Critical Drinking

Critical Drinking — A Starrier Sky for Us All

Sam Adams has some of the most prolific advertising in beer. Between countless Spotify ads and sponsored social media posts, I'm bombarded with enough reminders to buy their beer that you'd think there'd be nothing else in my fridge.

The latest I've seen—a poor Rebel IPA, shattered to oblivion, being remade as the video goes in reverse—is a pretty clever way to introduce the audience to a change to a core brand. The messaging is simple but effective: "New Look. New Taste. A Rebel Reborn."
 
It's promising to see Sam Adams trying to keep up, despite all the recent chatter about their inevitable fall. For a long time, their slogan was "Take Pride in Your Beer," but somehow, I feel that was lost in the shuffling of styles and constant chasing of trends that has manifested in Boston Beer Company’s current lineup.

So what happened, exactly? All this talk of slumping sales figures and market pressure, in-fighting and "craft" definitions, but no one seems to be actually talking about the beer itself. A lot of my peers can barely muster a half-hearted "meh" when asked for an opinion about Sam Adams. There's never anything objectively wrong with them from a quality perspective, but even I've been guilty of describing some of the beers as "boring." That seems a little harsh for a company that quite literally pioneered the craft beer movement we're all so enamored with now. 

I purchase every new Sam Adams release that hits the market. Boston Ale (read: not Lager) was a staple for me as I transitioned from garbage college beer into more deliberate drinking, and I used to buy Noble Pils by the case. Rebel RAW drank beautifully, even if it whiffed a little on matching the New England-style IPA it was trying to mimic. The Nitro Coffee Stout from their nitrogen-infused tallboy series was delightful and decadent. But for every one I really enjoyed, I had two that made me wonder why I spent the money. Even bolstered by nostalgia and brand loyalty, when comparing their beer to my other options, I found the bulk of the offerings underwhelming.

I used to be able to justify my Sam Adams purchased on a "price for quality" scale, in that I knew I was getting solid beer for relatively cheap, at least compared to local brands. A six pack of Rebel was $7.99- 8.99, while a local, say, Heavy Seas Loose Cannon IPA was $9.99-10.99. It might not seem like much, but over a year of drinking, 10-20% adds up for the budget-conscious drinker.

But even price no longer justifies the purchase. Sierra Nevada lingers around the same price point consistently and, depending on the store, so do New Belgium, Oskar Blues, and Stone. The only justification I'd have for buying Sam Adams now would be if I legitimately preferred the beer, which—and I say this reluctantly and sadly—I do not.

Rebel IPA is changing, but a lot of the other beers aren’t. I confirmed with a Sam Adams representative that Boston Lager has remained unchanged since it was first launched 32 (!!!) years ago. How does a beer with that kind of legacy, that ushered thousands and thousands of drinkers into a flavorful future, suddenly seem boring and one-note?

The easy answer is competition. When Boston Lager stormed Bean Town in 1985, it was up against macro Lager and imports. A Vienna Lager with some hop character and noticeable caramel malt notes stood out easily. Nowadays, with local breweries putting out gustatory explorations that push all our palates to extremes, the subtlety that won out years ago feels quaint and old fashioned. (Not to mention that an increasing amount of young and talented craft brewers are trying their hand at Lagers.) A consumer only has so many dollars to spend, and in 2017, most of those dollars are going to hearty dry hops and puckering sours.

But that's not the whole answer, I don't think. People who liked Boston Lager back then (or when they first had it) should still like it, if the recipe hasn't changed, right? The same should go for other heritage brews, like Summer Ale, Octoberfest, and Winter Lager. Why, then, the general ambivalence toward the beer?

It turns out that human brains are pretty terrible at noticing subtle changes over time. People don't notice the incremental, day-to-day changes in a puppy or kitten, until they look back at photos a year later, and realize their little squish is now a full blown beast.

This psychological effect—it’s known as "change blindness”—usually refers to a person's inability to see changes in say, two different pictures. It's why eye-witness testimony in trials can be dubious, and why some people are exceptionally shitty drivers. Our brains process patterns and fill in blanks based on other experiences, which means we might miss details, or make assumptions about things that don’t reflect tangible reality.

It's not much of a stretch to apply "taste blindness" to beer drinkers. After decades of trying new, different beers, we've built databases of expectations that influence every sip we take. Our tastes have drifted as our brains developed, which means, upon revisiting a flavor, we may be blind to how much we, as drinkers, have changed, even if the beer itself has not.

Add to that infallible memory and patchy mental processing and the idea that taste buds change as we age. We're born with as many taste buds as we're going to ever have, and as we get older, those buds stop regenerating. The net result is a steady decrease in our ability to process flavors—especially subtle ones—and often, a desire to taste bigger and bolder flavors to compensate.

As the generation reared on Boston Lager (and other Boston Beer staples) inches closer towards retirement, there's hope a younger generation would step in and find some joy in Sam Adams the same way their forbearers did. But with good beer being so accessible, the “convert” quotient that pulled so many drinkers from Bud and Miller is much, much smaller than it was three decades ago. To sledgehammer some final nails into the coffin, those young drinkers are also experiencing comparably aggressive flavors in their local beers. Despite the trend of more breweries pumping out Pilsners, subtlety in taste is still in the backseat while Overtly (Overly?) Hopped IPA drives and Barrel-Aged Whatever sits shotgun.

It's worth noting that "Take Pride in Your Beer" was replaced by "Pursue Better." Inadvertently, Sam Adams captured its own problem in the new tagline. No longer does the brand stand confident in itself, but rather, trails after some new ideal it can't seem to grasp. That's not to say, despite an ever-shrinking number of barrels coming out of Jamaica Plain, that the brand is irreversibly doomed. I’m actually hoping for a Sam Adams renaissance, where it all finally clicks and they regain their stature as industry leaders, not followers. 

But for that to happen, something more than one recipe needs to change, and the problems with the beer won’t be solved by even the most clever ad campaign. I’ve heard multiple people call Boston Beer a “big ship to turn,” but I wonder now, if it even needs to be turned. Perhaps Sam Adams should return to what made the company successful in the first place, and instead of tossing about in the trendiness of waves, find a new North Star by which they can chart a path even in the darkest of nights.

That confidence that they were worthy of their own history would bring some interest back to the brand. I, for one, would follow them—especially if it meant 12 packs of year-round Noble Pils.

Words by Oliver Gray
Graphics by Hillary Schuster

Oliver Gray

Oliver is a graduate of the John Hopkins Nonfiction Writing program, and his blog, Literature and Libation, won the NAGBW award for "best blog" three years running. He's also an IT dork who lives in Maryland with four women, two of which are feline. Always a fan of adverbial introductory phrases, he also has a penchant for all things British, like grammar, Jaguars, and cask mild.

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Critical Drinking™

Beer is so much more than what's in the bottle for the men and women who make it and sell it. There are real livelihoods at stake, and they spend an inordinate amount of time thinking about the industry they serve. These are their forward-looking thoughts, and their critical thinking on what's happening now.

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