Otis Redding always talked about recording the “million seller,” and shortly before he died at the age of 26, he was beaming with pride over finally—after six years of writing, crooning, and touring—putting together a song that would do it.
Of course that song, “(Sittin’ On) The Dock of the Bay” wasn’t released until after his tragic death. It’s remarkable looking back, that one of the most important names in the music business never got to enjoy his moment at the top. Before he died, he was best known as the guy who wrote the song that propelled Aretha to stardom.
Dan Cochran hasn’t sold a million records (though he’s probably bought that many over the years), but he might know a little bit about how Otis felt. Four String was the first legitimate new school brewer to jump into the Columbus market, and much like Otis, Dan’s been busting his ass for six years. And while he’s enjoyed success, he still hasn’t blown up with that “million seller.”
That’s about to change with Hilltop Heritage Lager, which is, ironically, a distinct departure from the craft genre. Instead of rocking out with some aggressive hop varietal, or adding some artisan roasted herbs, Four String decided to pay homage to the classic American Adjunct Lager.
And it makes sense because Dan spent a lot of time on the road playing in bands, where part of your payment for a gig was a case of cheap lager in a bucket of melting ice. Even though he can wax poetic about the slight hint of caramel a sip of Brass Knuckle finishes with, at his core he’s a guy who just likes to slam some suds.
“A lot of people out there say they just want a beer that tastes like beer,” Dan said. “They’re talking about that American Lager. Folks in the craft business might not like to admit this, but it is a style, and that’s what we went for with Hilltop Heritage Lager.”
The 16-ounce tallboy cans are a departure from the tattoo-inspired art work you’ll see on most Four String labels. These are simple—red on white—with a distinct throwback feel. It’s sold in six packs for a modest $7.99, making it competitive with your standard domestics. It looks, feels, and tastes like the kind of beer your grandfather would drink between long, crackling drags on his non-filtered Pall Malls, while telling you what a wussified waddle ass your father was.
“Technically, it’s an adjunct lager because we use corn,” Dan confessed, “but we don’t use it to save money. For us, it’s all about that unique flavor. It’s actually more expensive to buy the corn in such limited quantities.”
It’s important to note that Hilltop still qualifies as “craft” because the adjunct isn’t used to cut costs, but to add flavor and mouthfeel to the finished product. This product is just the latest in a developing trend in the craft beer world, but Four String decided to jump into this market with both feet. Rather than offer a low ABV one-off, or test HHL as a limited release, Four String is all in on this lager. For all of those people who have wanted to support their local brewers but just couldn’t develop a taste for boldly flavored ales, this is your beer. Frankly, it tastes better than the domestics, because those big macro brewers are always tinkering with their recipes to lower costs.
Hilltop isn’t brewed in concentrate and diluted to a specific gravity before bottling.
It’s not loaded with a bunch of rice and mystery grain blends.
This is malted barley and a little bit of corn for some residual sweetness. This is how PBR and Stroh’s and Schlitz were brewed before they just became labels slapped on some quick and easy recipe, brewed by the lowest bidding contract brewer. That’s gotta be worth an extra buck a sixer, right?
The Hilltop name is a nod to both the area Four String is calling home, and a historic, blue-collar neighborhood that made tallboys of simple, light-bodied lagers a staple. The good news for Dan and Four String is that the beer is catching on.
He’s still trying to figure out where it fits.
If he positions it as a craft beer, he can show craft beer drinkers that the American Lager is a valid style that can be brewed the right way. If he positions it next to domestics, he can provide the majority of the beer market with a locally brewed alternative that isn’t priced out of reach, and doesn’t challenge their perception of what a beer should taste like.
Hilltop could be to Columbus what Iron City is to Pittsburgh.
“Nobody else is doing this, so we just have to see what happens,” he said.
One thing’s for certain, this couldn’t have come at a better time. Four String expanded with designs on increasing its regional footprint just before the market for regional craft offerings took a hit—Four String felt it. They also felt the pressure to compete locally with so many smaller brewers vying for a limited number of tap handles, and distributors fighting for shelf space at the local stores. Dan knows he has to maintain a strong sales presence in his distribution radius, but he’s also pulled back from outlying areas, and redoubled on local distribution.
It’s trying to manage relationships between his brewing team and his sales people, while keeping everybody motivated. It’s a unique challenge for a guy who progressively lowers his tolerance for bullshit.
“I can’t believe it was just a few years ago [Four String] was a one-man show,” he said. “I’d spend one day brewing, and the next selling. If somebody called me on a Friday evening because they ran out of beer, I’d run to the brewery, pick one up and deliver it.”
With a distributor now handling that end, Four String’s present challenge is finding that beer people demand. Not every brewery has one, but if you want to stand out in the crowd, it helps to have just one beer in your portfolio bar owners and beer buyers are begging for.
To date, Brass Knuckle, an American Pale Ale is still Four String’s top seller. Dan modified the traditional pale ale recipe to dial back the bitterness and ABV to create a sessionable beer with some flavor. It was an attempt at a “gateway” beer—something interesting enough to please craft beer fans, but mellow enough that anybody could enjoy it. It’s a good beer with a strong following. Four String’s double IPA, Rectifier—brewed to have a strong aroma, but with a clean finish—is probably the one that most impresses hardcore craft beer geeks.
Still, Four String seems to be missing that beer that serves as the calling card. Most breweries have one, and it’s not always the beer that they declare to be their flagship. It’s the one beer in the portfolio that you simply must try. Hilltop Heritage Lager, despite being brewed as a fuss-less pounder, could be that “million seller” Dan and the gang at Four String have been waiting for. And unlike Otis, Dan gets to hang around to see it.