Food & Drink

Can prestigious beer festival prizes translate into profits?

Bartenders pour beer at New Helvetia Brewing Co. Its Mystery Airship Imperial Chocolate Porter recently won a prestigious award.
Bartenders pour beer at New Helvetia Brewing Co. Its Mystery Airship Imperial Chocolate Porter recently won a prestigious award. Sacramento Bee file

Last week, Sacramento craft beer got more excellent news. Two of our breweries — one approaching its third anniversary, the other about to turn 4 — won medals in the Great American Beer Festival in Denver.

With 7,000 entries from across the land, these awards are the Oscars of the industry, validation that the winning breweries are doing something pretty special.

New Helvetia won a gold for the second year in a row, a tremendous feat. Its latest medal is in the Experimental Beer category for its very memorable Mystery Airship Imperial Chocolate Porter, an after-dinner sipping beer that coats the tongue and dazzles with its notes of spicy Mexican chocolate followed by a wave of high alcohol that warms you to the core. Local epicureans familiar with the Oaxacan Spicy Hot Chocolate at Ginger Elizabeth Chocolates might think of this porter as the chilled adult version of that.

In fact, New Helvetia reached out to owner Ginger Elizabeth Hahn to source the chocolate and get her input on how best to use it in the brewing of this beer. I’ve enjoyed Mystery Airship on three occasions and found it to be unlike anything else out there. It’s rich, spicy, robust and complex. “Out there” in a good way might be the best way to describe it.

Last year’s gold medal winner? Same thing. In 2014, New Helvetia won for “Thurston” Adambier in the “Historical Beer” category. In that case, brewmaster Brian Cofresi resurrected a lost German beer style by crafting a strong dark ale that exudes complexity.

Now that the brewery on Broadway has two very prestigious medals, the phones are ringing off the hook, craft beer fiends are lined up down the street and New Helvetia’s beer is flying off store shelves throughout the region. Right?

Not quite. At least not yet.

If New Helvetia has shown that it has mad skills when it comes to brewing beer, it remains a work in progress when it comes to marketing it to consumers. That could be said about most new breweries on the scene. How do you tell your story in a sincere way that resonates with consumers and inspires them to plunk down money for your product?

That’s what I wanted to know when I called David Gull, co-owner of New Helvetia, to congratulate him on the big prize. His response anticipated my question.

“This is what I’ve realized,” said Gull with a laugh. “We’re winning medals in categories for beer that is very difficult to sell.”

By many accounts, “Thurston” is an outstanding beer. But it has an image problem. For one thing, only uber-geeks know what an adambier is. The beer is delicious, but it’s very big (11% ABV). And it has to age in barrels for seven months or so. Can you run to the brewery this week and try it? No. Likewise, is Mystery Airship available? Sporadically. The next batch will be ready for New Helvetia’s third anniversary in November. For now, you can track it down in 12.6 ounce (375ml) bottles at Corti Brothers, Taylor’s Market, Final Gravity and RoCo Spirits.

“The challenging part is we have these two gold medals in two different categories. To be honest, I don’t know how we parlay that into more tasting room traffic and more sales,” Gull said.

Track 7’s silver medal beer at the beer festival is for Hoppy Palm Ale (5.7% ABV) in the ultra-competitive American-style Pale Ale category.

Brewmaster and co-owner Ryan Graham says the prize will “definitely help” with sales.

“It gives us a bit more credibility. As a small brewery, when you go into new markets and try to gain shelf space, it’s a challenge to get people to take you seriously,” he said.

As Track 7 continues to expand its reach, I have a feeling its beer will speak for itself. Panic IPA is consistently terrific. And the Alkali Wit (5.25% ABV), a Belgian-style witbier (AKA white wheat beer), has layers of spice and citrus notes brought together with great finesse. When I tasted it two weeks ago during a late-summer heat wave, I was blown away. Never mind the medals. It’s one of the best beers I’ve tasted in 2015.

Beyond the marketing potential of a Great American Beer Festival citation, consider what these kinds of awards bring to the beer scene here overall. Sacramento has upped its game in recent years and, whether that translates into short-term sales or long-term success, word is spreading and that counts for plenty.

Blair Anthony Robertson: (916) 321-1099, @Blarob