A month has come and gone since the start of a grassroots movement in the American craft beer industry. At the beginning of the new year, esteemed craft beer writers Stephen Beaumont and Jay Brooks plus others spawned the idea of Flagship February as a way for craft beer drinkers to support the beers that built the industry. As I read news articles about the declining sales of flagship beers, and Beaumont’s off-the-cuff remark about having a month to support these beers I contemplated how I could support this movement. As an American living in Japan, I decided to partake on a weekly basis by having a different flagship beer each Friday during the month of February (read more here).
With February drawing to a close, I reflect on the beers I drank and my relationship with craft beer.
Choosing the beers
There are a lot of wonderful things about living in Japan. At the same time, my life has changed a lot since moving here. Most notably my beer drinking habits have changed. I do not have a regular craft beer bar that I visit on a weekly basis. It is also more difficult to find American craft beer. So choosing flagship beers to drink during the month wasn’t as simple as drinking a few beers at my local bar. Instead, I had to see what flagship beers my local liquor/beer store carried and what beers were available at the military base where my wife works. Ultimately I put together a list of beers that I felt like fit the bill of flagship brews that helped define their brewery and build the industry.
Week 1: Founders All Day IPA
I am married to a craft beer-loving woman, who really enjoys India pale ales. So when I found Founders All Day IPA at our local beer store I knew we had to buy it. When I started drinking craft beer I avoided the bitter and overpowering IPAs. However, over the past two years my taste buds have evolved and I have grown to appreciate the style. IPAs are not my favorite style, but my tastes have grown and I can appreciate a good IPA for being true to its style.
Four years between drinking a particular beer makes a huge difference. When I first drank All Day IPA in 2015, I rated it a 2.5 (out of 5) on Untappd. I don’t have any notes on why I gave it that rating, but in hindsight it was probably because the bitterness killed my taste buds. Earlier this month after drinking it I had a totally different impression of the beer. It has a strong floral nose, but is malty and smooth. It finishes with an appropriately bitter finish, but it’s not overpoweringly bitter. With a new perspective on IPAs after four years of drinking craft beer, I gave it a 3.75 (out of 5) this time. All Day IPA will probably not be my “regular” beer at home, but it is an excellent session IPA.
Week 2: Smog City Coffee Porter
When I set out to find beers for the month I anticipated getting beers that I had already drank. However, I was open to trying something new as long as it qualified as a brewery’s flagship beer. So when I found Smog City Coffee Porter I quickly decided to try a new to me flagship beer.
Coffee porters are one of my favorite styles, so I I was really excited about this beer. It has a strong coffee aroma, which is expected considering that Smog City uses locally roasted fair trade coffee to brew the beer. Like a typical porter it is light and smooth. It has a delicious bitter finish reminiscent of cold brew coffee. I did not get a lot of chocolate notes, but it is definitely a beer I would buy again. I understand why Smog City is known for this beer.
Week 3: Samuel Adams Boston Lager
One of the beers to change the American beer industry is Samuel Adams Boston Lager. Since 1984, Boston Lager has defined Boston Beer Company, and helped establish the craft beer industry. So it was a no-brainer to buy a 6-pack of this legendary beer.
Boston Lager uses two noble hops, which gives the beer a piney aroma. It is malty and smooth. I got a small dose of caramel sweetness on the finish. I cannot and will not say that Boston Lager is the best beer I have ever drank, but it is a very good beer brewed to style.
Week 4: New Belgium Fat Tire
Many craft beer drinkers are familiar with the lore of New Belgium Fat Tire. The name and logo are intricately tied to craft beer. It was another no-brainer choice when my wife and I considered our beer options.
Five years ago when I checked-in Fat Tire using Untappd for the first time, I gave it a 3 (out of 5). I did not write any notes explaining my rating. When I drank this beer earlier this month it was like a completely different experience. It is malty with a hint of caramel. It has a little bite, but is not overpoweringly bitter. Fat Tire is a great representation of an American amber ale.
Week 4: Sierra Nevada Pale Ale
The American craft beer industry may not exist without Cascade hops. Cascade hops feature prominently in Sierra Nevada Pale Ale. So it is possible to say Sierra Nevada may not exist without the innovation of Cascade hops. The brewery uses Cascade hops to bitter and finish the beer. The beer truly reflects the revolutionary approach early microbrewers took during the early 1980s, which eventually became the American craft beer industry. Sierra Nevada was at the forefront of that innovation, and created its pale ale as a take on a classic European style with an American twist thanks to Cascade hops.
The first time I logged this beer using Untappd nearly three years ago I gave it 2.5 (out of 5). I commented: “OK, just not my style.” In hindsight, I was turned off by the piney notes of the beer. Upon retrying this beer for the first time in several years I had a very different reaction. It is malty with a bitter, piney finish. The piney notes are a bit overpowering for me, so I only gave it a 3.5 rating this time. However, Sierra Nevada Pale ale is the quintessential American pale ale.
Learning about my beer tastes
Nothing helps you learn how your palate has changed over the years than drinking beers you have not had in many years. Celebrating Flagship February re-introduced me to four beers I had not drank in years. With the exception of Smog City Coffee Porter, I was very familiar with each of the beers I drank over the past month. However, I did not know what to expect when poured my first All Day IPA in four years. Through re-trying All Day IPA, Boston Lager, Fat Tire, and Sierra Nevada Pale I learned that my taste buds have changed a bit, but probably not that much. I could still pick up the pine notes of Sierra Nevada Pale in a split second.
The biggest change is not my tastes, but my beer knowledge. Over the past several years I have had countless conversations with people about craft beer. I have gleaned knowledge from each chat, and read extensively about the industry. I am far from being an expert on craft beer, but the information I have compiled has given me a greater appreciation for the beer itself. Knowledge is a powerful weapon, and it has made a huge difference in my enjoyment of craft beer.
Defining flagship beers
Over the past month I drank five flagship beers from five different breweries. These beers also represent five different styles. The variety of beers allowed me to experience a broad representation of the American craft beer industry. I set out to drink American flagship beers as a way to support the American craft beer industry, but drinking these beers over the past month has made me reflect on flagship beers.
I’m still trying to wrap my head around a reliable definition of a “flagship beer.” On the official Flagship February website Jay Brooks defines a flagship beer as:
… the beer that defines a brewery. It’s the one that you immediately think of when you hear the brewery’s name, the one that most people associate with the business.
I do not agree that it is the beer that defines a brewery. However, I do think it is the beer people most closely associate with a brewery. For me, a flagship beer does not have to be a brewery’s best selling beer. Nor does a flagship beer have to be a beer drinker’s favorite beer from a brewery. A flagship beer can have some or all of these elements.
Rethinking my relationship with flagship beers
Celebrating Flagship February over the past month has made me think about how I approach drinking craft beer. It has been a great contrast to Aaron Goldfarb’s piece about beer drinkers being more interested in “ticking off” something new (read it here). I can admit that on many occasions I scanned the tap list at my local craft beer bar with the intent of finding something new to drink. On occasion I bemoaned that I had to “settle” for something I had previously drank.
I cannot say that I’ll consistently drink flagship beers instead of “ticking off” a new beer. However, reading about beer “tickers” and celebrating Flagship February have made me rethink how I approach my beer choices. To the best of my ability I plan to consider beers I know and enjoy just as much as sampling a new brew from the menu.