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Of Dogfish and Dad

In their quest to give people new things, companies often fail to understand that these things have to be worth trying. Don’t compromise quality for the sake of variance — hold the bubble gum flavored potato chips!

Since this is my last essay for Fast Company, before I transition over to being an expert blogger for the site, I thought I’d write about one of my favorite subjects. Beer!

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It’s not that I drink a lot of beer, and with good reason. As my father once pointed out, beer makes you fat. When I told him that I drank only a little bit of beer, he said that was okay … if I didn’t mind being a little bit fat.

My favorite beer, these days, is Dogfish Head 90-Minute Imperial IPA. It comes in a four-pack, which costs about $9.00. That’s fine with me because, thanks to my father’s sage advice, I crack open a bottle only once every fortnight, give or take.

On the label it says: “What you have here is an Imperial India Pale Ale featuring a single, constant 90-minute hop addition. It’s balanced by a ridiculous amount of English Twin-row Barley. Then we dry hop it in every tank.”

It also says it was voted the “Best American Beer.” Damning with faint praise, as my father would say.

If you try it, make sure to let it warm up a bit first so you can really taste it. Drinking Dogfish Head is a quality over quantity play, which is another thing my father liked to say: Just because “some” is good, “more” isn’t necessarily better. It’s just another of the many little sayings he liked — few of them were original but most of them still come in handy.

For some reason, my father never lost his taste for Schlitz but I’m quite sure he would have at least appreciated Dogfish Head. Did I mention that it’s also 9% alcohol? Hey, if you’re only going to savor one bottle once in a while make it count, right?

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That’s not something my father ever said. But it is consistent with the spirit of things over at Dogfish Head brewery, and it is very smart. It’s so smart, in fact, that it seems to inform much of what is driving growth in the beer category these days. Indeed, the “big three” breweries all seem intent on being just as “crafty” as Dogfish Head.

That’s because “craft” beers, like Dogfish Head, represent the fastest-growing segment of the beer category. However, the fastest-growing brands are not the independents like Dogfish Head; the fastest growing are the craft-style brews made by the likes of Coors and Miller.

As reported in The Wall Street Journal, Coors is enjoying great success with a Belgian-style wheat beer called Blue Moon, while Miller is making its craft beer inroads via Leinenkugel, a fifth-generation family-run brewery that has been around since 1967 and which Miller acquired in 1988.

Jake Leinekugel says Miller’s ownership makes sense because consumers like to try new things, “especially in beer styles,” and Miller’s distribution network can satisfy that desire. Beer purists are not terribly impressed, though. Tom McCormick of the California Small Brewers Association suggests it’s deceptive to distribute a craft brew on a national scale.

Tom should give beer drinkers a little more credit. Many of us are aware of the mega-brand connection, and few care. What matters is whether the beer is any good or not. The same is true for any product. Take potato chips, for example. If you dare.

As Cameron Stracher recently pointed out in a Wall Street Journal essay, salty-snacks manufacturers have “expanded their product lines, offering potato chips in seemingly endless (and sometimes gross) varieties. As if kosher dill pickle chips were not enough, potato chip makers have whipped up asparagus, anchovy and even bubble gum flavored chips.”

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Like the beer companies, the chip companies recognize that people like to try new things. The difference is that the beer companies seem to understand that those things have to be worth trying. As distinctions go, that one is not the least bit subtle … although beer companies have been just as guilty of missing it at times. Remember clear beer? I’d rather order a club soda than squander my beer quota on a corporate concoction like that.

But offer up something truly yummy, something like Dogfish Head, and before you know it, you have a category that is growing by 45 percent in just eight months’ time (as are the craft beers made by the big three breweries).

The insight here is so ordinary that it barely qualifies as an insight. But, as some potato chip makers demonstrate, it’s amazing how often what’s obvious is overlooked in the marketing business. Few people want or need anything but a really good, fatty, salty crunch. Hold the bubble gum, will you? This isn’t alchemy. It’s a potato chip.

With that, a few final bits of humble advice by way of David X. Manners, my father: Measure twice and cut once. Anything worth doing is worth doing well. You are what you charge. And my all-time favorite: I know you can, and I think you will.

It’s been a real honor to write for Fast Company over the past three years or so. I’d like to thank Heath Row for inviting me in, and Lynne d Johnson and Saabira Chaudhuri for letting me stay. I am forever grateful for the opportunity…it’s been a real stretch and a lot of fun.

The best part is, I will continue to contribute as one of Fast Company’s “Expert Bloggers.” My blog will be called “Shop Talk,” and in it I will track insights, ideas and the future of retail as a medium of marketing.

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Cheers!