Sierra Nevada Looks to Add More Variety in 2014

It’s almost impossible to believe, but in its 33-year history, Sierra Nevada Brewing has never produced what has become standard issue for many older craft brewers, the seasonal-variety 12-pack.

“Other than our specialty ‘Beer Camp’ pack, it is the last significant segment that we haven’t approached,” said Joe Whitney, Sierra’s director of Sales and Marketing.

That will change in January when the Chico, Calif.-based craft brewery releases its first four-style 12-pack.

“It used to be that mixed 12-packs provided an opportunity to move volume from a couple of your year-round beers that didn’t sell well,” Whitney said. “But the game has changed and the category has become incredibly competitive. We are late to the party, so we figured we have to go all-in from the onset.”

That means offering customers something they won’t be able to purchase outside of the pack. Whitney said that at least two of the four offerings in every variety pack — which will change seasonally — will be unique. Sierra’s first variety pack will be IPA-focused and will be priced in-line with other Sierra Nevada 12-packs at $18.99.

It’s not the only variety pack Sierra plans to release in 2014, either. Earlier this month, the company announced plans to partner with 12 U.S. craft breweries on the creation of a ‘Beer Camp Across America’ variety 12-pack and multi-weekend beer festival tour. The pack will feature 12 different collaboration beers.

“We want to highlight the success of craft beer, not just our own next step,” said Ken Grossman, Sierra Nevada’s founder in a press statement.

But the country’s second largest brewery will wait until next summer to include its flagship offering, Pale Ale, in one of the new box sets. The brand, bolstered by the introduction of cans, is up 7.9 percent in IRI-tracked food channels for the year-to-date period ending July 14.

“The brand keeps chugging along,” said Whitney. “It’s the no. 1 selling craft brand in the food channel in the country.”

Pale Ale — which comprises about 68 percent of the company’s total production — is also up 3.2 percent and 15 percent in IRI-tracked drug and convenience channels, respectively.

And while IRI pegs Sierra Nevada’s no. 2 brand, Torpedo, up 24.7 percent in food, seasonal offerings aren’t faring as well, down 6.7 percent on the year.

“We were shocked when Ruthless Rye was down 19 percent at the beginning of the year,” said Whitney. “It had a ton of fanfare last year. It won gold medals at GABF and World Beer Cup and with all the momentum; we were expecting it to be up 20 percent.”

Whitney chalked up the declines to the success of Torpedo and increasing SKU-proliferation.

“If there is a second tap handle we can get, it’s typically going to be Torpedo,” he said.

Despite the down year, Whitney said Sierra is committed to grooming the Ruthless Rye brand for long-term growth.

“I don’t think it is a situation where you have one bad year, pack it in and look for something different,” he said. “Ultimately, when a beer is available over a longer period, you can build a bigger and better brand.”

One potential new brand that Sierra is also testing is a lower-alcohol ‘session IPA’, an increasingly popular style amongst craft breweries like Founders Brewing, whose “All Day IPA” has become the company’s no. 1 selling brand in just four months.

“We have one pouring in the pub right now and we will probably put one in the IPA variety pack,” Whitney said. “It hasn’t been finalized, but I think we will have one there. It is a fun style and one that isn’t super-bitter or fatiguing on the palate.”

Sierra would have plenty of room to grow a lower-alcohol brand if it’s well-received by consumers, too. The company will open its second brewery in Mills River, N.C. next summer with an initial capacity of approximately 300,000 barrels. The facility is capable of being scaled to 700,000 barrels.

In the meantime, Whitney said Sierra will look to brew over 1 million barrels at its headquarters in Chico, in 2014.

“Truthfully, the Chico brewery should really be operating at about 800,000 barrels,” said Whitney. “The sooner we can get the North Carolina brewery open, the better.”

To help transition the company into a bi-coastal business model, Sierra has hired Jeff White as its new systems integration director. White has plenty of strategic planning experience with companies like Boston Beer and MillerCoors. White said he will oversee the logistics and order management for both brewing facilities in an effort to “deliver fresher beer to wholesalers.”

“Sierra Nevada is, as a company, one that I have always admired,” White said. “Everything about the aesthetic of company and the reputation; it’s always felt like a place I’d want to be.”

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