Friday, March 20, 2009

Why we’ve retired Portsmouth Lager


Yesterday, Tyler Jones, assistant brewer at the Portsmouth Brewery, made entry in the Portsmouth Brewery Brewers Blog announcing that the very last keg of Smuttynose Portsmouth Lager had been tapped. Several readers asked what will replace that beer when that final keg runs dry, and they surmised, correctly, that it would be the newest Smuttynose offering, Star Island Single. I’m writing today to briefly introduce this new beer, but first I’d like to say a few words about Portsmouth Lager, the circumstances in which we introduced it back in 1998, and why we made the decision to retire it eleven years later.

1998 was a watershed year at Smuttynose. The craft/micro segment of the beer industry was entering the third year of a brutal shakeout phase, and we were taking a beating along with everyone else, having seen close to a third of our sales volume dry up during the previous two years. Small breweries left and right were falling by the wayside, and at the rate we were going, I feared our turn would come soon. Consumers, retailers and wholesalers had lost confidence in the craft segment, which in the early nineties had become flooded with shitty beer and phony knock-off products. Some of the wholesalers in our network had already dropped our brand from their portfolios; others were threatening to do so any day; and most of the rest wouldn’t answer our phone calls. It was a very bad time to be a small brewer.

In retrospect, it was also a time of great opportunity. 1998 was the year we introduced our Big Beer Series, a move that was universally hailed by our wholesalers (the ones that would still talk to us, at least) as one of the stupidest ideas they’d heard in a long, long time. Why were we proposing to make a series of big, exotic-sounding beers, they asked, when the market was moving towards light beers? Any why, they further asked, would we put those beers in a package - 22-ounce bottles - that no one - no one - wanted to buy? I like to tell people that, in the position we were in, we were a little like the mountain climber in the excellent book and film Touching the Void who had fallen down a crevasse and was clinging, broken and bloody, to a narrow ledge. Climbing up out of the crevasse was not an option; the only choices were to die on the ledge or go down, deeper into the darkness. (You really need to read this book or see the movie, at the very least, to see how that decision worked out for the stranded climber.) So, like the climber, down deeper we went, and the Big Beer Series was born. Ten years later, with the extreme beer movement in full bloom, it looks like a prescient decision. At the time, it was folly, an act of desperation.

At the same time, we also hedged our bets and introduced Portsmouth Lager. One of the strategic decisions we made at the time was to pull out of several outlying markets and refocus on our home turf. Portsmouth was due to celebrate its 375th anniversary that year, and I thought honoring our home city with an eponymous beer would be a smart move, in a pandering sort of way. Looking at our portfolio of brands, we believed that it would be a good idea to offer an accessible, user-friendly product that would be a nice counterpoint to our hoppier, heavier and darker ales. We further reasoned that a continental style lager would fit that bill nicely, since it was a style that was under-represented in the world of craft beers (with the notable exception of Samuel Adams Boston Lager).

I believed, naively as it turns out, that the name Portsmouth Lager would enjoy some of the same romance that Sam Adams benefitted from, and that it would be embraced by visitors and locals to our Seacoast region as the definitive “local” beer. This was not to be the case. New Hampshire, despite its puny size (ranked 46th out of 50 in land mass), is one of the most Balkanized states in the country. For reasons that have always eluded me, one of the dinkiest states in the Union defiantly parses itself into “seven distinct cultural and geographical regions.” The result? Well, to quote Gertrude Stein, “there is no there there.” The Granite State is sandwiched between two neighbors - Maine and Vermont - that have done a fantastic job of cultivating their brand identity, yet in between, our own New Hampshire “brand” remains a mystery. Try a word association test: I’ll bet you can rattle off a list of features and products that you associate with the states to our east and west - blueberries, lobsters, rocky coastline, maple syrup, dairy farms, covered bridges, fall foliage and so on. Here in New Hampshire? Velcro, Pitco fryolators, the Old Man in the Mountain (whoops), Segways & tax free shopping (and don’t get me started about that First in the Nation bit). We’ve got our own blueberries and lobsters and dairy farms - tons of ’em - but no one seems to know it. I have come to believe that there is a good reason that New Hampshire, despite all its incredible natural advantages (and there are many), has launched very few successful comsumer products. It’s not an accident that a company that got its start at the Portsmouth farmers’ market - Stonewall Kitchen - moved its operations across the river to York, Maine, so it could benefit from the “made in Maine” cachet. And one of the most widely known consumer products manufacturers in the Granite State, Stonyfield Farms, doesn't mention New Hampshire on its website’s homepage or “about us” page. Back to 1998, when we proudly presented our new Portsmouth Lager to the sales staff at one of our local wholesalers, one of the salesmen said derisively “nobody in Manchester is ever going to buy a beer named after Portsmouth.” Mind you, Manchester is located exactly 46 miles from Portsmouth, but as it turns out, he knew what he was talking about. We had to learn it the hard way, though.

After a slow launch in a down market, and encountering indifference from our local wholesalers and retailers, Portsmouth Lager never gained traction in the market. Cut out of the sets in the supermarket chains, where 80% of the beer is sold in New Hampshire, it became nearly impossible to find in our home state, except on draught at the Portsmouth Brewery, where it has been consistently one of our most popular offerings. People would discover it in a Variety Pack and write to us asking where they could buy it, and we’d shrug helplessly. So while all of our other brands were growing, Portsmouth Lager numbers remained static, buoyed up artificially by the significant volumes that were served at the Portsmouth Brewery and placed in Variety Packs. And the warm embrace we anticipated from Portsmouth's bars and restaurants never happened; most of them remained perfectly content to offer up Boston Lager as their local beer.

Truth be told, we started to discuss phasing Portsmouth Lager out of the lineup several years ago. Our brewers felt that, given our limited capacity, we could not afford to tie up valuable tank space with an underperforming brand that took twice as long to brew. They were correct, of course. So what held up that decision? Me. I was having a very hard time letting go of an old friend. Of the beers we’ve made at Smuttynose, Portsmouth Lager has always been one of my favorites. It’s unpretentious, easy to drink and flavorful - stuff I like in a beer. When David Yarrington took over as Executive Brewer in 2001, one of the first things he did was tweak the recipe, making it more authentically European in its hopping and malt, which, in my opinion, made a good beer better. Finally, though, arithmetic and common sense prevailed over sentimentality.

Joanne and I have speculated that perhaps a different package design or name might have yielded different results. I tend to think that’s true, up to a point, but I also believe that our timing was poor for this particular product. With a few notable exceptions (Victory’s Prima Pils comes to mind), the number craft breweries producing successful lager beers, especially light continental lagers, is relatively small. It’s been a tough nut to crack for all of us, though I believe that this is changing.

At the end of the day, our decision to retire our Portsmouth Lager was based on our belief that we could replace it in our lineup with a beer that will serve a similar role, namely an accessible, user-friendly beer that will complement to the rest of our lineup. For over a year, we’ve been playing around with draft versions of what has finally evolved into our Star Island Single. Some of you may have tried an early iteration, the lamely named TBD Blonde, at festivals and bars that like to play with us. We're very happy with the final product, which we’ll be bottling for the first time on Monday. Let us know what you think.

By the way, since I know people will ask, the spice referred to in the Statement of Composition (“Session ale brewed with spice”) at the bottom of the label is coriander, which we add in a tiny amount, just above the detection threshold, to give the beer a little je ne sais quoi.

Some time when I've got a few minutes, I’ll write about creating our Star Island Single label. In the meantime, you can check out our lovely model, Dixie von Trixie, on her Myspace page.

Cheers,

Peter

13 comments:

Sean said...

I know I've said it over on the Portsmouth site, in connection to Kate the Great, but I would think that bringing back something like the Puddledock Festival would in some way help inform the greater public about the "New Hampshire brand," perhaps even fashioning it into a beer and crafts festival of some kind, with Star Island Single as its centerpiece (assuming Kate the Great is unable to wear that mantle).

Anonymous said...

I agree with your comments about NH not having the same brand identity as VT or ME. When I travel, I tell people I live in NH and follow it up with "yep..NH...still part of the Union!" But, with regard to Portsmouth Lager, my honest opinion was that it was a good beer with too much competition -- competition from you because there is much better beer in your lineup(Smutty IPA is heaven on Earth, for example); and competition from other breweries that make that same "accessible" beer either more widely accessible or cheaper. As for marketing, Portsmouth Lager had a great label -- even better than Dixie von Trixie (sorry). That's not the problem. Please stay true to your brand....you are "Smutty" and you make great beer.

Tim said...

Peter - I just wanted to add a few thoughts for feedback. I can speak for myself and a few friends here (all from the area), we just didn't make the connection from Portsmouth Lager to it being the "Town Beer". Usually you see that in vacation places like Kona Beer in Hawaii or Red Stripe in Jamaica, but I don't think Portsmouth needs a town beer. It's not Portsmouth's style. But like a previous post mentioned...I have been too busy buying IPA, Maibock, Saison, etc to buy the lager. The lager is great, as always, but I prefer other styles. And most of my lager drinking friends prefer lighter examples of american lager. I will say that I am glad to see you replaced the lager with a session ale, and look forward to trying it. One suggestion though -for the Portsmouth Lager fans who came to the table too late - maybe you could offer it in bombers once in a while. It doesn't have to die, merely fade away.

Anonymous said...

I am really sorry this had to be retired. Especially this time of year when this beer was absolutely great! I'm sorry I was a minority and more people didn't feel like I do. I am not a lager fan but Smuttynose just rocks and I thought the lager was exceptional. I tried the Star Island single and while I think it is good (if you like belgian style beer), I preferred the Portsmouth Lager. I love the IPA, brown dog, robust porter and anything else I can get from Smutty. I just want to ask?? does the lager have to go away forever, can't it just be a seasonal offering?? I don't want to say good-bye to it forever...

NFLBrew said...

I love lagers; i know i am in a minority but i like lagers and pilsners (german-style); i prefer these to the current Belgian-rage that i wish would simmer down to give way to other great tastes and maybe even some new inventions. i like the kolsch you guys make and also the cream ale; i know belgian beers are popular and i do like the star island single (just bought a 6)(not too crazy about the label but the idea is good) but a lager is a good base/maybe the beer could be renamed/relabeled/reintroduced) (Lagerhead Light? or Laighton Lager) curious as to how the sales of SIS are fairing?

NFLBrew said...

i must retract part of my previous post, i took a good look at the packaging for the Star and i really do like it afterall. i think the red hair was a turn off but then i looked at Dixie and she is very beautiful. i think it was my own stereotypes and preconceptions. i also think the verbage that was used on the packaging is awesome. i don't know how many people actually read this stuff but it would help if they read it. i still think you should re-introduce the portsmouth lager under a new name/label to see how it does, laighton lager; lagerhead light. What does "Op uw gezondheid!" (something about good health?)

NFLBrew said...

i must retract part of my previous post, i took a good look at the packaging for the Star and i really do like it afterall. i think the red hair was a turn off but then i looked at Dixie and she is very beautiful. i think it was my own stereotypes and preconceptions. i also think the verbage that was used on the packaging is awesome. i don't know how many people actually read this stuff but it would help if they read it. i still think you should re-introduce the portsmouth lager under a new name/label to see how it does, laighton lager; lagerhead light. What does "Op uw gezondheid!" (something about good health?)

Anonymous said...

NH doesn't have an identity? Wha?

What about "Live Free or Die"? What about being the flintiest sumbitches in New England [yeah-worse than Maine.]

There might not be market cache in an individual spot, but you could OWN the Libertarian / Republican beer market by playing up the "Live Free or Die" vein.

What's that? Like 5% of New England?

Any idea, in any case.
Peace.

Anonymous said...

Op uw geznondheid - To your health.

While I was never a big fan of Portsmouth Lager, I do like lagers quite a bit and am sorry to the beer disappear from the line up. My taste runs toward a hoppy, northern German pilsner, like Jever. Great thirst quenchers. So, I am not a big fan of the current Belgian,Berliner craze. I do like flavors in my beer, but not when they are prominent, easily detectable ones. Your Japanese cherry beer being a great exception to the rule. Wonderful beer.

Please keep it up, Smuttynose is my brewery.

PS: Couldn't agree more on the branding issue. It's a reflection of a different understanding of community that is prevalent in the state. unlikely to change, so stick with the regions I say. Drop the "New" and promote the Hampshire Seacoast. Being a coastal beer is good, lots of great associations, maybe orient a bit less on actual geography and a bit more on (more universally recognizable) seaside attributes.

Anonymous said...

Op uw geznondheid - To your health.

While I was never a big fan of Portsmouth Lager, I do like lagers quite a bit and am sorry to the beer disappear from the line up. My taste runs toward a hoppy, northern German pilsner, like Jever. Great thirst quenchers. So, I am not a big fan of the current Belgian,Berliner craze. I do like flavors in my beer, but not when they are prominent, easily detectable ones. Your Japanese cherry beer being a great exception to the rule. Wonderful beer.

Please keep it up, Smuttynose is my brewery.

PS: Couldn't agree more on the branding issue. It's a reflection of a different understanding of community that is prevalent in the state. unlikely to change, so stick with the regions I say. Drop the "New" and promote the Hampshire Seacoast. Being a coastal beer is good, lots of great associations, maybe orient a bit less on actual geography and a bit more on (more universally recognizable) seaside attributes.

Dougie Fresh said...

I will definitely miss Portsmouth Lager. It's been a staple at every cookout: one 1/6 barrel of the lager and one 1/6 barrel of the pale ale.

It's definitely a very catchy label on the Star Island Single. My 3yo and 5yo old thing it's great there's a beer with Ariel on it. I've yet to try it but I doubt I will pick it up in lieu of the pale ale or IPA. I know I won't serve it in place of the lager at cookouts because I know the lager audience won't go for a belgian beer with coriander in it. But, hey, if they don't like the pale ale they can BYOB!

Thanks for all the good beers! I also think it's great you guys are sponsoring some local road races. I need to get myself a Smuttynose bike jersey.

Anonymous said...

Today is 11 Oct 09 and I just learned that a significant part of my past has left me. My brother is losing his battle with cancer and can no longer drink anything with alcohol in it. One of our greatest memories comes from the day we discovered Smuttynose Portsmith Lager. We had picked up a few lobsters, put my infant son to bed and sat on his patio drinking this new find while butter dripped from our elbows and chins. Now I know that both elements of this fantastic memory have left me, never to return.

7ceaca74-4adf-11e2-8880-000bcdcb8a73 said...

NJ misses Portsmouth Lager! And my father-in-law in North Carolina does too! (I used to bring him cases.) Anywho...We miss it..we hope it comes home...too many IPA's in the world...Yeah...We miss you Lager! Where are you?!?