As Consumer Tastes Evolve, Brewers Reimagine Recipes


The year was 1997 and San Diego’s Stone Brewing had just rolled out its Arrogant Bastard Ale, taunting consumers with a challenge: “This is an aggressive ale. You probably won’t like it,” the label read.

Five years later, the brewery added Ruination, an even more aggressive double IPA to its year-round lineup. Its name was essentially a warning to first time drinkers: this beer will raze your palate. Because in 2002, hop-heavy masochism wasn’t the pervasive inclination.

“It was one of those beers that had a place in people’s hearts,” said Steve Wagner, president and co-founder of Stone Brewing. “It was sort of their first double IPA that they ever had.”

Indeed, Ruination was one of the first brewed and bottled double IPAs available as a year-round offering. But these days, double IPAs are more a rule than exception. Experimental hop varietals, advances in technology, new brewing techniques and a cadre of upstart craft brewers have brought insanely bitter beers to growing number of craft beer consumers. And, as a result, consumer taste preferences have inched closer to the hoppiest end of the IBU scale.

At the same time, long-established craft breweries, like Stone, are searching for ways to feed the growing consumer craving for hops. Most companies have simply introduced new hop-forward products, choosing to add rather than replace a current offerings. Others have stayed the course, offering distributors and retailers reasons why their current IPA recipe is unique and differentiated. But when sales of a beloved brand begin to lag, brewers are left with a choice: retire or revamp.

Given Ruination’s precursor status, it was somewhat surprising when Stone opted for retirement this past Spring. Sort of. Ruination’s retirement was more Michael Jordan in nature — it would come back wearing a different number. Ruination 2.0, as the company now calls it, is only partially new.

“Modernizing a recipe is never easy,” Stone brewmaster Mitch Steele wrote in his tasting notes. “We took an original concept and added new elements to keep Stone Ruination Double IPA 2.0 aligned with our tradition.”

Put simply, the company was “just feeling like the world has changed,” Wagner said.

And Stone is hardly the only craft brewery to notice that change. A number of established beer companies have taken stock of that evolution and are re-writing the recipes that helped put them on the map. Upon reflection, they’re now repositioning their legacy beers to slake a more modern thirst when sales dip and consumer demand spins in a new direction. With that, a key question presents itself: How do you convey that an old brand, replete with a familiar name, is now a new product?

Alongside Ruination 2.0, Stone also refreshed its Pale Ale recipe, the first beer it ever brewed, and introduced Pale Ale 2.0 around the same time as the new Ruination. There are others, too. Virginia’s Starr Hill Brewery recently reimagined its own Northern Lights IPA by introducing new hop varietals and placing a greater emphasis on dry hopping and hop bursting techniques. And Michigan’s New Holland Brewing updated its Mad Hatter IPA earlier this year, adjusting the grain bill, adding homegrown Cascade and Citra hops while simultaneously upping the ABV in the process (from 5.25 percent to 7 percent).

Still, reckoning with the realization that a stalwart product is in need of change can be a tricky and humbling experience, said Adam Lambert, New Holland’s vice president of sales. Lambert said his company reconciled with the need to alter Mad Hatter after listening to consumers, retailers and distributor partners.

“If they’re telling us — there’s a lot of IPAs out there, and you were a pioneer but maybe you’ve been passed a little bit — or maybe there’s more stylistically happening in the category, maybe it’s a good time to stand back,” he said. “That’s the first piece, listening.”

Dollars and cents, though, are much more quantitative than the fickle palate of American craft beer drinkers. Lambert and Wagner both said sales of the beers they ultimately revamped had been relatively flat or in decline in recent years, a fairly obvious sign, as Lambert put it, that “something goofy is going on.”

Northern Lights 6pk

To that end, Brian McNelis, president and CEO of Starr Hill — who noted their updated beer hadn’t been struggling — said a lot of consideration needs to go into whether a brewery washes its hands of a foundational brand or instead refreshes it when it hits tough times.

“This is a business and you do look at what’s happening in the marketplace,” he said. “With a brand like Northern, which is so important to Starr Hill, you don’t want to throw out the baby with the bathwater.”

Added Wagner, “We were still selling a fair amount of Stone Pale Ale, but the trend wasn’t that it was increasing.”

Beyond listening to your business partners and examining current sales trends, there’s more that goes into the transformation process. How do you ensure the newest version of a beer isn’t co-mingling on the shelves with its former self? And how do you preserve an iconic beer’s heritage while establishing new forward momentum?

Stone, for instance, kept on waving its Ruination and Pale Ale flags while tacking on a sequence-based identifier to redesigned packages, which immediately let consumers know a change had occurred.

“We sort of liked the idea,” added Wagner. “Kill the flagship and all hail the new 2.0.”

Starr Hill, too, placed a heavy emphasis on the beer’s branding. It didn’t just overhaul the recipe. To get the message out, the company said an entire packaging fix was in order.

“I think if you want to do it well, you don’t want to just tweak [the recipe],” said McNelis. “We wanted an image change that no one would miss. We went at this from the very beginning to say, ‘Who are we? Who do we want to be? What image do we want to represent us as a company?’”

New packaging, however, can create inventory headaches as a brewery begins executing behind the initial new product rollout. When consumers recognize the latest version on the shelf, McNelis said, older packages risk lingering and retail accounts could get stuck with old beer.

To help combat this issue and avoid product overlap when New Holland introduced its revamped Mad Hatter IPA, Lambert sat down with the company’s retail and distributor partners and presented a 90-day business plan for the implementation of the new brand. The company set specific dates for old Mad Hatter product to go out the door of a retail account, only to be backfilled with the new version shortly thereafter.

But still, Lambert, like Wagner, said changing a recipe is all about being aware of how the beer world develops, because, after all, change is the only real certainty.

“It takes some serious conviction to go like, ‘Alright, well, the world has changed. It’s different than when I started. But this brand is so important to me,’” he said. “I’ve got to up my game and make it better for everybody.”