After making its name with beer, Devils Backbone finds another sweet spot with canned cocktails
By Kevin Noonan
At first glance, it seems like an odd name for a craft brewery — Devils Backbone. But take a closer look and it makes perfect sense, since mountains have always played a big part in the lives and careers of Steve and Heidi Crandall.
The couple got the inspiration to start the brewery while on a ski trip in the Italian Alps and savored, for the first time, a quality craft beer, a German Weisse. And when they finally decided to take the plunge and open their own brewery, they did so in the Blue Ridge mountains of Southern Virginia.
As for the name Devils Backbone — that’s what the jagged section of the Blue Ridge was called by the men who surveyed that part of Virginia almost 300 years ago, a group that included Thomas Jefferson’s father, Peter.
The Crandalls began their operation in Nelson County, Va. in 2008 and it was an immediate success, especially their flagship Vienna Lager, which has won several national and international awards. Other big sellers were Eight Point IPA and Schwartz Bier, a black lager.
Then, in 2016, Devils Backbone was acquired by industry goliath Anheuser-Busch and lost its Brewers Association designation as a craft brewery. Last May, the Devils Backbone family suffered a devastating loss when Steve Crandall died at the age of 64 after a three-year battle with cancer. Heidi Crandall is still involved with the company, which started small and grew quickly.
Part of that growth was their leap in 2019 into the canned cocktail business, which includes their top-selling Smash series — orange, grapefruit and lemonade, all of which can be found in the Delaware market. (For more information on Devils Backbone and its products, go to DBBrewingCompany.com)
Kim Oakley, the marketing director of Devils Backbone, recently sat down for a telephone interview with Out & About Magazine from her office in Southern Virginia to discuss her company’s amazing growth, the many changes it’s undergone in a short amount of time, and what lies ahead.
O&A: Devils Backbone brewery became very successful very quickly in a very competitive industry. What was your secret?
Kim Oakley: “Many things had to go right in such a short period of time. It started with an amazing vision from our founders, the Crandalls, who visited all those amazing breweries in Europe and said ‘We want to bring something like that to our home town in Nelson County.’ And then they brought in incredible people early and often. Our Vienna Lager quickly became one of the top lagers in the world and won many awards, and it’s still the gold standard for Vienna lagers throughout the world.”
O&A: You’re in marketing, so what does your company do to stand out among the zillions of craft breweries that have opened in the last decade?
Kim Oakley: “First of all, the number of craft breweries and distilleries out there is great. More competition means better products for the consumer and, at the end of the day, that’s what it’s all about. In terms of us standing out, I think we have a little bit of magic to us. We’re here in the hills of Virginia in an area with a relatively low population that’s fairly rural, and we had to build something that was going to succeed in a place where maybe success wasn’t guaranteed. And I think that dedication to true quality in making the best possible product we can really works in everything we do.”
O&A: Devils Backbone was acquired by Anheuser-Busch in 2016, which obviously helped your company in areas such as marketing and distribution. But was it a challenge to keep that rural, small-town vibe after being acquired by such an industrial giant?
Kim Oakley: “Not at all. Anheuser-Busch knows we have a good thing going and they’ve let us continue to be that good thing. And they’ve given us the support when we’ve needed it, so it’s been really great. It’s always great to have more resources and the kinds of doors Anheuser-Busch has been able to open for us. From the training and learning and developmental perspective, it’s been great for all of our employees.”
O&A: Devils Backbone got into the canned cocktail business in 2019-2020. What motivated that decision?
Kim Oakley: “We launched our Smash lineup and Orange Smash in particular — that’s our take on that Orange crush cocktail that is wildly popular in the beach towns of Virginia, Maryland and Delaware. We had a distillery and we knew we were making some spirits that were really incredible and we said ‘OK, how can we get this into the hands of more people?’ So, we started creating some different flavors, and when we made the Orange Smash for the first time and we all tasted it, there was so much positivity in the room. And when we gave it do wholesalers and let consumers try it and there was so much positivity around the flavor profile, we knew we had a winner. It was a little bit of lightning in a bottle with the Orange Smash.”
O&A: Canned cocktails are the fastest growing segment of the alcohol industry and it’s getting more and more competitive. Why is that?
Kim Oakley: “There are a couple of things at play. One, folks want a delicious craft cocktail, but maybe they don’t want to spend all the time and money and effort to purchase all the different ingredients that go into it. So, we’re giving them a simple solution and a very portable solution.
The second piece is that we’ve learned that folks are drinking different things based on the occasion they are in. Sometimes they want a really light and refreshing beer, sometimes they want to drink something like Vienna lager, which has a little bit more of a caramel, sweet note that’s amazing with food. And then sometimes they’re hanging out with friends on a boat or at the beach and they want to drink something that’s fruity and refreshing and has a little bit of that life-of-the-party in it. And I think that’s why the Orange Smash has really taken off.”
O&A: What has been the secret to your quick success and, more importantly, your sustained success?
Kim Oakley: “Our brewers and distillers are masters of their craft and they truly understand how to make the most delicious version of something. We’re obviously inspired by our location, given that we have all spent time on the coast, either in Maryland, Delaware or Virginia. We’ve all tried Orange Crush cocktails on vacation before, we know that flavor profile is really relevant.”
O&A: Do you think canned cocktails in general, and your Orange Smash in particular, as just fads among consumers or are they here to stay?
Kim Oakley: “You have to go back to what tastes really good and we have a canned cocktail that tastes really good. And stuff that tastes really good doesn’t tend to just be a fad and go away — it sticks around. Vienna lager has been around for hundreds of years and we’re still drinking it. Orange Smash is a really delicious orange and premium vodka cocktail and it tastes really good, and I don’t see it going anywhere.”