At the end of February, Iron Fist Brewing Company announced a new list of beers for 2019, highlighting seasonal releases to be introduced in its tasting rooms every month. This might sound like routine, first-quarter business for most beer companies these days, but in the case of Iron Fist, it punctuates a larger strategic shift to its business plan, more than eight years after it opened. A lot of which has to do with aluminum cans.
1305 Hot Spring Way #101, Vista
The Vista brewery bought its first canning equipment in the fall, and has been in the process of converting its core lineup of packaged beers from bottles to 12-ounce cans. In the past three years, many breweries have made such a shift, as bottles have been tossed aside by beer consumers, distributors, and retail store buyers in favor of sexier, cheaper, and easier-to-transport aluminum.
But the move is all the more significant for Iron Fist, which originally modeled itself after traditional Belgian breweries by bottle conditioning its beers. That means a small amount of yeast and sugar get packaged with the finished beer, naturally carbonating it inside the bottle before it’s sold. It’s the same way traditional champagne gets its sparkle, and generally produces a more luxurious mouthfeel.
It sounds nice, right? And it made sense when Iron Fist opened in 2010, when the 22-ounce bomber reigned, and craft beer aficionados still associated aluminum cans with mass production beers, like Coors and Budweiser. But market forces have shifted dramatically since then, so breweries have had to change.
“I’d say most people’s business plan from seven, eight years ago is no longer accurate,” says Iron Fist brewmaster Tom Garcia.
A seventeen-year San Diego brewing vet, Garcia has experience filling massive production orders with Stone Brewing, and operating a tasting room-only business with his own Offbeat Brewing Company. Both experiences factor into Iron Fist’s change in paradigm.
For example, Iron Fist’s core beers — including a lager, pale ale, and blood orange Nelson IPA — ship to grocery stores throughout the Southwest, and Garcia says the shift from bottle conditioning to cans both shortens production times and ensures freshness in the final product. Rather than taking a month merely to produce a supermarket order, he says, “We can get our beer on the shelf in under 30 days.”
However, Iron Fist’s new beer release calendar has less to do with distribution, and more about bolstering its tasting room culture. Beer consumers have become notorious for chasing new and rare releases offered at the source, so a robust core beer lineup isn’t enough to generate excitement in Iron Fist’s Vista and Barrio Logan taprooms.
“The customer wants something that’s going to satisfy their need for a new experience,” Garcia explains, likening it to music fans thirsty to hear new tunes from a favorite band. “These five beers are selling, and now we need to go back and be relevant,” he adds, “We need to say, this isn’t the only tune we play.”
The trick in doing so, for bands and breweries both, is to stay current without abandoning your own creative voice to chase trends. To wit, Iron Fist’s monthly “Small Batch Experiments” will include only one hazy IPA, Garcia’s first concession to the craze, though he admits, it’s turned out well enough a second batch is already being added to the schedule.
For the most part, each experimental beer will stick around for three months. Another pending release is a dry brown ale subtly flavored with real cherries, while the inaugural February release yielded an India Pale Lager, adding an IPA hop profile to the taste of pilsner malts. Detail on future releases are limited, but this year’s tracklist will conclude with a dessert stout.
When I respond to the new music comparison, Garcia adds to it “We’re trying to get folks to listen to our records.”