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Devils Backbone Loves Baseball

You may have noticed a World Series commemorative can of Devils Backbone Earned Run Ale, or ERA, around town. The beer is “the official craft beer of the Washington Nationals” according to the brewery. Late last year, we spoke with Devils Backbone COO, Hayes Humphreys about DB, ERA, its performance, and seasonality. The interview has been lightly edited for clarity and brevity.

Devils Backbone Earned Run Ale
Devils Backbone Earned Run Ale

DC Beer: How much beer did you brew in 2019?

Hayes Humphreys: We brewed about 80,000 barrels of beer last year. We’re growing in the low double digits right now going into the end of 2019.

DC Beer: How good is baseball for beer?

HH: We made just under 600 barrels of ERA this year and we sold about 3,000 cases in the stadium [in 2019]. It’s done well. We’ve gone through kind of an arc with it and with the team winning the World Series this year we’re about to release a World Series commemorative can in January and going into next year we’re going to want to commemorate the season with a little refresher on the recipe and potentially shake up the way it looks and change with the times.

DC Beer: How do the sales of ERA stack next to Vienna Lager?

HH: Nothing sells like Vienna Lager. Vienna Lager is like 65% of our business. The sports beers, the ERA and Capitale, are a little constrained by the geography of the fan base. The actual beer that is ERA is a really delicious beer, but at the end of the day, people are most excited to buy it because it’s got a Washington Nationals logo on it and they’re excited to show their fandom to the team and so if that beer gets up into Orioles territory or if that beer gets up into Mets territory we don’t see a whole lot of sales on it. So the geographic potential of it is less. But compared to other mainline brands that we make, it’s smaller. At this point we only sell it during baseball season, so 6 or 7 months if we’re lucky out of the year. The same is true for the other Washington sports beers.

DC Beer: How’s it selling on versus off-premise?

HH: In the stadium, sales are really dependent on how the team’s doing. It’s pretty directly tied to game attendance so this year we started a little slow and then sales got stronger as the year went on, just like the Nats. In the off-premise, like in grocery, it tends to get a really good pop right at the beginning of the season because everyone’s excited about baseball season. Baseball comes back and we’re usually able to get retailers to agree to put up lots of displays and they share the excitement for the new baseball season and then the summer gets going and it moves back onto the shelves and out of displays so we generally see a big bump in March and it kind of steadies out for the rest of the year and tails out toward the end of the year. Unless we win the World Series in which case it sells like bonkers.

DC Beer: Do you believe seasonality is still a thing amongst beer drinkers?

HH: I think there’s definitely seasonality. I think there are certain seasons where it’s stronger. I think the fall and the winter still have distinct strong periods of seasonality as much as it annoys people, [breweries] release their Oktoberfest and pumpkin beers in August and we see sales early… There’s still a strong demand for darker beers, heavier beers, bigger beers [in winter]. They’re warmer and comforting and [there’s] some seasonality… From the style perspective, you don’t necessarily see as much of a drop off as some of the styles that are geared towards the summertime. So session IPAs are really kind of light summertime sipping beers and they’re still quite popular in the rest of the seasons of the year.

We released our hibiscus hard lemonade last year in November for the first time because we had been watching some other similar products the year before that were launched later in the year that you might think we’re more of a summertime beverage and they did just fine during the winter. I think with a full year under our belt we will see some seasonality on a product like that where it will tail off a little bit in the wintertime but people are drinking what they wanna drink year-round.

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