Thursday, July 14, 2011

"Haywire" Gets Straightened Out

Pyramid Hefeweizen's new label
It was a classic case of New Coke. Three years ago, and with the best intentions (of differentiating its product from the other Hefeweizen beers in the marketplace), Pyramid Brewery changed the name and look of its signature beer to "Haywire."

Seemed like a good idea at the time. The beer didn't change, and the new name would bring new drinkers to the brand, people who couldn't pronounce the four German syllables (HAY-fuh-vight-sun).

Bad idea. The backbone of a brand is its loyal customers, especially the ones who pride themselves on knowing how to pronounce it (think of your friends who still call it "Foe" when they order Vietnamese noodle soup) and who enjoy the beer's wheaty-yeasty taste. Never mind, for a moment, that Pyramid's own staff refer to it as "Hef" (as in Hugh).

Pyramid began life in 1984 as Hart Brewing Co. in Kalama. It was purchased five years later by a Seattle investment group (among them, John and Peter Morris, whose better-known venture at the time was Fratelli Ice Cream). The new owners moved the operation to Seattle, next to the baseball stadium, opened outlets in Portland and in Berkeley, changed the name to Pyramid and got themselves listed on NASDAQ. Along with pioneers Red Hook (distributing nationally through Anhaeuser Busch) and Widmer Brewing Co. of Portland, it was one of the Northwest's pioneer beer companies.

But Pyramid was acquired last year by North American Breweries, a relatively large group of regional beers, based in upstate New York, and found itself under a centralized brand management whose barley-counters realized they had a problem. After the initial howls, in 2008, of "What did you guys do to my beer?" subsided, sales of Haywire fell off drastically. Pyramid's prime asset had gone sour. So, with a combination of sheepishness and bravado, Pyramid brought back the Hefeweizen name this week. "We're reconnecting Pyramid Hefeweizen with the rich tradition of craft brewing in the Northwest," said brand manager Ryan Daley.

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