In 1978, Blitz-Weinhard Brewing produced 960,000 barrels of beer and earned $45 million in revenue., earning $45 million. The company was sold to Pabst Brewing the next year. Nearly 25 years later, MillerCoors’ Tenth and Blake Beer division is re-launching the Henry Weinhard’s brand and, in doing so, hoping to reverse multiple decades of declining sales.
During that span, Henry Weinhard’s changed owners a number of times eventually falling into the hands of Miller Brewing in 1999. Miller would hire Full Sail as a contract partner in 2003. At the time, Full Sail’s contract accounted for 12-14% of Henry Weinhard’s approximately 230,000 barrels of annual production.
Since then, the production picture has been a bit hazy and figures from SIG-tracked channels (sales figures in the off-premise retail sector) indicate varying levels of success for the Henry Weinhard’s brand family.
SIG numbers show flat sales movement from 2009 to 2010 for the two brand family leaders, Private Reserve Lager and Blue Boar Pale Ale, and a 20% decline in case sales for Honey Hefeweizen and Blonde Premium Lager. Private Reserve and Blue Board did not fare well in 2011, with case sells declining 16% and 25% respectively. The latest figures in 2012 show case sales of all four brands down double-digits for the 13 weeks ending August 5th.
According to Oregon Liquor Control Commission data, things haven’t been much better in Oregon where the Henry Weinhard’s story is grounded in decades of brewing history. Year-to-date through July, in-state production and sales are down 12%. Portland may be the most craft-savvy market and drinkers are increasingly adopting relatively young homegrown brands like Ninkasi, Hopworks and Boneyard Beer. To illustrate Weinhard’s complex relationship with Oregon, just Monday afternoon, a column appeared in The Portland Business Journal saying goodbye to the brand.
Time to pivot.
Just last month, MillerCoors and Tenth & Blake launched a national rollout for three Henry Weinhard’s beers.
Though the Henry Weinhard’s heritage is still present in marketing, the new focus message revolves around simplicity. In a sea of increasing complexity in the craft beer segment with respect to both number of producers and number of beer styles, Henry Weinhard’s is positioning itself as a go-to option for gateway craft beer drinkers. The banner atop the brand’s Facebook page drives the overall message home with statements that read, “Good beer made easy,” and “This isn’t rocket science.”
Brand Manager, Katie Cowan, refers to the target demo as the “trade-in craft segment.” With that demo containing younger drinkers, Henry Weinhard’s has also been re-branded with a more hip, modern look. Check out the brand’s playfulness on display in the new video retelling the story of Henry Weinhard’s proposal for a fountain of beer. The animation style is reminiscent of those that feature two-dimensional characters like the popular television show, South Park. Perhaps intentionally so?
Hoping to resurrect the sagging Private Reserve, it is among the three chosen for national distribution. The beer, which has earned seven medals in the past dozen GABF competitions, is flanked by the new Redwood Flats Amber Ale and Woodlands Pass IPA. Amber ales aren’t as popular as they used to be though New Belgium has proven that a brand can be grown around one with Fat Tire. The IPA style, on the other hand, is the fastest-growing in craft and other Tenth and Blake entities, Blue Moon and Leinenkugel’s, don’t have regular IPAs in their rotation; Woodlands Pass will be a key beer for Tenth and Blake going forward.
Cowan says that the national rollout is off to a good start though it is still early. The team chose to go with a synchronized re-launch across the country as opposed to a region-by-region rollout; MillerCoors has the distribution network and partners on board to make it happen. The brand has received positive feedback so far, especially in chains where the intersection of new craft beer drinkers and a trio of approachable beer styles at a very attractive price point (suggested retail is $6.49 / 6-pack) could turn into a winning formula.
Cowan acknowledges the challenges that Weinhard’s has faced though her team is excited about its national potential, setting a goal to double production from 2012 to 2013. She is also optimistic about growth potential in Oregon and Washington where the meat of Weinhard’s business happens. With production leaving the Pacific Northwest after March 2013 when the contract with Full Sail ends, growing the brand in a region that fervently embraces ‘local’ could pose an even greater challenge for Miller than it has before.
As Smith points out in the aforemention Biz Journals piece, an old company advertisement features an Oregon highway patrol officer turning away a beer truck from California because the beer isn’t brewed there. The message at the end of the clip says, “There’s no better beer than the beer from here.”
The video serves as a symbol of how far the brand has come since it aired…and how much it has changed.
Not long from now, it will be Henry Weinhard’s beer on that truck.