In June 2006, Jackie Laumann was presented with a product brief, a one-page guide meant to point in the direction of an eventual beer for MillerCoors. Its title? “Project Riptide.”
As director of R&D and innovation, it was her responsibility to take a series of brainstormed ideas and buzzwords, and create drinkable cohesion out of a linguistic scheme from her colleagues. For a while (Laumann says she can’t remember how long), there had been talk of some kind of hybrid beer, one that mixed a traditionally-fermented, malt-based beverage with something like soda or lemonade. She saw words like “refreshing” and “thirst-quenching,” phrases that sound familiar in a marketer’s playbook, and began her own creative process of chemistry.
“It was really built around this idea of putting yourself in the experience of summertime,” Laumann says. She’s worked at MillerCoors for 36 years and helped create brands like Miller Chill, Miller Fortune, and Leinenkugel's Snowdrift Vanilla Porter. “We had looked at a wheat beer and on occasion a Hefe, but we found through experimenting that those beers worked well with what we wanted when mixed with other beverages like a lemonade or lemon-lime soda.”
Laumann and her team had eight months to finalize the mystery beer, taking it through research and development, then testing and trials among company employees and the public. What became of the effort, something that started simply as a series of adjectives, is now one of the defining American examples of its style.
At Jacob Leinenkugel Brewing Co., a subsidiary of MillerCoors (then Miller Brewing) after being bought by the company in 1988, executives like to talk about their vice grip on the category of Shandy/Radler. That’s because Laumann and her coworkers were the ones behind Summer Shandy, which, according to metics cited by Leinenkugel Brewing, is responsible for roughly 90% of sales for beers of that style in the United States.
“It’s been one of the most satisfying and gratifying aspects of creating a brand,” Laumann says of her involvement to bring the beer—and the rest of the Shandy portfolio—to life. “Even after this many years, there’s still relevance. People look for Summer Shandy when it’s out.”
Beer enthusiasts may spend the sweatiest months of the year drinking Pilsners or fruited IPAs, but the majority of beer drinkers across the country have turned this seasonal beer into an unexpected and unintended flagship for Leinenkugel. According to estimates based on publicly-made information (MillerCoors doesn’t disclose specifics), Leinenkugel sold somewhere around 450,000 barrels of Summer Shandy in 2016, a number higher than the total annual production of breweries like Bell’s, Deschutes, or Stone.
Welcome to summer.
“You don’t want any one style to necessarily define or pigeonhole you as a brewer,” says Dick Leinenkugel, president and chief beer merchant at Jacob Leinenkugel Brewing. “Every now and then on Twitter, someone says I’m the guy that’s ‘all things shandy,’ but I’m not going to apologize for making these delicious, refreshing styles that delight our beer drinkers.”
This was the blessing and curse the Leinenkugel team faced a decade ago: a 140-year old business that didn’t have a flagship brand. Fans of the Chippewa Falls, Wisconsin brewery had a wide portfolio of styles to choose from, but there was no singular, defining beer to lead the way. Honey Weiss was tops in Minnesota. Classic Amber was huge in Chicago. Sunset Wheat found popularity in Leinenkugel’s home state and elsewhere.
The brewery just couldn’t find one beer to act as its centerpiece.
“One of the ‘101’ foundations of marketing to build good brands is repetition and consistency,” says Herb Heneman, who worked on marketing of Summer Shandy and spent 11 years at positions within Miller Brewing Company, MillerCoors, and Tenth and Blake, the company’s craft and import division. “If you were coming from Minnesota where you know Honey Weiss, and go to Colorado, you couldn’t find that brand. You couldn’t find what you knew was Leinenkugel. That’s not repetitive or consistent, and it was hurting the brand.”
Leinenkugel had been burned twice before trying to make a flagship happen, Heneman said, positioning brands as a reaction to the marketplace. Classic Amber couldn’t replicate the same interest New Belgium saw with its Fat Tire and Sunset Wheat wasn’t stealing enough attention away from Blue Moon Belgian White.
Enter Project Riptide. Leinenkugel had just received the results of a survey of its Leinie Lodge—an online platform for fans—members in which 75% of respondents requested the brewery’s Berry Weiss flavored wheat beer become a year-round product. Once they adjusted production, there would be a gap to fill on the seasonal release calendar come summer 2007.
“Sunset Wheat was modeled to fight Blue Moon, which was taking our business in the Upper Midwest,” Leinenkugel recalls. “Blue Moon was rolling across college campuses and gaining momentum on draft in Chicago, Minneapolis, Milwaukee, Madison and Indianapolis—a lot of our big markets. That was when I started thinking about our history and simply asked the question, ‘What do Germans drink in the summer?’”
The answer was the Radler, interchangeably mentioned in today’s American marketplace with “Shandy,” an English-named version. In both cases, the drink ends the same way: a beer mixed with some kind of additional flavoring, whether that be lemonade, juice, or soda.
Initial ideas for the new, summertime brew first drifted to a Hefeweizen and Kolsch, the latter of which eventually became the brewery’s Canoe Paddler brand. But given the seasonal timeframe of when the beer was set to be released, Laumann figured it should cater to that mindset—a drink synonymous with hot days.
“There are lots of ways to make lemonade,” she says. “How tart, how sweet, the intensity of the lemon character, the acidity, the sweetness. It became about exploring those attributes and thinking of how we could bring them together in a beer.”
In her lab, Laumann wasn’t just fermenting beer. She began working with ready-to-drink lemonade, frozen concentrate, and her own by-scratch blend to best determine the flavors and ratios necessary. “It wasn’t going to be all about the lemonade and it wasn’t going to be all about the beer, so it was finding a happy place for both of them,” she says.
Zeroed in on a wheat beer style and trial-and-error process to find flavor characteristics, it still took 30 variations over eight months to create the final product, starting at one-liter batches and eventually scaling up to about three barrels for company-wide taste testing. The trick, Laumann found, was to make the beer with natural lemonade flavor rather than doing a straight beer-lemonade mix, which would dilute the beer too much. Flavoring would allow the Shandy to sit at a “sessionable” 4.2% ABV at a time well before the word was part of the American beer drinker’s lexicon.
“I wanted this to be a beer, not a flavored malt beverage,” Leinenkugel says.
The beer may have found its DNA, but it still needed its personality. Originally, “summer” wasn’t in the brand’s name, a potential marketing snafu that now elicits a laugh from Leinenkugel with the benefit of hindsight and millions of cases sold. Instead, options like “Flip Flop Lemon Drop” and “Lakehouse Lemon” were put to testing, the latter a clear favorite among focus groups.
Distributors hated it. At an annual meeting in fall 2006, partners from Minnesota, Wisconsin, Illinois, and elsewhere didn’t think the name would roll off the tongues of customers.
“They asked two questions,” Leinenkugel recalls. “What style of beer is it and what time of year is it going to be out?”
And then somebody asked, “Why don’t you call it Summer Shandy?”
According to Dick Leinenkugel, the first run of Summer Shandy sent 30,000 BBLs across 11 states in 2007. And people couldn’t get enough. In fact, 60,000 BBLs were made for 2008, but that still wasn’t sufficient. The seasonal brand broke the 100,000-BBLs mark in its third year of production. By 2010, when Summer Shandy went national in package and draft, all bets were off.
“The sales were just automatic,” says Jake Bettencourt, brand manager with Massachusetts’ Colonial Beverage Company, a distributor that serves the eastern part of the state, including Cape Cod, and has sold Leinenkugel beers since 2006. “It became a driving brand for our summer business.”
Summer on the Cape proved to be an ideal measuring stick for success of Summer Shandy. On a national level, sales were growing fast, and according to internal research by Leinenkugel Brewing, the early success of Summer Shandy was boosted by the fact that 35% of customers hadn’t been regular beer drinkers beforehand.
All of a sudden, a key value of the brand came to fruition. The long game of beer has always been to pull drinkers from wine or spirits, as the percentage of beer-drinking Americans hasn’t changed drastically in decades. In a big picture way, Leinenkugel was building a consumer base, its summertime branding and flavor hitting the mark perfectly.
For Colonial Beverage, who sells Leinenkugel brands year-round, Summer Shandy now accounts for just under 80% of all the brewery’s sales through the Massachusetts distributor, finding its perfect niche among the traveling summer crowd that finds its seasonal home—and summer beer—amongst one of the most popular tourist spots in the country.
“Everybody wants to try the latest flavor and move on, so for some brands, you get a year or two,” Bettancourt says. “Using Summer Shandy’s seasonality has been its key success. It’s almost a must-have when you’re celebrating that time of year.”
Leinenkugel finally had its flagship.
“Behind closed doors, our aspiration was always to make it the next Kleenex,” says Heneman, the former MillerCoors and Tenth and Blake exec. “If you’re talking about a beer of that style, you’re talking about a Leinie’s Summer Shandy. We never put that out there to drinkers, but we always said internally we wanted to own the category.”
While there was some internal conversation about making Summer Shandy a year-round brand, Heneman says the seasonal nature and the desire it created was invaluable. “You can’t put a price tag on scarcity,” he says.
Instead of cashing in on the goodwill Summer Shandy built up, Leinenkugel decided to spin off with other flavors. The unexpected flagship became the anchor for nine other variants that have appeared in recent years, including Lemon Berry Shandy (2012), Orange (2013), Cranberry Ginger (2014) and Cocoa Berry and Watermelon (2015). Grapefruit Shandy, which also debuted in 2015, was that year’s top-selling new brand as determined by IRI’s definition of the “craft” category. An accomplishment made impressive by the fact it was only available for five months in six-pack bottles and variety packs.
But can this kind of success within a singular brand and style be too much of a good thing? Leinenkugel remains pint glass half full in that regard.
“When you go to California and they only know you for Summer Shandy, or can’t pronounce ‘Leinenkugel’ and don’t know the rest of the story of our brewery, that gives us the opportunity to tell the rest of it,” he says. “We have a rich heritage and tradition of creating some fantastic beers. We have a story of six generations of family brewing in Chippewa Falls. It’s a powerful story that can resonate, and with Summer Shandy, we have a way to do that.”
And it's that attitude that fuels his ambition to produce two million BBLs annually by 2020.
“In places like the Midwest, we forget that 85-95% of people aren’t drinking craft beer,” says Jeremy Danner, ambassador brewer for Boulevard Brewing and an “Unofficial Co-Captain of #TeamRadler,” a term lovingly used for fans of the beer style. “Maintaining good quality, approachable beers is important because we don’t want people to be afraid of craft beer, which is what I dig about Shandies and Radlers. They are 100% unintimidating, and they’re great for people who haven’t thought about craft beer before.”
Boulevard, which in recent years has created Ginger Lemon and Cranberry Orange Radlers, is among many breweries now using the style as a summer-only option. Samuel Adams, Great Divide, and others have all made their own variations of Shandy. Traveler Beer Company, a subsidiary of Boston Beer’s Alchemy & Science division, creates their entire portfolio within the style.
It turns out the dirty little secret of Leinenkugel’s Summer Shandy is its ability not to only succeed on its own, but to open doors for everyone else, too.
“Leinenkugel made ‘Shandy’ a word that people know,” Danner says, “which is awesome.”
Sometimes, things just happen. The unexpected can become real, whether you believe in fate, some higher power, or just simple, dumb luck. The truth is much more complicated, finding itself somewhere between hard work and serendipity. But no matter how success is obtained, it can be seen in real, tangible terms.
“I look back at lessons from Classic Amber and Sunset Wheat, and think of those as ‘me too’ products,” Heneman says. “Sunset Wheat was an answer to Blue Moon. Amber was for all the amber styles coming out at the time. There was nothing in particular to differentiate those products. Summer Shandy was totally unique from what the American consumer had been exposed to before.”
American beer enthusiasts may think of the industry in terms of IPA, Imperial Stout, and barrel-aged beer du jour, but the interest and trends driving the industry are far more nuanced than that, in both style and consumer preference. Bud Light remains the best-selling beer in the country. “Craft” is still a small fraction of overall beer sales. Summer Shandy, a beer only available six months of the year, is one of the most popular brands on store shelves.
“During the three months of summer, we sell more beer each week than we do the week of the Super Bowl,” Leinenkugel says. “To have a beer that isn’t only extremely popular, but does really well during the best beer-selling season, is a great thing.”