Uinta president Jeremy Ragonese believes the Salt Lake City craft brewery has “stabilized” after a rough 2019.
The year started with a voluntary recall of 20,000 cases of beer affected by yeast contamination. Uinta also went through a pair of transitions, as private equity firm The Riverside Company sold its minority stake in the business to a long-time Uinta investor, Golub Capital, which now holds a controlling share of the company.
Additionally, Ragonese, then CMO, was promoted to president in March. That same day, he began the process of retrenching the company’s footprint, cutting back from 48 states to 28, essentially using Mississippi River as a dividing line, with a few exceptions.
If that wasn’t enough change for a year, the state of Utah lifted its restrictions on higher ABV beer sales in grocery and convenience stores, allowing sales of products with an ABV of up to 5%. The unforeseen fallout of that move was that retailers stopped stocking shelves with new beer in early October in anticipation of the changeover on November 1. This translated to lost sales for the state’s beer producers.
All of that added up to a slower year volume wise for Uinta. After peaking in 2017 at 93,338 barrels, the company’s volume declined nearly 50% in 2019, to around 49,000 barrels.
Ragonese admitted that the company’s 93,000-barrel peak, as it pushed a national expansion, wasn’t sustainable.
“We’re way off the highwater mark that we’d set in 2017,” he said. “But, honestly, it’s a healthy 48,000, 49,000 barrels.”
So, when he took over, Ragonese said he prioritized the company’s core territory and internal culture.
“It was really about doing everything we needed to do from the inside to correct and change our path and change the course that we were on,” he said.
Ragonese added to Uinta’s executive leadership team in order to “have more voices around the table.” Those additions included the return of Noah Brown as VP of sales and the promotion of Jeremy Worrell to VP of marketing.
So if 2019 was a year of “retrenching” and “retooling” the business, Ragonese sees 2020 as “a year of growth and profitability.”
That all starts in Uinta’s home state of Utah, which makes up about 70% of its business.
“That’s going to continue to be the core source of our sales as we kind of redevelop our footprint,” Ragonese said. “When I cut off the eastern half of the country, we took some of the resources we had had out there sales-wise, and redeployed or hired new for the western half of the U.S., and put people in strategic locations that were really able to better serve the territory.”
Uinta’s big bet for 2020 is Hazy Nosh IPA, a line extension of its Hop Nosh flagship. At 5% ABV, Hazy Nosh will allow the company to take advantage of the full-strength beer sales change in Utah grocery stores, as well as most of its other markets.
Hazy Nosh launched in Utah in late 2019 and will begin rolling out to the rest of Uinta’s footprint this year in 6- and 12-pack cans, as well as draft. Hazy Nosh’s release also signaled a package refresh for the Hop Nosh family of beers, including the original Hop Nosh and Hop Nosh Grapefruit.
In a bit of an ironic twist after the state’s change away from 3.2 alcohol by weight beer (or 4% ABV), Uinta is going back to its low-ABV roots with the release of the Free Form series. The first release in the series is a rebranded and relaunched brut IPA. Uinta won’t call out the IPA as brut, but will highlight that it has 99 calories. That beer will launch in 6-packs this March.
The second release in the series will be Free Form Lo-Cal Rosé Ale, which will launch in June. According to Ragonese, the Rosé Ale has tested well with hard seltzer and light beer drinkers.
Uinta is also exploring opening up its playbook to beyond beer offerings, which could include the addition of hard seltzer and a non-alcoholic beer. The company is also looking to launch a barrel-aging program, Ragonese said.
Although plans aren’t cemented, Uinta has conducted research and development around a hard seltzer brand.
“There’s been brand development and other things,” Ragonese said. “So we’ve invested time and energy for sure.”
Meanwhile, a non-alcoholic beer is another potential opportunity for growth, Ragonese said. He added that the company’s wholesalers have asked about a non-alc beer, and it also fits in with the active lifestyle that many of the company’s 70 employees embrace.
As for barrel-aged offerings, Ragonese said he believes small batch releases could elevate the brand in its home state, while also helping with employee retention by giving its brewing team “cool and interesting” projects.
So where could Uinta land in 2020? Ragonese said he’s projecting low, single-digit growth.
“The growth and profitability will come,” he said, adding that 2020 is really about restoring confidence in the Uinta brand with its wholesalers and retailers. “For me, right now, that’s No 1.
“With that, I think you’re going to see more of what we can do down the road because we can then invest in ourselves to continue to expand those horizons,” he continued. “But I just want to do things the right way, for the right reason and hit those marks repeatedly. That’s what’s gonna make the biggest difference.”