In the Belly of the Beast: Tenth at Year One

August 19, 2011

In the Belly of the Beast: Tenth at Year One

Dear Client:

Let’s talk about culture. Most consumers don’t, but the industry knows Tenth and Blake’s Blue Moon as MillerCoors. But to understand the way this segment of the global brewer will evolve, one must realize that this division is in fact different, and on its one-year birthday, it’s evolving. Big time.

Your editor has always marveled how small brewers who disparage MillerCoors hold Coors Field’s Sandlot Brewery in reverence for the solid one-offs in every style it runs. The Sandlot is in fact Blue Moon brewery, and its brewmaster has been around since the advent of the Belgian White that does 1.5 million barrels and half a billion dollars a year, which chief Tom Cardella is quick to point out about equals Boston Beer.

EVOLUTION OF BM. Blue Moon Brewing Co. (Sandlot) master brewer John Legnard recounts Blue Moon’s spontaneous beginnings. The brainchild of Belgian-trained Keith Villa, it entered Coors’ little stadium-side brewery as Rightfield Red, Squeezeplay Wheat and Powerale ESB did: inconspicuously. The topically named Belly Slide Belgian White debuted at the stadium in July ’95, and within two weeks went from an unknown to their biggest seller. Coors decided to roll it out on a wider scale, but it needed a nominal makeover. Legend has it a secretary remarked that “Beer this good only comes along once in a Blue Moon.” The recipe is unchanged from the first day, says John.

And the rest is history. Well, not really. It’s a 17-year-old brand that’s only enjoyed double-digit growth in the last few years (Latest SIG number have it up 22% on a base of 2.8 million cases YTD). Roundtable chatter revealed that Pete Coors tried to kill the brand a couple of times, but has since very much come around to the beer: “everything at a million and a half barrels might not be around right now” if they operated that hastily, remarked one.

John’s point in recounting this history is that Blue Moon has a story and a place, even when you peel back its MC affiliation. “It’s the same people making the same recipe in the exact same place in the exact same way. … We make every seasonal; every beer you taste from the Blue Moon Company is also made at the home, and that keeps it real. We hope we get bigger and hope we outgrow Sandlot, but Sandlot is the standard we have to stick to.”

BREWERS UNLEASHED. Indeed, The Sandlot, Colorado Native-producing AC Golden Brewing and Leiny-heavy Tenth Street Brewery are all part of Tenth, but they represent something larger, even for their global-based parent. This is a more organic method of R&D for the company, one that relies on trial and brewer experimentation as much as market insights to come upon, well, the next Blue Moon. We’ve written before on Tenth’s “casual” Brewers Unleashed program that brings company employees together to enjoy those breweries’ brewmasters’ musings. Yesterday your editor was privy to the first such session held in Milwaukee at Fred’s pub. We sampled a robust Baltic porter; a many-malted, three-yeast-strained strong ale; even a “space-aged” hoppy sour, so named for the “space” the brewer aged it in. They were all imaginative, many solid. And yes, the rhetoric is that some of these brews are destined for bottles one day. Tenth is also looking for a new brewery to produce such diversified products, or possibly maximizing Tenth Street Brewery to that end. Something worth watching.

NEW OFFICES AND THE FUTURE. Within the next couple of weeks, Tenth and Blake will move into new global world headquarters, a new floor in the MillerCoors building in Chicago. It’s as much a one-year birthday present as it is a manifestation of brewer-centricity and a new focus on intrinsics: Tom Cardella insisted his only request was that there be a brewery on the Tenth and Blake level. There will. Electric, of course.

Some will inevitably balk at the suggestion that the very sales and marketing forces at the “craft” division of MillerCoors are actually getting craftier, as if there were some sort of intangible but objective method of benchmarking that trait. The point is, this considerably resourced animal is evolving. Case in point: Everyone at Tenth is required to be Cicerone server-level certified within their first three months. They go through an intensive four-day Beer 101 program that focuses on ingredients, pairings, and brewing.

Yes, even the marketing guys at Tenth and Blake brew. It’s made for a slow but apparent evolution in the segment, away from the commodification that may occur at the larger company. Director of strategy and operations Jeff White described Killians brand manager Brad Johnson’s description of a beer merchant. “I thought he was going to start to cry when he talked about what it meant: ‘It’s about loving beer, it’s about learning, it’s about sharing this learning with other people because you love it so much.’ When he showed up, he could do pie charts. Now he’s brewing beer.”

What’s a beer merchant, you ask? That’s for the next issue. At its core, it involves Tenth-trained consultants interfacing with the company’s top distributors. Using market-specific insights and quantifiable goals, sales and marketing leadership say they think they’ve found the key to becoming more effective at helping their distributor partners excel in the segment.

More on Monday.

BEER BRIEFS:

TODAY IS THE START OF THE BEER BLOGGERS CONFERENCE IN PORTLAND, OREGON. Not there? You can still see much of the action on Twitter by searching the hashtag #BBC11. The Brewers Association’s Julia Herz is slated to deliver some remarks today.

Until tomorrow, Jenn

“Suns out guns out.” – relatively anonymous

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