Many beer geeks spent the end of 2016 debating their list of the year’s best releases — Voodoo’s ManBearPig imperial stout? Tree House’s King JJJuliusss double IPA? Ocelot’s Talking Backwards triple IPA? — and looking back at the rising tides of sour beers and fruit-flavored IPAs. But one of the biggest beer developments of the past 12 months is this: Walmart now sells its own “craft” beer.
Go ahead and laugh. I’m assuming most beer lovers don’t spend much time thinking about the craft ales and lagers in the cooler at Walmart, especially if the selection is as mediocre as the one at my local D.C. store, where the few sixers and sampler 12-packs of Flying Dog, New Belgium and Dogfish Head are dwarfed by 30-packs of Natural Light and Tecate. But market research firm Placed Insights ranks Walmart as the most popular store in the country, with more than half of all American shoppers visiting one of the company’s 4,600 stores in a given month. That’s a lot of eyes falling on those products.
Teresa Budd, a senior buyer for Walmart’s adult beverage team, says the company began to notice its craft beer sales growing a few years ago, especially compared with sales of mainstream domestic beers. The company put out an offer to suppliers around the country, seeking to produce an IPA, a pale ale, an amber ale and a Belgian-style ale, Budd says, because “those were the top four best-selling craft styles at the time.” After samplings and tastings, “making sure it’s exactly what we want,” Walmart began producing beer in “collaboration” with a company called Trouble Brewing in Rochester, N.Y.
The beers launched in six-packs and a 12-can variety pack in early 2016, and they’re found in 3,000 stores across 45 states. Budd says the response from consumers has been enthusiastic, and the line may expand with new or seasonal beers in the future.
Unlike the house-brand beers of some of the company’s competitors, including Costco and Trader Joe’s, Trouble Brewing offers no clue on the label to tell you that Walmart was behind its creation. A shopper heading down the aisle to look for Samuel Adams or Miller High Life might see the ersatz-hipster labels of Cat’s Away IPA and After Party Pale Ale, or the distressed fonts and “torn”-look packaging of the Pack of Trouble variety 12-pack, and assume they were made by some new craft brewery that just hit the market. It’s also hard to ignore the price: $7.96 for a six-pack and $13.86 for the variety pack. That’s $3 to $5 cheaper than other craft beers on the same shelf.
Lower cost and perceived value are a competitive advantage for established store house brands: Most of Trader Joe’s “exclusive” brews, such as Mission St. IPA and JosephsBrau Bohemian Lager, cost $6.49 to $6.99 per six-pack, or $1.09 to $1.17 each for shoppers who mix and match. A 22-ounce bottle of Green Flash Fearless Fifty, an exclusive saison created by the San Diego brewery for Trader Joe’s 50th anniversary, is $5.99. At Costco, a whopping 48-pack of its Signature Light Beer costs $22. (Of course, you have to buy in bulk.)
Another thing these store brands have in common is a tendency to deliberately obscure — or flat-out conceal — where the beer is coming from. In the case of Walmart, no American brewery with the name Trouble Brewing actually exists. The applicant listed on filings for the four beers with the Treasury Department’s Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB) is “Winery Exchange, Inc.,” now known as WX Brands, which “develops exclusive brands of wine, beer and spirits for retailers around the world,” according to its website. The brewery address given on the TTB documents is Genesee Brewing’s business office.
Genesee is not a craft brewery, which the national Brewers Association defines as small, independent and traditional; it’s owned by Costa Rica-based Florida Ice and Farm, which brews that country’s Imperial Lager and other industrial brands. Its flagship American beers, Genesee and Genesee Cream Ale, are cheap college-party staples, and it’s tough to convince people that your brand is hip and craft when those are the other products coming out of the tanks.
Walmart’s Budd says there’s no intention to deceive consumers, pointing out that Walmart doesn’t put the company name on its private label brands, whether camping gear or cat food. “We were intentional about designing a package that conveyed a look and feel you’d expect of craft beer,” she said.
Likewise, previous variety packs of Costco’s Kirkland Signature Handcrafted Beer, which will return to stores this spring, claimed that the IPAs and brown ales came from either New Yorker Brewer in Utica, N.Y., or Hopfen und Malz in San Jose, depending on where the beer was purchased. The TTB reveals they’re brewed at F.X. Matt (the home of Saranac) and Gordon Biersch, respectively.
Trader Joe’s sources its beers from several brewers. Most German-style beers purport to be from JosephsBrau Brewing while actually being contract-brewed by Gordon Biersch; the Mission Street IPA and Session Pale Ale beers are brewed by Salt Lake City’s Four + Brewing, a pseudonym for Uinta, after years of being produced under contract at the well-respected Firestone Walker. Fat Weasel’s label says it’s brewed by “River Trent Brewing Company, Ukiah, CA,” which is actually Mendocino Brewing. And so on.
Affordable beers made by breweries that most people have heard of? The only question left is “How does it taste?” I convened a team of Washington Post staffers for a blind tasting of beers purchased at Walmart and Trader Joe’s and asked them to write down their thoughts. The results were not that positive: Trouble Brewing’s Red Flag Amber Ale was described as “flabby,” “knock-you-over-the-head syrupy sweet” and “good for flip cup.” The JosephsBrau Bohemian Lager elicited “watery,” “tastes like college” and “channels a Heineken that’s been open for a little too long.” Trouble Brewing’s After Party Ale was “bland nothingness” and “lacking an identifiable taste.”
The standouts, according to the testers, included JosephBrau’s Hefeweizen, which had the bright mouth feel and bubble gum and banana notes you’d expect from a German wheat beer, even as one reviewer called it “drinkable, if not particularly memorable.” The Mission St. Session Pale Ale got mixed reviews — though still better than the IPA’s — for its bitterness and citrusy hops, although it was also called “thin” and “nothing to get excited about.” Trouble Brewing’s most popular brew was ’Round Midnight Belgian White, which didn’t strike anyone as an outstanding witbier but received complements on its spice and fruitiness, as well as easy drinkability.
None of those beers is going to light up online beer forums or find its way onto “Best Beer of the Year” lists, but that’s not the point. These are affordable brews that could be gateway beers for domestic beer drinkers looking to dip a toe into the world of craft beer. If they like Trouble Brewing’s version of a Belgian witbier, maybe they’ll be open to trying one from Allagash or Bell’s, or they’ll grab a six-pack of Flying Dog instead of Bud Light. Either way, Walmart just put craft-style beers in front of millions of new potential craft beer customers, which should be a positive for brewers of all sizes.