In case you weren’t aware, we are currently in the final throes of “Flagship February.”
Flagship February is an idea that sprang forth last year from the mind of professional drinks writer Stephen Beaumont to give some love to the flagship beers that we often overlook. Beaumont has written a baker’s dozen worth of books on beer and understands the beverage’s history and tradition.
I’ve seen him backhand a bartender for serving him a Kolsch that wasn’t in a stange. He once called in a bomb threat to a bar on St Patrick’s day because he knew they consistently poured pints with the tap nozzle touching the beer. It’s rumoured he once hobbled a server who had never heard of ESB. “You cut the achilles,” he told me once with fire in his eyes. “The limp will ensure he never forgets again.” He’s a man who takes beer seriously.
This February, as with last, Beaumont and a team are preaching the merits of mainstay beers with a series of essays. As Beaumont’s site explains,
a Flagship is the beer that defines a brewery. It’s the one that you immediately think of when you hear the brewery’s name, the one that most people associate with the business. In most cases, it is their best-selling beer and often the one that outsells all their other offerings by a wide margin. A good flagship also allows a brewery to be able to afford the seasonals, specialty beers and the other one-off beers in their lineup.
And while initially I liked the idea of celebrating flagships beers, the more I think about it, the less enthusiasm I have for the idea. Let’s forget, for a second, that the actual flagship beers for many brewers aren’t beers that any self respecting beer snob would celebrate. The beers that built most of our medium to large breweries and which keep the lights on and allow them to attempt more experimental offerings typically aren’t anything you’d want to dedicate a month of essays to. Flagship beers, to me, are designed to push volume sales. They’re the beers made for the chicken-wing-chewing-plebe who asks his bartender for the closest thing they’ve got to Bud Light. They’re the beers made to be sold to shitty college bars who will swap out the real name of the beer in order to call it the “house beer.” Betty’s Blonde, Stinky Pete’s Lager, Jock Strap Light. These don’t appear to be the flagship beers being celebrated with the movement this month. I still haven’t found the essays for Amsterdam Blonde, Mill Street Organic, or Great Lakes Horseshoe Lager, for example, but you better believe those are the Ontario beers that kept their respective breweries in business early on and which made them financially sustainable enough to brew the beers they make now that we’re actually interested in.
But I digress. Let’s instead think more abstractly about flagship beers the way Beaumont’s website suggests we do as simply “the beers that got us here.” A noble concept, but here, too, I take some issue, and here’s why: We are being asked to celebrate boundary-breaking beers by taking a navel-gazing month to look at beers that no longer break any boundaries at all.
Look, I get it. Samuel Adams Boston Lager broke down barriers in its day. In 1984, when there were basically three beer companies making the same lager, another company making a slightly maltier lager probably seemed like it was interesting. But do we still need to shit our pants for a 35 year old amber lager recipe? I don’t mean to get all “OK, boomer” here, but some of these beers have had their day, and it’s time to move on. If we’re being asked to celebrate beers for their ability to bring something new, interesting, progressive, and different to the beer world, wouldn’t we all be a little better off to use the same energy to highlight some…new interesting, progressive, and different beers?
Here in Ontario, for example, why not look at the ridiculously good beer being made by a team of just two people at Half Hours on Earth in sleepy Seaforth? Why not look at the boundary-pushing brewers like Matron who are building Prince Edward County up as a new beer destination? The barrel program at Bellwoods Brewery? The fact that Sawdust City made 52 different beers last year? That’s innovation that’s driving the industry forward.
At the risk of opening my door tomorrow morning to find a frothy-mouthed Beaumont on my porch with a straight razor in his hand, I’d suggest the way to move the needle forward in craft beer isn’t to have a handful of established beer writers talk about a handful of beers that were once relevant. They (the beers that is) are essentially relics of a bygone era and while they broke down doors for today’s craft beers, our interest in them now is and should be a sort of reverential nostalgia and tolerance. Instead of endearing icons, I’d suggest they’re now a bit more like once-great athletes, hanging around their respective sports just a little too long.
These flagship beers are less the towering giants of their respective arenas today so much as they are punch-drunk former champs, still vying for relevance in a field of peers we can all see has outgrown them. These beers may remind us of something new and fun and exiting from when we were first discovering craft beer, but ultimately, they are no longer show stoppers. Anchor Steam Beer is less a champ today and more like a late-career Muhammed Ali, being pummeled by his sparing partner, Larry Holmes in 1980. Sierra Nevada Pale Ale today is more like Chuck Liddell losing four of his final six fights by knock out. Lagunitas IPA is more like a creaky WCW Hulk Hogan, barely able to complete his signature leg drop while hiding his bald head with a bandanna. And Fat Tire is less an all-star quarterback and more a drunk Joe Nemeth, leaning in on the sidelines of a 2003 Jets / Patriots game to tell an interviewer on live TV that he wants to kiss her.
Sure these were all our heroes once and they set new standards, but the standards have long since been reset. We’ve all grown up and seen the next generation of beers rightfully take the respective places of these “classics.” And so rather than honour the enduring charm of flagships, I’d be more inclined to man the torpedoes to make way for the new champs.