The makers of Budweiser and Coors have been coming after independent craft breweries for years, turning out beers that compete in the “craft” category without saying who brews them. Head to just about any major-league ballpark, for instance, and you’ll find Shock Top Belgian White or Blue Moon lurking in the scant few kiosks reserved for craft beer. Shock Top is, of course, made by Anheuser Busch InBev, while Coors makes Blue Moon.
But in the past four months, Fort Collins-based New Belgium Brewing — the fourth-largest independent brewery in the country — has made a series of moves that appear to take aim at the mega-brewers, a bit of a reverse in the usual order of things. Either that, or New Belgium is simply targeting the same tastebuds as Miller, Bud and Coors.
In December, New Belgium revamped a significant portion of its lineup, something the brewery called “our most ambitious portfolio reimagining since our beginnings.” One of the most notable beers it added was a year-round offering called Dayblazer Easygoing Ale, a lower-alcohol, 4.8 percent ABV golden ale that looks, tastes and sounds a lot like the light lagers typically associated with the mega-brewers. Even more interestingly, New Belgium is selling Dayblazer for about $1 a beer in fifteen- and 24-packs, as well as in 24-ounce single cans, a strategy more comparable to the get-drunk-quick tactics of the large brewers than it is to those of craft breweries.
In January, New Belgium co-founder and president Kim Jordan told Westword that “we didn’t specifically say, ‘Let’s target the big brewers.’ We are hardly big enough to put a dent in AB InBev or Constellation Brands [owner of the Corona brand]. But it is prudent to look at what people are drinking and how people’s tastebuds are changing.”
Jordan said she also wants to turn on its head the notion that light lagers are solely the provenance of the two big breweries. “For a lot of craft brewers, including us, there has been some innovation and exploration with lagers and ales that, while not American light lagers, are more drinkable, but also more flavorful and crisp.... We don't want to be stuck in a slot that says we can't do something. I hope it will bring more drinkers in.”
Then, last week, New Belgium unveiled another new beer — and another new sales strategy — both of which are very familiar to the big boys over at Coors and AB InBev.
The beer is Fat Tire Belgian White Ale, an unfiltered wheat beer made with orange peel and coriander. And it’s hard not to notice that it is the exact same style as both Blue Moon and Shock Top (not to mention Avery Brewing’s number-one seller, White Rascal) — making this a somewhat bold move. New Belgium even took a subtle shot at Blue Moon in its introduction of the beer, saying it chose to use Seville oranges because they “have a brighter, less cloying sweetness than Valencia oranges,” which is what Blue Moon uses in its version.
“We definitely don’t build our strategy about gunning for someone, but rather about what is important to us,” says New Belgium spokesman Bryan Simpson. Without “calling out specific brands,” though, he acknowledges that “there is no sense in denying who we are up against in that market,” when it comes to Blue Moon and Shock Top.
“Why should the big guys have all the fun?,” he adds.
The marketing strategy, too, takes a page right out of the Coors/Bud playbook. Rather than create a new name for the beer, New Belgium decided to expand what it called its "Fat Tire trademark family.” In other words, there are now two Fat Tires: the original, an amber ale, and this one. That means Fat Tire has become a brand rather than just a beer, which implies that the brewery could theoretically introduce other styles of beer under the Fat Tire brand.
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This might be a good idea, since many people already confuse the beer with the brewery. And it is exactly what Blue Moon and Shock Top do. Although both began their lives as single beers, they are now brands. Blue Moon is the umbrella name for dozens of other flavors, most recently Mango Wheat and Summer Honey, while Shock Top includes Ruby Fresh, Holy Citrus and Lemon Shandy.
Simpson says it is yet “to be determined” whether New Belgium will roll out other Fat Tire branded beers in the future. “When you have a flagship brand, if you extend that brand, it should be well motivated,” he says. “A Belgian white truly ties in to our roots and our origin story. That fact that we don’t have one in our portfolio is probably an omission.”
New Belgium has played around with the style in the past, he says, with beers such as Sunshine Wheat and Mothership Wit. But this is the first authentic version. To give the beer a local flavor and freshness, New Belgium purchases fresh-ground coriander from Old Town Spice Shop, just a half a mile from the Fort Collins brewery.