About three weeks after Adam Lambert took over as president of the Michigan Brewers Union — the roll up of Dark Horse Brewing and Roak Brewing — the COVID-19 pandemic shut down on-premise sales across the U.S.
The shutdown meant the loss of half of Roak’s business and about 35% of Dark Horse’s sales.
Lambert, who wrapped up his role as chief revenue officer with Brewdog USA at the end of February, stepped into the freshly merged companies. Roak, which entered into an agreement with Dark Horse in September 2019, finally closed on the deal on February 21.
In an update to the Michigan Brewers Union’s wholesalers, Lambert described the last three months as “a hellish loss of sales.” However, the shutdown provided an opportunity to work on details that might otherwise have gone unaddressed, and invest in the company’s two brands, including a branding refresh for Dark Horse, courtesy of Ebbing Branding and Design; new packaging configurations, including Dark Horse’s first can variety pack; a pipeline of innovations; and several chain authorizations.
“An agonizing time is when it’s time to buckle down and just get after it,” Lambert told Brewbound.
The work is paying off so far. June shipments have come in at about 80% of the company’s original forecast for the month, pre-COVID-19, he added.
“I’m trying to be cautious about being optimistic, but it’s nice to see the orders starting to roll in,” Lambert said. “And that’s even before the variety pack, and the new branding or new programming.”
Among the big bets for Dark Horse is the brand’s first 12 oz. can variety pack, which will launch in July with core beers Crooked Tree IPA and Raspberry Ale, seasonal Rain in Blood pale ale and a mystery beer that could be a previous Dark Horse beer that hasn’t been available in awhile or a taproom-only offering in order to add “a little bit of mystique,” Lambert said.
Additionally, the company will release line-priced 12-pack cans of Crooked Tree IPA and Raspberry Ale. The new branding on 6-pack cans will follow over the next 90 days, with staggered releases, starting with Raspberry Ale, followed by Crooked Tree IPA and Amber Ale, and then seasonals and new products.
Dark Horse will also launch Mango Tree IPA in a new line, the Tree Series, starting with draft in late June, followed by packaging in mid-August. The goal of the Tree Series was to create a new franchise for innovative offerings, Lambert said. Mango Tree, which was initially released in small batches and sold only in growlers to-go, has been Dark Horse’s fastest selling beer in years, he added.
“Currently draft only, we will be releasing this beer to select wholesalers and markets,” he wrote in his note.
With Mango Tree, the goal was to create a “Great Lakes” spin on the IPA, one that is a little more bitter and has more “bite” than a New England-style IPA, but still has a “little sweetness, little juiciness, thicker mouthfeel, heavier body and nice cloudy appearance,” Lambert said.
“There’s West Coast IPA, and there’s New England, and we were thinking, this hybrid [is] ‘Great Lakes Juice,’’ he said.
As for Roak, the Royal Oak-based craft brewery has found success with its Kettle Sour Series, and current offering, Ice Cream Man, will be available through July. Roak is also releasing a Pink Guava Milkshake IPA in 4-packs of 16 oz. cans.
Although the first part of the year was admittedly “hellish,” the second half is shaping up to be much better. Lambert pointed to fall chain commitments from Total Wine in Illinois, Missouri, Wisconsin, Kentucky, Minnesota and Tennessee. He added that resets are ongoing at grocery chain Meijer, and fall refresh paperwork for Dark Horse and Roak has been submitted to Kroger. Lambert added that the company is “highly focused on fulfilling all authorizations, avoiding out of stocks and building out current planograms/ads.”
“If the June numbers continue, and we get these launches going with all this new branding and these new programs, I don’t see this slowing down,” he told Brewbound.
The collective is also investing in its marketing for both Dark Horse and Roak, hiring ad agency Black Lab Five, which has about two decades of experience working with craft breweries. Prior Black Lab Five clients include Bell’s Brewery and the Michigan Brewers Guild.
Lambert, who has worked for companies with larger than life characters, from Dogfish Head’s Sam Calagione to Rogue’s Jack Joyce to BrewDog’s James Watt, will now find himself out front of the Dark Horse and Roak brands in a series of videos.
“If I can add some my own personality and my own touch and just make fun of what we’re doing and make fun of myself but bring a little bit of sense of realism to things, I think it could resonate,” he said.