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Culture: Does Your Favorite Beer Taste Different? The Brewer Might Have Changed the Recipe

Culture: Does Your Favorite Beer Taste Different? The Brewer Might Have Changed the Recipe

The beer industry in 2023 will be remembered for many things, but for longtime craft drinkers, the year will be marked as when two iconic brands refreshed or rehauled their flagships. Samuel Adams Boston Lager received a facelift, brightening some flavors and smoothing some edges. Meanwhile, New Belgium’s Fat Tire went from an amber ale to a lightly golden-colored one.

Of course, it’s not uncommon for brewers to tweak recipes over time. Some breweries will switch out hops or change ratios, others will casually experiment with malts. Alcohol-by-volume levels will be raised or lowered, and timing and temperatures messed with. No beer recipe is ever static in a brewhouse where the brewer consistently strives for improvement.

“Typically, brewers don’t acknowledge a change in recipe, but we decided to be transparent about it,” notes New Belgium Brand Manager Taylor Boyd.

The two public changes by stalwarts of the craft beer industry are part of a larger shift the category is going through, suggests Christopher Shepard, senior editor of the trade publication Beer Marketer’s Insights.

“The goal [of the brewers] all along seems to be ‘can we get these core flagship brands to a healthier place’”—aka a more profitable one—“and one way to do that is by making them more attractive to mainstream beer drinkers,” he says. In other words, “presenting them as super-premium domestic beer.”

The need for the two brands to innovate is clear from the numbers. Shepard notes that in 2013, Boston Lager was the third-largest craft brand in off-premise sales and had 5% of the craft beer market. Fat Tire was the fifth largest with 3.5% to 4% of the market. Both were significantly down at the start of this year, giving up market share to hoppier ales or lifestyle brands.

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For a long time, Fat Tire was New Belgium’s flagship offering. It had a cult-like status when the now-national brand still had limited distribution. Beer lovers would travel to Colorado for a taste and stock up on bottles to bring home. As the brewery added more states to its portfolio, however, the bloom arguably came off the rose. Consumer tastes shifted and amber ales fell out of fashion. Meanwhile, the brewery found great success in its Voodoo Ranger line of hazy India pale ales.

Boyd says that the conversation to change Fat Tire, which he calls an incredible “homebrew recipe from the late ‘80s,” was born from thinking about how the beer would be made were it developed today. He said the brewery spent nearly a year testing and modifying different recipes while at the same time trying to lower the beer’s environmental footprint.

“Ultimately, we weren’t able to achieve a degree of [footprint] reduction we felt good touting outwardly. However, once we were under the hood, so to speak, we really liked some of the flavor outputs we were getting from these different batches,” he says.

The result was not only a label refresh, but a wholly different-looking beer in the glass. Boyd says, to his palate, the revised recipe is “slightly less sweet.” From a technical standpoint, both the old and new formulas deliver the same abv and boast a very similar malt bill. “We are, however, using two different hops: Triumph and Barge Rouge.”

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Meanwhile, tasting the remastered version of Samuel Adams’s Boston Lager reveals some nuance and a smoother character. It’s a subtle change, for sure: Casual drinkers might not even notice it if not for the callout on labels. Jim Koch, the founder and brewer of Boston Beer, Samuel Adams’s parent company, explains the brewery has been “improving” the recipe over the last 35 years.

“Really, they aren’t things we talk about,” he says. “Some of [the changes are] pretty geeky, some of them are maybe hard to connect the dots for the average craft beer drinker.”

The biggest change in this latest tweak has to do with hop harvest time, Koch shares. “Turns out that the Germans, for centuries, harvested hops when they were at their physical peak when their appearance was bright and green,” he says. “And they’re beautiful. [But] it turns out that you actually want to keep them on [the bine] for a couple more weeks.”

After a few more weeks in the field, the green hops start to turn gray. But despite a deterioration in physical appearance, Koch says the aromas are in fact improving.

“It’s not a beauty contest,” he says. “[We] care about the flavor and the taste. That’s everything to the beer.” Koch also cites a bunch of beer science—for example, the water chemical process of bioacidification, pH’s effect on lauter times, polyphenols “and stuff like that”—as helping to create a “smoother, easier drinking” Boston Lager.

Recipe tweaks like these, Koch stresses, are not meant to be foundation-shaking or transformational, but are rather the reflection of a natural evolution over time. “This is not Old Coke and New Coke. It’s the same recipe,” he says. “The best Boston lager we’ve ever made is what we make today.”

Refreshes are also a chance to modify beers to meet drinkers where they are today, Shepard notes. In both cited examples, the changes “bring them closer to a light lager,” he says, in either appearance or a smoother flavor. The time seems to be right for making these changes, considering that competitor Bud Light only continues to shed customers.

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But does rejiggering a recipe always translate to success? For Boston Lager, the results are promising: As of October, the beer is the healthiest profit-wise it’s been in five years. But Fat Tire is still looking to make an impression, down 18 to 20% nationally and even worse in its home region. “It’s not clear that it’s bringing in those new drinkers and those that were loyal to it [as an amber ale] are leaving it more and more,” Shepard notes.

Still, in-house at New Belgium, there’s a sense of optimism about the change. “I think now that more folks have had a chance to try the beer, we’re seeing them come around,” says Boyd. “Even if they were understandably apprehensive.”

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