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Wednesday, May 25, 2011

The Fast Rise and Slow Death of Pete's Wicked Ale

Imagine the world of American brewing in 1980 like you would a new continent. The first pioneers had landed, set up a beachhead, and were prepared to fan out and stake their claims. At that moment, none of them knew much about the continent, nor which places would later be considered prime real estate. Like little kings, they began planting flags: Fritz Maytag on the state called "steam beer," Ken Grossman in "Pale Aleland." I remember these early days clearly, as skirmishes broke out in the Northwest. Amber ales (Portland Brewing's MacTarnahan's v. Full Sail Amber) and hefeweizens (Pyramid v. Widmer) were hot properties. In Bend, Gary Fish wondered if he could build an empire on some scraggly brush land no one seemed to highly regard: Porterlandia.

Nationally, one of the most successful companies was Pete's Wicked, which from shortly after its founding until the "great shakeout" of the late 90s was the country's second largest craft brewery. It's sort of wild to imagine, but the flagship brand was Wicked Ale, a brown. I was put in mind of this as I perused this question of "foundational" beers. Back in about 1995, you could have been forgiven for thinking that the future of craft brewing was going to be brown ales and Vienna lagers. Instead, earlier this year, Jay Brooks broke the news that the brand would end production in May. Gambrinus (of the Shiner, BridgePort, Trumer Gambrinuses) bought Pete's out in 1998, just at the moment its star began to dim.

The story of Pete's is an interesting case study in brewing failures of the 90s, but it's too often told as a business story. What fascinates me is the failure of the style to take hold. In that great land grab, founder Pete Slosberg went all-in on browns, and for a decade it looked like Shangri-la. But then something happened; tastes changed, the market evolved, and now you can't give browns away. So what happened?

In my "foundational beer" post, I posited that one beer's success can help define tastes that create a market for beers of that type. Whether that's true or not, it's obvious some styles do gather momentum, while others lose it--sometimes completely. I posit no theories here, but I'd be interested in hearing if you have some. Such as:
  • In the 1990s, lots and lots of people drank and enjoyed brown ales. What happened?
  • What causes styles to wax and wane in popularity?
  • Are there current styles that sell very well that we may regard, from 2025, as bizarre anomalies, like the browns of 1995?
I mean really, brown ales. What the ... ?


DA Beers said...

It was all over the place while growing up on the East coast. Back then with such few choices most people probably got it just to have something different, even if it wasn't their favorite beer. Now that there are more choice they just faded away.

Mr. Murphy said...

I think DA makes the point. What if they weren’t necessarily the shiznit to begin with? They were better than many other choices in the early 90's so they filled in the gap. But they couldn't hold up when other styles emerged and improved.

Brown ales to me were always 'average'. Better than macro but not the best. Is anyone willing to say that Downtown brown and Pete’s wicked are ‘Great’top level beers?

Browns and ambers were 'gateway beers' in the early days of microbrewing. These were the days of "bitter beer face" ads where bittering was not accepted by the general public and IPA's were still a rare style. I'm glad we got over that hump.

Soggy Coaster said...

Interesting questions. I just visited Oregon and went to about 10 breweries (for those interested, my roundup is here: http://t.co/PKdEQU3). It seems clear that brewers are increasingly reaching for ever more-obscure styles: Gruit, Gose, Berliner Weisse.

Ska Brewing in Durango made its name in the mid-90s with a red ale and a blonde ale. I'm not sure that would fly today. Now their best-selling beer is an aggressive American-style IPA.

To go out on a limb, I would say the IPA is the currently popular style that has reached its height. IPA sales may continue to grow overall as more industrial lager drinkers come to craft. But it seems like the IPA market is mature. We've gone from mellower IPAs like BridgePort to huge hop bombs. Now the thing to do is to reach for different hop flavors, like Terminal Gravity, Walking Man and others are doing. I'm not sure what's left for the IPA.

Anonymous said...

What will Oregon brewers brew when the bottom fall out of the IPA and Hoppy Beer market? :-}>

Soggy Coaster said...

@ anon: Good question. To be clear, I don't think the bottom will fall out of the IPA market. I just think the IPA is nearing the plateau of its cachet and popularity as a style.

I bet Belgian styles will continue to grow in popularity vis a vis hoppy ales. Great Divide is now bottling Colette, a saison, in six packs, an indication that they think the style's ready to go mainstream.

You also see more breweries like Upright, The Bruery in California and Funkwerks in Denver basing their business on Belgian-inspired beers.

Still, I don't expect the IPA to go anywhere. I do see it becoming merely another style, as opposed to THE style.

Patrick Emerson said...

I know it is a question about popular styles, but what interests me is that Pete's was a "craft brewery" based entirely on contract brewing and I wonder if this wasn't a more proximate cause of their demise.

During my brief career as a UPS delivery person, I used to deliver to Pete's head office on High Street in Palo Alto and it was just a slick, second story corporate office, totally disconnected from the beer itself.

I was also friends with the founders of Ithaca Beer Co. in NY, which started through contract brewing but quickly leveraged their early sales into a local brewery. Once they did this the quality of the beer improved rapidly as did their ability to identify and cater to local tastes. Most importantly, it gave them a real presence in the community and a way to interact authentically with their customers.

My point is that contract brewing has the potential of taking the focus off the beer itself and on to sales. It also does not give customers something tangible to reference which is, I think, a hallmark of modern craft breweries: a personality so to speak.

Jeff Alworth said...

DA and Mr. Murphy, it's certainly a plausible thesis.

Soggy, first of all, nice write up on the Oregon trip. As to IPA, the brown du decade, I think this is a function of the beer geek fallacy. It's only just becoming a national style, as Ranger and Torpedo take it up the charts. Geeks drink it like crazy, but as a national phenom, it's been trailing the pale-amber axis. I'd say we have a ways to go there, but:

I bet ...

This is a fascinating game and I want to play, too. My prediction is that the US evolve into country that likes hoppy all-grain American ales, akin to their British forefathers, but stronger, less estery, and way, way hoppier. I predict that in a decade or two, something like two-thirds of the craft market will be devoted to hoppy American ales, in a variety of configurations (pales, ambers, reds, IPAs, double IPAs, black IPAs, etc.). All other styles will round out the balance.

HOWEVER, I also predict that the market will be about three times its size (say 30 million of the 210 million sold), which leaves lots of room for major brand successes in other styles. Among these, I think Belgian-derived styles have a good shot at emerging. Which? Wits are already there, and I think hybrid, mid-alcohol beers, maybe spiced, may come into play. I fear saisons will never be a major player.

Patrick, I agree. It's interesting that the two most successful breweries in the 90s were both contract brewed (Pete's and Boston Brewing). Perhaps wisely, perhaps accidentally, Boston Beer chose a place name, concealing the fact that it wasn't brewed in Boston. My Boston in-laws seem typical of locals who were aware it wasn't brewed in Beantown: they hate Boston Brewing (they consider Harpoon the hometown brand). The rest of the country blindly sucked down Boston Lager, all the while thinking it was brewed next to the harbor.

Anonymous said...

Petes had a few problems, which all stem from the fact that it was a business, not a brewery. Pete just picked a product that happened to be beer, and went haywire on the marketing. The beer actually started out great -- it was a hell of a brown ale. I loved it back in the day. However, it somehow morphed into an insipid almost red ale. By the end, it wasn't even brown anymore. It became a terrible beer as it changed over time. Petes also suffered from the fact that all of their other beers were terrible. Again, that all goes back to the fact that these folks weren't brewers -- they were product marketers.

Soggy Coaster said...

Beer geek fallacy? Ouch. I'll go hang my head in shame now.

Jeff Alworth said...

Soggy, it's a fallacy we all subscribe to. It's the curse of sample bias. I am a serial offender.

Brady Walen said...

I suppose Wicked could only be considered wicked for so long. From a marketing standpoint, Pete's put its stake in the ground early on. It set this beer apart from the rest by way of its name; I'd bet that style didn't matter as much as the name itself -- perhaps the same level of success could have been realized with a different style under the same name. The name Wicked was different. So was the brown ale behind the label. These two unique aspects worked together. But I'd also bet that more people either identified with, liked, or appreciated the term "wicked" more than they preferred the brown beer itself. Our beer choices can often be a reflection of our own personalities. Over time, Wicked was eclipsed by new craft beer that was considered "more wicked" from a consumer standpoint--presumably in a more authentic way; these new beers carried the "cool" without having to say it on their labels. As with most anything, the coolest is only the coolest until something new comes along. Wicked is no different.

Anonymous said...

Alright, I'll admit it. I like brown ales just fine, especially during colder months. Not my favorite style, but not sure why they are totally dismissed now a days.

Jack R. said...

Digressing from the thread - Boston Beer Co. have a portfolio of 21 ales and 11 lagers; nationally available. Despite utilizing contract brewer, I opine, SAM have significant contributed to the American craft beer revolution.

Eric said...

As someone who grew up thinking I would never be a beer drinker, my discovery of Pete's back in the early 90's was a banner moment. Of course, this led to discovering many other fine micro-brewed ales, but Pete's still held the top spot for me. As far as why Pete's failed, I think that perhaps it was the acquisition of the brand by the Gambrinus Company, and their subsequent changing of the original formula that caused the demise, since the flavor changed dramatically after the take-over, and not for the better. But the original formula could easily still hold its own today, even if it is considered simply a brown ale. I miss Pete's Wicked Ale terribly, and I wish that someone (perhaps Mr. Slosberg again?) would bring back the classic formula.

Anonymous said...

I remember dropping many a shot glass of Black Death vodka into glasses of Pete's Wicked whilst listening to Alice in Chains.

Whatever happened to Black Death vodka?

DED said...

Once I had my first Pete's Wicked Ale in 1993 I was hooked. It was an instant revelation. I told everyone I knew. It was awesomeness bottled. But after Pete sold the brewery, the awesomeness was gone. The formulas changed, and not for the better. The flavor faded. I loved the Winter Brew too and noticed the following December that it had lost that special something. If beer had a soul, I'd say that's what it lost.

William Kelly said...

All interesting comments! I've been quietly looking for Pete's for some time only to discover today the reason I can't find it! It was once my favorite beer. Actually the summer ale was! And yes now I'm a IPA guy.

Chad Winship said...

I loved Pete's and the Winter and Summer too. And it may be trendy and hip to say now "Well it wasn't this or that" but I never handed a bottle to anyone who didn't say "Hey , that's really good!"

Well, except Bud drinkers.

Anonymous said...

I had actually forgotten about this beer and was watching some movie from the late 90s with Sam Shepard and Diane Keaton and noticed someone drinking a Pete's Wicked Ale. I used to love their beers back in the late 1990s, especially the wicked winter brew. I guess for me it was sort of a transition into the craft beer movement from the early college days of drinking natty light and budweiser (ah the poor taste of youth....). At the time it was one of the few alternatives to those beers, but as other choices became available it just didn't stand out.

Donovan said...

I remember Pete's Wicked Ale, it was pretty good. Brown ales are my favorite type of beer and IPA's are my least favorite, even though it is what is en vogue now. It does appear to be on the wane, though. St. Arnold Brown Ale changed my beer-drinking life and is still one of the best. Santa Fe Brewing makes a great brown ale. Now I am seeing more Saison-style ales, (not bad but not great in my opinion), and the Belgian styles using fruits, coriander, orange peel, etc., which I like. Several styles have "blown up" and then completely died, like the "clear beer" styles of the late 80's and the "ice" beers of the 90's. Brown ales rock, they have depth, flavor, and you can drink them in cold or hot weather.

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