Firestone Walker’s 2019 was unpredictable — one of those rare years when a lot of things go right.
The Paso Robles, California-based craft brewery projected 485,000 barrels — with a stretch goal of 500,000 — in 2019, strong growth projections after producing 454,261 barrels the previous year. Those projections were tossed with the company finishing the year slightly above 521,000 barrels.
Speaking to Brewbound, Firestone Walker chief sales officer David Macon credited the “steady, consistent” growth of 805 blonde ale and the emergence of Mind Haze IPA for the company’s strong year.
Firestone Walker’s western business remains lopsided. California now accounts for about 77% of the craft brewery’s sales. Nevertheless, Macon said the company’s eastern region, from Boston to North Carolina, will do about 400,000 case equivalents in 2020, with “nerve centers” in New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Virginia.
“New York has been where we’ve been investing in the east, but it looks so lopsided, just because of the sheer size and scope of 805 in the west is unreal,” he said.
Flagship 805 remains Firestone Walker’s workhorse, even though the brand is not sold in many of the company’s markets. According to market research firm IRI, 805 ranked as the ninth best-selling craft beer in off-premise retailers in 2019, growing dollar sales 12.7%, to $60.4 million. That propelled Firestone Walker to the 20th largest beer company in the U.S. in 2019, with portfolio-wide off-premise dollar sales increasing nearly 21%, to nearly $84.3 million, in multi-outlet and convenience stores tracked by the firm.
Although 805’s growth numbers pop off the scan data pages, Macon cautioned that the brand’s success has been about seven years in the making. Each year, the company projects the brand to flatten out or plateau, and each year it exceeds expectations, he added.
Over the last two years, 805’s growth has been buoyed by the addition of 24 oz. single-serve cans in the convenience channel. The addition has driven “a tremendous amount of growth” for the brand as it competes with domestic and import brands, Macon said.
For 2020, the company will add an 805 18-pack in an effort to bolster sales in chain retailers.
Meanwhile, the expansion of 805 started in 2018, as a “stress test” to ensure the brand was ready to travel and scale in markets outside of the company’s core markets of California, Arizona and Nevada, Macon said. In those latter two markets, the brand is beginning to scale similar to the way it did in California, he added.
“Will it ever be as big as California? No,” Macon admitted. “But it’s showing some incredible growth in those states.”
The 805 brand is now sold in the Pacific Northwest, Chicago and Colorado, although Macon admitted the results have been “a mixed bag.” Chicago’s sophomore year was better than the Pacific Northwest’s, but Macon said the brand is being given time to succeed in the Seattle and Portland markets. Meanwhile, Idaho and Montana have been “spectacular successes,” said Macon, who attributed some of the strong performance in Idaho to a high percentage of Californians moving to the state.
And in Texas, 805 has “turned the corner,” Macon said.
“I don’t think in this day and age you can just plop a brand into a market unless you are ABI [Anheuser-Busch InBev], Molson Coors or Constellation [Brands], unless you have that power, leverage and weight,” he said. “It just doesn’t work. We’ve taken the long-game approach that it could take more than several years to grow this.”
Don’t look for Firestone Walker to open new markets for 805 in 2020 either. Macon explained that the goal is to learn from the markets that the company has already opened before taking the brand into new markets.
“We don’t have a lot of internal pressure to expand and be a national brand tomorrow,” he said. “One thing we have on our side is time and we have patience and we want to do this thing the right way and not over expand it too fast.”
As for Mind Haze, the brand doubled its projection of 20,000-barrel, producing 40,000 barrels in 2019. Macon called the hazy IPA’s performance the “difference maker” for the company’s big year. For 2020, Firestone Walker will add 12-packs of Mind Haze, as a play for chain stores.
In a further effort to push 805 and Mind Haze, Firestone Walker will also be more aggressive in creating awareness of those brands in digital channels, Macon said. That includes a new short film featuring snowboarder Gabe Taylor as part of its “Authenticos” film series, which the company says “celebrates those who are free-spirited and rooted in rugged individualism.”
Macon also credited those efforts to CMO Dustin Hinz, who joined the company last July after serving in leadership roles at Guitar Center and Ernie Ball Music.
Also in 2020, Firestone Walker is betting on the low-calorie, low-ABV IPA trend with Flyjack, a 4% ABV, 96-calorie hazy. Macon admitted that its ground that’s being covered by many brewers, but he is confident that Firestone Walker has developed a beer that will resonate with consumers.
“I think our brewers did an excellent job of making a beer that acts like a hazy IPA but is only 96 calories and five carbs but you still get 4% alcohol,” he said.
The target of 96 calories was a bit of numerology, connecting with 1996, the year in which the brewery was founded, Macon added.
“If we can do about 50% to 75% of what Mind Haze’s original projection, of 10,000 to 15,000 barrels, I think we’ll be pretty satisfied with that result,” he said of Flyjack.
To support Flyjack’s release, Firestone Walker is releasing a film series with filmmaker Dylan Gordon called “Crafted For Adventure,” which will feature the lifestyles of outdoor adventure seekers.”
Additionally, the company is taking a new tack with its mixed 12-packs, introducing beers first brewed at its Venice R&D brewpub The Propagator. In cans, the company will release various single-hop hazy IPAs, the first of which is Motueka, a tangerine lemongrass IPA that checks in at 5.6% ABV. In bottles, the company will release single-hop filtered IPAs, starting with El Dorado, a clementine apricot IPA with 5.6% ABV.
“Between the two packs, you have six beers that all were developed in L.A. at the Propagator that you won’t’ be able to get anywhere else,” Macon said.
One beer that has struggled in recent years has been a long-time Firestone Walker flagship DBA English-style pale. DBA, the first beer made by Firestone Walker, will receive a renewed focus this year, Macon said.
“It’s the first time we’re going to give it a complete makeover and a complete reposition in terms of where it sits in our portfolio,” he said. “The value is almost priceless in what it means to who we are and our history and heritage.”
Firestone Walker is only beginning its deep dive on DBA to understand who is drinking it and why they’re drinking it, Macon added.
“I think it’s important to continue to give it life and to keep it healthy and keep it a big part of the narrative that is Firestone Walker,” he said.
In 2020, Firestone Walker is projecting “mid- to high-single” digit growth, Macon said.
“Sort of modest expectations after a pretty big year last year, but we’re off to a good start,” he said. “January was very encouraging.”
The plan to achieve that growth won’t include forays into alternative alcohol trends beyond the beer space, Macon added.
“We feel very comfortable in our skin in terms of who we are as brewers,” he said.