There are, by some estimates, in excess of 22,000 operating breweries in world today. At a very conservative count of only a dozen brands per brewery, that makes in excess of a quarter million different beers being sold around the globe, plus, of course, the multitude of special releases that for some breweries number in the hundreds per year.
That’s a lot of beer!
While we, like any sane beer drinker, are thrilled by this.
Increasingly, it seems to us that what leads people to drink a beer is less whether or not it’s good than it is whether it’s new or, better still, rare. While this is not necessarily a bad thing – new brands and styles keep it all exciting, after all! – what sometimes gets lost in the special release noise this produces are the beers that paved the way for the remarkable global beer market we presently have at our disposal, or in other words, the flagship beers that got us here.
And so, we created #FlagshipFebruary.
The idea of Flagship February – the hashtag, the website and the movement – is not to try to shore up sales of the flagship beers of various breweries – that’s the job of the marketing and sales divisions of those breweries.
To cite but a few examples:
Samuel Adams Boston Lager normalized what we used to call ‘microbrews’ in the United States, opening up markets like sports and airport bars to beers with character, and it is still a very fine lager.
Cantillon Gueuze was the vanguard for the lambic revival in Belgium, aided in large part by the legendary beer writer Michael Jackson, and in some ways provided the spark for today’s ‘sour beers.’ Without question, it remains a stellar example of spontaneous fermentation.
Hobsons Champion Mild was introduced when mild ales were experiencing their steep decline in Britain, and helped to re-popularize the style, earning its ‘Champion’ moniker in 2007 when it beat out the fashionable golden bitters of the time to be named Champion Beer of Britain. And it, too, remains a classic.
Since it is easy to overlook these and many other still-great flagship beers when beer store shelves and barroom taps heave with new and special edition brews, #FlagshipFebruary is about taking a pause to reconsider flagship beers that might have slipped off your radar, or never occurred to you to try!
We are not suggesting that people only drink flagship brands all month long – that’s not what we will be doing and is, in fact, the sort of approach to drinking that the flavourful beer renaissance was developed to combat! What we are recommending is that this would be a good month to try a bottle or glass or pint of old school flagship ale or lager from time to time, in between samples of the latest hazy IPA or fruit-fueled gose.
Who knows? It may turn into a very tasty and enjoyable habit!
The origins of the term ‘flagship’ are appropriately nautical, befitting a beverage that’s as much as 95 percent or more water. According to Merriam-Webster, its first definition comes from the Navy, with the flagship being “a vessel used by the commanding officer of a group of naval ships, characteristically a flag officer entitled by custom to fly a distinguishing flag. Used more loosely, it is the lead ship in a fleet of vessels, typically the first, largest, fastest, most heavily armed, or best known.” Over time, the definition has moved onto land and is now more commonly used as “the finest, largest, or most important one of a group of things.” So if you have a chain of stores, the location that is your best or biggest is your “flagship store.”
With beer, a Flagship is 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. In most cases, it is their best-selling beer and often the one that outsells all their other offerings by a wide margin. A good flagship also allows a brewery to be able to afford the seasonals, specialty beers and the other one-off beers in their lineup.
One might think that the brewery decides which beer is their flagship, but that’s not always the case. Often, they may expect that a certain beer will be the one that sells the best, but consumers have a different idea. There are numerous examples of this. Widmer Brothers Brewing, in Portland, Oregon, thought they’d be an altbier brewery, but consumers responded to their American hefeweizen and that became the beer they’re known for. Similarly, Deschutes Brewing, in Bend, Oregon, did not believe their Black Butte Porter would be their best-selling beer, but consumers really took to it and the rest is history.
In this fashion, they are our cultural signposts in the recent evolution of the global beer market.
But flagship beers are also so much more. Although their sales have in recent years been…well, flagging, often because people are starting to consider them boring as they chase after the next big thing, a good flagship is the beer that still tastes good, as good as you remember it, whenever you go back to it. It’s a brewery’s flagship precisely because it tastes exactly the same from bottle to bottle, can to can, and draught to draught, with a consistency that will always be the hallmark of brewing.
To be able to create a beer that people want to drink over and over again represents the best of the brewer’s art. And that’s a flagship beer.
Jay R. Brooks