"I'm 'old man screaming at cloud' when it comes to hard seltzer"
The Fingers interview with Bryan Roth, journalist and news editor of Good Beer Hunting's Sightlines
You know how for the past few months mainstream news outlets have been loudly proclaiming that hard seltzer’s bubble has finally burst, but when you go to the supermarket there seem to be more of them than ever, and it’s not like any of your friends have like, stopped drinking White Claw? Me too. What’s going on there?
So glad you asked. Today on The Fingers Podcast I’ve got an interview with Bryan Roth, a journalist and news editor with Good Beer Hunting. Bryan is a constant, consummately chipper presence in U.S. beer journalism ecosystem, which is growing and professionalizing in no small part thanks to his work as director of the North American Guild of Beer Writers. But beneath his benevolent facade lurks seething, unquenchable contempt for corporate media’s ongoing deception of the American people.
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OK, I might be exaggerating slightly. But Bryan and I do share some mild frustration with the way mainstream media often covers the beer business. Namely: as a hunky-dory novelty rather than the powerful, multi-billion-dollar industry that it is. I often cover that dissonance from social and political perspectives in my reporting, but when it comes to using sales data and healthy skepticism to stress-test popular industry narratives about what sells when, to whom, and why, Bryan is a beer journalist nearly without peer.
In our interview (conducted 11/1/21), we dug into Bryan’s data-driven approach to actionable beverage-alcohol trade journalism, specifically in the context all those “hard seltzer has gone flat” headlines that have started popping up in the back half of 2021. We also talked about the redemption of pumpkin beers, the significance of hard seltzer’s SNL moment, and GBH’s premium Sightlines platform, which he heads up. The episode is a little wonky and a lot of fun.1 Hope you enjoy.
Editor’s note: This transcript has been edited and condensed. The full-length interview is available on The Fingers Podcast for paying subscribers, who can access the episode via private RSS feed using these instructions (it takes a minute, and you only have to do it once.) And if you haven’t yet, consider buying a subscription now!
Disclosure: This interview focuses in part on Truly, Boston Beer Company’s hard seltzer brand. I purchased some stock in BBC in September 2021.
Meet Bryan Roth, journalist and news editor of Good Beer Hunting’s Sightlines
Dave Infante, Fingers: Bryan Roth, Good Beer Hunting, welcome to The Fingers Podcast, buddy.
Bryan Roth, Good Beer Hunting’s Sightlines: Hey, thanks so much for having me. Really glad to be here.
How are you doing? We're recording this the day after Halloween. Did you have any trick-or-treaters?
I ate two bite-size Twix. I had two pumpkin beers. The only children I interacted with were actually two two-year-old twins that I babysat for a friend.
What were the pumpkin beers?
I had Elysian’s pumpkin variety pack, which I'm finishing up now. One was their imperial pumpkin ale, which is probably my least favorite of the bunch, and their regular pumpkin stout, Dark of the Moon, which is my favorite of the bunch. Pumpkin beer has so long been their thing that they've dialed in those recipes. That 12-pack variety pack that they release every year is like a must-grab for me.
Pumpkin beer is probably a good place to to get into our conversation today about how you use sales data to inform your reporting on the beer industry, and how brewers use it to identify market niches that they can own. There’s a narrative in the industry that pumpkin beers aren’t really that popular anymore. What does the data say about pumpkin beers?
A few years ago, when I was acting as the regular daily reporter for Sightlines, I wanted to basically answer the question that you're asking. People kept saying pumpkin beers were irrelevant. But I did not see where that was coming from, aside from just an industry-driven narrative. There was a moment, circa 2015 or 2016, where there was just a flood of beers. And I think the issue there was that it didn't create this kind of swell of sales that maybe was anticipated. But if you look year-to-year at pumpkin brands, sales are actually pretty steady as a collective group, and then you get some that rise to the top that perform really, really well. Elysian’s pumpkin variety pack this year grew by 42% in chain retail sales over last year. We're talking like half a million dollars difference. People would be right to say, Oh, well, they're part of the [Anheuser-Busch InBev] network, they get more placements. But I always counter that with: Yeah, but people are buying it because they like it.