them. This gives not only an opportunity for a brand and the brewery to reach a whole new set of beer drinkers, but also to present literally a different image to the drinking public than — there’s that trap of having a really successful craft beer, which it’s really hard to change things about it. I think in the piece that ran on the site back in September about Voodoo Ranger talked about how when New Belgium started looking at reformulating their Ranger IPA, which was their longstanding IPA in their lineup, they were like, “We have to reinvent everything, including the imagery and the recipe itself,” because it just isn’t relevant in the way that it was whenever they launched it previously. In the same way that Sierra Nevada Pale Ale definitely has its adherents and its fans and its diehards, it as a whole was not going to go out and capture new market share for Sierra Nevada. It was going to hold market share, at best. I think that the other point that’s really interesting to me, and I think — Adam, you were hinting at this, but I wanted to say it more explicitly — the way in which the permission structure that this line of beers gives you to try something new because it’s connected to— if you’ve had Hazy Little Thing and like it, you might be much more likely to dabble in a wheat beer, a sour beer from the same brewery with the same labeling basically. Maybe it comes in the variety pack so you’re not committing to as much beer in the first place. I think it gives the average beer drinker or a person who’s coming to this category from other places, a degree of confidence in the beer that picking up a random citrus weed ale, sour ale, et cetera, they might not have. That’s really powerful, too. It gives people that confidence in the product because Sierra Nevada has proven that it can deliver the goods with Hazy Little Thing.
A: Yes, that’s true. I’d love to know if those listening are fans of the beer, know the beer, or are you a fan of the original line? Hit us up at firstname.lastname@example.org. Let’s try it. We all have Hazy Little Thing in front of us, right?
Z: That’s correct.
Z: Fun VinePair Podcast flashback: This was, I think, the first thing we ever tried in an episode on air, many, many years ago. It was also the first ever hazy IPA I had, as embarrassing as that is.
A: It pours pretty hazy. Decently hazy.
J: This is the first — did you say it’s the first hazy IPA you’ve ever had?
Z: It was when I had it.
A: It was when he had Hazy Little Thing.
Z: Yes. We did it on one of the early podcast episodes, way back in those days. Shout-outs, Nick Patri, he shared a beer with me then, our long-ago engineer.
A: It’s pretty good.
A: It’s pretty good.
Z: We just keep coming back to the Voodoo Ranger conversation, but in the same way that I tried that and was like, “I totally get why this is successful,” you have Hazy Little Thing and it’s exactly what we said before, right? It’s not the haziest of beers. You can go to a craft brewery in your area and get something that’s hazier, maybe juicier, more pillowy, whatever, but definitely hits those notes, and it’s just f*cking good. I don’t know if there’s a lot more to say, but that’s enough.
J: It’s solid.
A: I think it really is, we said this before, it’s the same as the Pale and Torpedo, those two, they are very good ambassadors for the West Coast style of West Coast Pale Ales and West Coast IPAs. They are just very solid beers. Are they the best West Coast Pale Ale? No. There are others, there are smaller brewers, et cetera, but they’re very solid beers. This is a very good ambassador for what hazy beers taste like. They’re not the best, but this gives you pretty much what people like in hazies.
J: Right, in the category, or the style, rather.
A: Exactly. It’s fruity, it’s soft, it’s very approachable. There’s almost no bitterness at all here. It’s all of the citrus of the hops with none of the bitter. It’s a well-done beer. Hit us up, email@example.com, let know what you think. If you like any other Little Things in the line, maybe you’re a Sunny Little Thing person or a Wild Little Thing person. Let us know. Always love to hear from everybody. We’ll see you back here.
J: Enjoy your holiday weekend.
A: Merry Christmas and Happy Hanukkah.
Z: Sounds great.
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