by Matthew Korfhage
It was Monday night by the time Porter Hardy IV knew what was happening. On Saturday the little 20-barrel brewery he co-owns in Norfolk, Smartmouth Brewing Company, was set to release its spring seasonal beer, a lightly marshmallowy IPA called Saturday Morning. Smartmouth made it using the same kind of dehydrated marshmallows found in a box of Lucky Charms cereal.
The brightly colored can even looked a little like the cereal box, with its festive marshmallows and yellow-on-red design scheme. The brewery had put out a nice picture on Instagram, showing the beer resting on a bed of the cereal.
And then Hardy left the country for a trade show in London.
“My wife calls me right before I came back, and she’s like, ‘This Saturday Morning thing is kind of blowing up.’ And I was like, ‘Okay, good.’
“And then she said, ‘No, Porter. You need to go online right now and look.’ ”
By the time he got back things were getting crazy. His beer had been excitedly featured by People magazine as a beer that tastes like Lucky Charms. USA Today followed suit. A Canadian morning show worried, somewhat half-heartedly, that he was marketing beer to children.
“My friends started calling me from the Florida Keys where they live, and they’re like, ‘Hey, you’re on the local news.’ And then the same in Boston. And then some paper in Sacramento calls me asking for an interview.”
By Friday, the beer was a joke on The Tonight Show. Smartmouth Brewing, a small brewery that can’t even legally distribute its beers outside the state of Virginia, had somehow brewed the most famous craft beer in America.
And it only had 100 cases to sell.
The rest is well-documented: Hundreds arrived at the brewery the day it was released, filling Norfolk’s tiny Chelsea neighborhood with the beer version of rubberneckers. The curious drove overnight from Florida, Ohio and Pennsylvania to get cans of the beer, which sold out within two hours.
Hundreds who’d waited up to three hours couldn’t get ahold of the cans, which promptly developed an aftermarket that bordered on hysterical. A four-pack sold for $800 at a charity auction. Another reportedly sold for $450 online. Empty cans sold for $5.
To understand how this happened, you have to look at the anatomy of the hype cycle.
Saturday Morning began as an inside joke. To woo his future wife when they were still in college, brewer Jimmy Loughran separated all the marshmallows from three boxes of Lucky Charms and sent them to her in the mail.
“I did the same thing on our wedding day,” he says. “She loves marshmallows.”
The beer is a tribute, of sorts, mixed in with nostalgia for Saturday morning cartoons.
But marshmallow beers are not rare: Smartmouth made one last summer, called EZ-E and the Sunshine Kid. And neither are cereal beers. Saturday Morning was not the first beer to mimic a breakfast cereal; it wasn’t even the only Lucky Charms beer sold in Virginia that weekend. Richmond’s Strangeways Brewing has offered Lücky Charms Berliner Weisse since 2015.
It wasn’t even the most innovative beer released in its own neighborhood that day. That honor goes to Benchtop Brewing Company down the street, which made a science experiment of a saison that tasted like fresh-cut grain. The beer had been pasteurized so it could be brewed without being brought to a boil, using craft malts from North Carolina and a bit of toasted hay.
As for Saturday Morning, it tasted like … an IPA, with malt balance and tropical flavors from Galaxy and Calypso hops, plus a slight vanilla note from store-bought marshmallows they’d toasted like s’mores. Arguably, it was the second-best marshmallow IPA Smartmouth brewed in the past year.
So, if the beer itself didn’t cause the hype, what did?
In part, it was that beer can. Its designer, Erik Leach, now works for Atlanta-based New Realm Brewing Company. Saturday Morning was the final can he designed for Smartmouth, a winking, rainbow-swirled piece of children’s nostalgia with the words “magically ridiculous” printed on the front and a nutrition label on the side.
Leach left before it was finalized. The brewery later added the final touch – a rainbow of marshmallows, just like the ones on the cereal box.
Without those marshmallows, Leach concedes, “it may not have reached the mass hysteria it did. The whole concept was to do something reminiscent of the cereal without resembling it too much.”
The feeding frenzy
But more than anything, the virality of the beer came from a glitch in the media. Just like fish in a pond, the media has a food chain – bigger fish eat smaller fish. And when chum hits the water, everybody eats.
The first stage is local, and Saturday Morning did get a fairly well-viewed mention by a local TV news station. But the brewery credits an unlikely source for kicking off the hooplah: The can was posted to a Virginia Beach-based Instagram account called Snackstalker, devoted to taking photographs of the newest novelty atrocities dreamed up by snack food companies. The account has tens of thousands of followers, and Smartmouth’s beer was the only beer the account has ever featured.
But the launching pad to national outlets was a piece about the beer by Elite Daily, which describes itself as “the ultimate digital destination for millennial women who are discovering the world, and themselves in the process.” The author published an ode to her own memories of Saturday morning cartoons, along with a mistaken piece of information: She initially posted that Lucky Charms was used to brew the beer.
Within hours, the story traveled among websites with names like Delish and PureWow.
A trending-news blogger for People magazine reported that Saturday Morning tastes just like Lucky Charms.
“There were two storylines that took hold,” Hardy says. “One was that we brewed a beer that tastes like Lucky Charms. The other is that we brewed a beer reminiscent of Lucky Charms. We tried to steer people toward the second storyline.”
But once a meme is implanted, it is difficult to dislodge. When a news story hits a certain critical mass, reporters often report just because others are reporting it: It has become an event, like Beanie Babies in the 1990s.
In subsequent days the news moved up the food chain to Esquire, Maxim, Thrillist, and USA Today, and then spread out across an entire network of TV news stations across the country. Most quoted the beer’s tagline: “Magically Ridiculous.”
Then, you know, the beer became a joke on The Tonight Show.
“Living in the middle of that kind of a circus, I feel like I almost understand the news better,” says Hardy. “Like when you see somebody on TV, and you think, ‘Wow, how did this become a thing?’ ”
Hardy says the fallout has been mostly positive.
“I feel bad when I see that someone has waited for three hours and couldn’t get a beer. But then when you talk to them, they say they just came for the experience.”
The brewery has gotten a slight bump in sales, he says. Even after they ran out of the Lucky Charms beer, they sold a huge amount of their other cans. Benchtop Brewing, down the street, also had one of its busiest days.
“We get lots of questions about that beer from lots of people,” says Hardy. “So I think it has certainly increased our presence in the minds of a lot of people, which is good, especially in an environment in which, you know, there’s a new brewery starting up all the time.”
He still hasn’t decided whether they’ll brew the beer again. General Mills, the manufacturer of Lucky Charms, apparently had a few stipulations about the beer labeling if Smartmouth ever decided to make it again.
“They were really nice about it,” Hardy says.
But fundamentally, he talks like someone who’s lived a war story. “A friend of mine said to me, ‘You know this may be the single biggest craft beer release ever – in terms of hype.’ And I thought, ‘Well, you might be right.’ ”