The origins of a flagship are appropriately nautical, befitting a beverage that’s as much as 95-percent water. According to Merriam-Webster, its first definition comes from the Navy, with the flagship being “a vessel used by the commanding officer of a group of naval ships, characteristically a flag officer entitled by custom to fly a distinguishing flag. Used more loosely, it is the lead ship in a fleet of vessels, typically the first, largest, fastest, most heavily armed, or best known.” Over time, the definition has moved onto land and is now more commonly used as “the finest, largest, or most important one of a group of things.” So if you have a chain of stores, the location that is your best or biggest is your “flagship store.”
With beer, a Flagship is the beer that defines a brewery. It’s the one that you immediately think of when you hear the brewery’s name. It’s the one that most people associate with their business. In most cases, it is their best-selling beer and is often the one that outsells all their other offerings, and usually by a wide margin. It’s the beer that people jokingly say is “the one that keeps the lights on,” or the beer that “pays the bills” because beer is mostly a volume business. A good flagship allows a brewery to be able to afford the seasonals, specialty beers and the other one-off beers in their lineup. Without their earlier popularity and success, those ephemeral one-offs and small batch beers everybody loves might not exist. The best ones are more-or-less universally recognized brands, like Samuel Adams Boston Lager, or Sierra Nevada Pale Ale, at least in the United States.
That’s the general working definition that most brewers and beer drinkers would agree on, but it is not so well-defined that it isn’t open to interpretation. Like other ideas in beer, say for example “session beers,” they can mean different things to different people. And that’s as it should be. The definition revolves around their perception and how people feel about them. We can fairly confidently say that a flagship beer is a consistently well-made beer that tastes great every time you drink it. You know that when you pour it into your glass it will taste as delicious as the last one you had. You can anticipate how it will taste and look forward to satisfying a craving for its particular and unique flavors. That’s partly why they’re often sold in larger packages — 12-packs or cases — because it’s a beer you can drink more than one of, in fact will want to drink in multiple quantities.
Some brewers consider all of their year-round beers to be their flagships, to differentiate them from seasonals or other only occasional beers. Others believe, like Smuttynose Brewing president Peter Egelston, that a flagship “embodies the culture and aspirations of a brewery” while Chris Lohring of Tremont Brewing thinks it’s the beer a “brewery feels best represents them.” Still others, like David Howard, head brewer of Wachusett Brewing, defines a flagship as “the best beer we can possibly make and still sell at volume. It may never win a medal, but it allows us to continually move ahead.”
One might think that the brewery decides which beer is their flagship, but that’s not always the case. Often, they may think that one of their beers will be the one that sells the best, but consumers have the ultimate say in what they buy. There are numerous examples of this. Widmer Brothers Brewing, in Portland, Oregon, thought they’d be an Alt beer brewery, but consumers responded to their American Hefeweizen and that became the beer they’re known for. Similarly, Deschutes Brewing, in Bend, Oregon, did not believe their Black Butte Porter would be their best-selling beer, buy consumers really took to it, and the rest is history.
For many people, especially people above a certain age, a brewery’s flagship beer is probably the first craft beer they drank. There are countless stories of the first beer someone enjoyed that made them love good beer. But they’re also so much more. Flagship beer in recent years have been … well, flagging, often because people are starting to consider them boring as they chase after the next big thing. But flagships are the beer that still tastes good, as good as you remember it, whenever you go back to it. It’s a brewery’s flagship precisely because it tastes exactly the same from bottle to bottle, can to can, and draught to draught. It is consistent, which will always be the hallmark of brewing. Ask any brewer what they admire most in their favorite brewers and they’ll inevitably answer consistency. To be able to create a beer that people want to drink over and over again represents the best of the brewer’s art. And that’s a flagship beer.