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What is a Legacy Brewery? And what unique challenges are they facing today?

Legacy Brewery. 

(Sounds cool, doesn’t it?)

We’ve used this term for years in our branding work (and have heard it bandied about the industry for just as long).

I wanted to take today to define this more clearly as well as make a case for broadening the requirements to be included in this group as well as examine some of the unique challenges facing these breweries. 

What is a Legacy Brewery? (And how many are there?)

We’ve always considered a Legacy Brewery to be any outfit that was founded about 20+ years ago. That number seems kind of arbitrary—why not 25 or 30 years?—but it's always felt like a good benchmark. 

When we invoke this term, I imagine most folks immediately think of Sierra Nevada, New Belgium, Boston Beer, DogFish Head, Oskar Blues, Firestone Walker, Schlafly, Victory, Karl Strauss, Russian River, Deschutes, etc. as leading examples from this cohort. And indeed, these companies are all fantastic examples of Legacy Breweries (and businesses and brands) that are only getting better with age. 

But we shouldn't just look towards these mega successful outliers for what determines success for today's Legacy Brewery. 

And looking at the numbers alone, these outfits are certainly outliers. 

If you discount the 25 or so "big" breweries that are in the Legacy tier, you're still left with a lot of older, smaller breweries. 

Remember, there were ~1,500 breweries in 2000 and ~1,800 in 2010 when the Craft Beer Boom began in earnest. So by this definition, there are approximately 1,500 Legacy Breweries in the United States today—that's ~16% of the entire U.S. craft beer industry.

But most of these Legacy Breweries aren’t producing 100’s of thousands of barrels per year. Most aren't distributed nationally. Most of them aren't grabbing industry headlines each time they release a new product or make an exciting new hire. And most of them have had a hard time rising above the frenetic noise of today's mature beer industry. 

All of this has lead to a subtle shift in how we define a Legacy Brewery.

KettleHouse is a great example of a Legacy outfit that leaned into its brand equity and rebranded to better position itself for the future.

Expanded criteria for Legacy Breweries 

We've rebranded several Legacy Breweries (those that are at the 20+ year mark). And we've rebranded several others breweries that are younger than this (somewhat arbitrary) age cutoff.

What we've seen in our field work is that both of these groups are often dealing with a similar set of problems and pain points. And on the other side of this equation, they're often eying similar opportunities. 

We've found that age isn't the most important metric here. Instead, we should focus on how many breweries opened in your market after you. 

To that end, we now consider any brewery that was founded before the Craft Beer Boom (starting in 2010) to be a Legacy Brewery.

So an outfit as old (as young?) as 13 years can be considered a Legacy Brewery. 

Yes, we still have an age cutoff, but this term is more inclusive of any brewery that founded in a much more open market and has since become surrounded (and sometimes overrun) with competition. 

So location, population density and the competitive set all factor into this expanded definition. 

If we dig deeper into this rationale (and make our way further into the weeds), you could even make the argument that a Legacy Brewery could have been founded in the early 2010's. 

To wit, if you opened sometime from 2011–2015 as one of the earliest breweries in a city that now boasts 50+ other breweries, you're likely in the same boat as a lot of these other Legacy Breweries. 

Example: When we first started working with Prost Brewing in 2018, they felt that they were already considered the Old Guard at just 6 years old in Denver's stacked market (currently sitting at around 150 breweries).

But alas, we need to draw a line somewhere or otherwise, this term won't mean anything. So again, this new definition does factor in age to a degree, but more so the amount of competition that has come on board since you founded.

(Above top) Mission Brewing is a classic Legacy Brewery (and then some, at 100+ years old).

(Above bottom) Prost Brewing would fall within the expanded Legacy definition of any brewery founded around the start of the Craft Beer Boom in 2010.

What unique challenges are Legacy Breweries facing?

While we learn something new on every single project, we do hear a recurring set of problems and pain points with our Legacy (and close to Legacy) clients.  

And to reiterate, for all intents and purposes, a brewery that is 14 years old and a brewery that is 29 years old are likely facing a similar set of headwinds today. 

Here are some pervasive themes we’ve heard in our Legacy branding work: 

“There's just so much competition that we've gotten lost in the shuffle of new entrants in our market.”

“We don't know what our story is, and we're not sure our fans do either.”

“Our current branding isn’t appropriate or even relevant for where we are today, or where we plan to take the brewery.” 

“We've had some major turnover over the last 5 years and our current team is excited to work and build. But we feel like we can’t accomplish anything until we rebrand.” 

“We're locked into a bad distributor relationship.” 

“Our sales were flat pre-2020. Now, they’re declining.” 

“Our branding and packaging are just tired. They haven’t been refreshed in 7 or 8 years, and it gets lost on shelf.” 

“We have several different beer lines and series with no central theme to tie our packaging together. None of this looks like it even comes from the same brewery.”

“Everything is inconsistent. We even use different logos on our flagship cans. It’s maddening.”

On Brand Equity 

Another unique challenge that Legacy Brewery's face is that, because they've been around for a while, there is often some level of visual and Brand Equity to consider as part of a branding update. 

Now, a five year old brewery will have hopefully built up some positive equity along the way as well. But there's a unique angle here, particularly amongst Legacy Brewery founders who are involved in a rebranding process: There's often more of an emotional attachment—and in some cases, an outright fear—that if you change things too drastically, people will not recognize you at all on shelf. 

We've run into this on several projects. A founder will say, "Well, we can't change that icon, or that illustration. We've used it for 19 years!"

But remember: Not all Equity carries the same weight.

Legacy Breweries, by dint of age, almost always have more Equity to contend with. And unless you’re completely wiping the slate clean during a rebrand (Revolution vs. Evolution), you will have more equity to wade through and consider.

What is important to our cause here? What is unmistakably us, and what can we build our identity and trade dress around moving forward?

What must be retained through this update, and what can be jettisoned?

How can we honor our past, and tell that story in a way that will resonate with new drinkers today? 

So what's a Legacy Brewery to do?

Between Big Beer, Big Craft, smaller, more nimble local breweries flooding the market and beyond beer products sucking up all remaining oxygen, Legacy Breweries are under a lot of pressure right now.

But you’ve got something that these other groups don’t have. 

Legacy Breweries are cool. 

Startup breweries often have to engage in myth making, that is, creating an origin story—sometimes out of whole cloth—that may or not be 100% authentic.

No value judgement here, to some extent this is required anytime you develop a new brand. BUT, you don’t have to do this. 

If you’ve been around for 13 years, or 15, or 25 years (again, the age isn’t as important now), then I guarantee there is something interesting in your history that you can explore in your branding and messaging.

You have an earned authenticity that younger groups don't have yet.

You’ve weathered recession(s), booms and busts, major events in your city and market—a pandemic—and you’re still here. 

You’ve been there all along, shaping your community, giving back, learning and listening and making great beer.

So lean into this.

Remind people where you came from (and show your bona fides)

Don’t hang your hat on just being old—on its own, this isn't a compelling differentiator. But there is an authenticity there that people inherently recognize. Don't be afraid to tell this story and remind people (current fans and new ones) where you come from.

Yeah, we may be ubiquitous. And you may take us for granted, but there's a reason we're still here.

People need a story to connect with your brewery. And you've got one.

You just have to figure out how to tell it.

A few examples of breweries reminding people where they come from:

– Bell's Never Trend campaign 
– Anderson Valley's Road to 35 Campaign
– Left Field's 10th anniversary merch collection
– Oskar Blues' throwback 15-pack 

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