Thursday, January 28, 2016

Thoughts on fears of a "Beer Bubble" and why we probably won't see one

People still kick around the idea the craft beer might hit a bubble.When I say "bubble", it's about a concern that somehow, all these new and growing breweries might somehow fail. During the dot-com bubble fifteen years ago, we saw so many Internet based firms proliferate and spectacularly flame out. With the housing bubble, we saw housing prices increase and housing construction reach a crescendo, only to screech to a halt as the easy credit fueling the market became unsustainable. So it's not too unreasonable to look at the exceptional growth of breweries in American, couple that with our experience of previous bubbles, and conclude something similar could easily happen in the brewing industry as well.  On this, I have a couple thoughts to add.

There is psychological side to these beer bubble concerns. For such a long time in the United States, there was only a handful of breweries. We're just not used to seeing so many breweries in operation which can cause us to think something can't be right and all these breweries simply cannot be sustainable. I used to think this way myself. Those thoughts ended for good last fall when I visited some friends in Bend, OR, a town of only about 85,000 easily supporting more than ten breweries.  Yet, when I went to the local grocery store, I noticed plenty of people rolling through the check out line with stuff like Bud or Coors's Light in their carts. Given all the crowded brewpubs all over Bend while there were still plenty of people who could still convert to craft beer consumers, in no way did the craft beer market in Bend seem saturated.

The more you think about it, the more it makes sense.  Breweries like A-B InBev sell beer by the millions of barrels. That's a little less than the annual output of Sierra Nevada.  Ten brewpubs, each selling just a few thousand barrels of beer a year is still pretty small fraction of total beer sales in city of 85,000. The market can easily absorb that many small breweries and certainly a few more.

The second thought has more to deal with mathematics. If there will be a bubble, it will depend a lot on how fast the growth of craft beer's market share declines. Right now, craft beer is growing at a rate of 15-20% per year. Given that craft beer is only about 11% of the overall market in terms of volume, these torrid growth rates are actually sustainable for a number years.  But of course, they cannot last forever.

How will all this growth end? Will it be a gradual decline as the adoption of craft beer slowly reaches equilibrium or will things just hit a wall when everyone is converted to craft who can be and the rest of the market stubbornly sticks to their macrobrews?  This matters because a lot of future growth is built into the beer industries. I don't need to tell you hundreds of breweries are coming online each year. But more importantly, lots of established breweries are investing in major expansions. As more money is being invested to produce more beer, if the market demand suddenly stopped increasing, it could no longer absorb all the beer produced by this expansion. People who paid a lot of money based on future expectations could find themselves in a lot of trouble if they could sell enough beer to pay off their loans. That's how bubbles happen, folks.

My take is when craft beer's growth rate inevitably slows, it will do so at a rate that breweries can adjust to.  Suppose in 2016, the growth rate is 15%, and then in 2017, it's 12%, with 2018, 2019 and 2020 respectively being 10%, 8%, and 6%. Breweries will have time to reign back in their investments and adjust to changing market realities. On the other had, if the growth rate in 2016 is 15% and then it drops to 3% in 2017, there will likely be a whole bunch of extra unused capacity with costs and lost opportunity that could cause some breweries to fail.

My guess is that we'll see the former scenario rather than the latter. Habits like beer drinking tend to change over years, not overnight. Craft beer isn't some new fad, it's been around arguably for fifty years, and started becoming firmly established 20 to 30 years ago. As such, craft beer isn't going anywhere. While breweries will likely see more a more difficult business climate moving forward than the current go-go times and breweries will fail as any businesses do, the idea of a devastating craft beer bubble seems less and less likely. I certainly hope to be right.

Tuesday, January 26, 2016

Typology Tuesday #1: American Barley Wine Hits and Misses

I'm just not a big fan of American Barley Wines. Sure, I'd rather start Jay Brooks's wonderful Typology Tuesday project with a more upbeat opening. But then, he invited us to write about the American Barley Wine style and that's the first thing that leaped into my mind.

I think the issue with  American Barley Wines are that are very challenging to brew. All that rich, toffee and caramel malty goodness has to be balanced with copious amounts of hops, and lots of breweries get tripped up trying to pull that off. I've had some good American Barley Wines, but found a fair share of them to be either unbalanced palate assaulting monstrosities or bloated, muddled concoctions struggling beneath the weight of all their heavy flavors. Since Barley Wines are typically priced at $10-$20 per 22 ounce bottle, I rarely take a flyer on an American Barley Wine, even if it's from a brewery I have a lot of respect for. I've just been burned too many times.

I suspect this is part of the reason we seem to be seeing fewer and fewer Barley Wines in America despite the proliferation of new breweries. Not only is the style hard to brew, it is both time consuming and more expensive to produce than other styles. What was likely biggest Barley Wine event in the United States, the Toronado Barley Wine Festival in San Francisco, has recently been cancelled, with Toronado owner Dave Keene citing business concerns and changing tastes as the reason. Economics is slowly working against Barley Wines and I'm not sure this is a bad thing. Shouldn't breweries avoid making beers that drag down their bottom line? Do we really need lots of American Barley Wines if only a few select brewers can really deliver on the style?

Don't get me wrong, I've enjoyed some of the major American Barley Wines like Anchor's Old Foghorn, Sierra Nevada's Bigfoot Barley Wine and Stone's Old Guardian. However, with Old Guardian, I must keep it in the refrigerator for least a solid year to take the edge off the hops before I can enjoy it. Now some people are into really cellaring beers and find the transformation of Barley Wines over time to be one of their alluring qualities. I'm not one of them. I just wish the brewer had dialed back the hops so I wouldn't need to go to all the trouble of storing the beer for an entire year before I can finally drink it. For me, that's just more trouble than it's worth.

One of my local breweries in San Jose, Santa Clara Valley Brewing recently released their excellent Big Moody Barley Wine which I really like. But then, Santa Clara Valley Brewmaster Steve Donohue has won four GABF medals, so the guy demonstrably knows how to brew good beer. Perhaps it's telling that Steve Donohue told me he tried to keep the hops profile low with Big Moody, so maybe it's not a true American Barley Wine after all.

To end this on a positive note, an American Barley Wine provided a nice moment the time my parents, my sister and her husband were in town for Thanksgiving a couple years ago. A bottle of Sierra Nevada Barrel-Aged Bigfoot Barley Wine had been sitting in my fridge for about eight months and I figured the moment was right to pop open the bottle for the occasion. We were all chatting away as while we all sipped from small glasses poured from the same bottle, enjoying all the wonderful flavors enhanced by time and careful barrel-aging. A slight hush fell over us as we all realized we were sharing a special, rare experience. Then, the moment passed and we all started chatting away again. Chalk up a small victory for the American Barley Wine.

Update - Santa Clara Valley Brewing co-owner Tom Clark confirmed on this blog's Facebook page that Big Moody was designed as an English style Barley Wine.

Sierra Nevada's Barrel-aged Bigfoot Barley Wine in the fridge
just before the big Thanksgiving moment. My mom's favorite beer is 
Stella Artois, that's why it's there

Monday, January 25, 2016

Blurry Thoughts and Images from the 2016 SF Beer Week Opening Gala

What to say about Friday evening's SF Beer Week Opening Gala? Well, there are a lot more Bay Area breweries than I realized. Cruising up and down the aisles, my alcohol addled mind making critical calculations on what beer to have next, I kept in internal running dialog on each brewery as I'd make my next selection like "Never heard of that one....I heard they're good...the one beer I ever from them was just OK". There was a time not too long ago you could reasonably know all the Bay Area breweries without dying of alcohol poisoning. Today, that's completely impossible. So when contemplating your next beer from what the entire Bay Area brewing scene has to offer, I suggest you do what I did that night. Just try whatever you feel like having.

I had a lot of good beers that evening, but none of them had the real "Wow!" factor. I'm beginning to think that's not so much an indictment of today's breweries as an indirect compliment. So many talented brewers have raised the bar so high yesterday's "Wow!" is today's "quite good".  In fact, most of the beer I had was in the "quite good" category. A small few were, in my opinion, just "good". One was a very interesting experiment, I might really like if I got to know it better, but at this point I'd call it an eclectic acquired taste. Only one beer seemed like a real misfire, although it was still drinkable.

Stuff I particularly liked, in no particular order was Valley of the Hearts Delight by Almanac, SMASH Mosaic by Black Sands, Pipe Tobacco Porter from New Helvetia, Shoeless Joe Imperial Brown from Strike Brewing, Big Moody Barley Wine from Santa Clara Valley Brewing, Citroen Farmhouse Ale from Baeltane Brewing, Briny Melon Gose by Anderson Valley, 10 Lizzy Scotch Ale from Dust Bowl Brewing and Tommy Time IPA from Alpha Acid. I'm probably missing one or two from that evening. Sorry, as you can tell, I had a lot of beer that night.

I'll leave you from a few, slightly blurry images from an evening with its share of blurry moments.

(And in case you were wondering, I took public transportation all the way home.)

Monday, January 18, 2016

Some Lesser Known Beers to Look Out for During SF Beer Week

San Francisco Brewers Guild Executive Director
Joan Marino addressing the crowd
Last week I wandered out of the beer Siberia of the South Bay into San Francisco's Thirsty Bear for small pre-SF Beer Week media event. There, a number breweries sampled beers to be featured during SF Beer Week, with many of the brewmasters on hand to talk about them. As you might expect, the heavy hitters you've come to know and love like Anchor Brewing, Sierra Nevada, 21st Amendment, Almanac, Magnolia and Speakeasy all pouring both the old favorites and some interesting new concoctions. What I especially wanted to find were some of the new, smaller breweries that hadn't quite hit my radar screen. Given so that many breweries continue to re-invent beer, I was not surprised to find number of little known interesting and innovative beers to look out for during SF Beer Week. Maybe you've heard of them, maybe you haven't. Either way, let's get right to some of the lesser known beers I think you should be looking out for during SF Beer Week.

SMASH Citra IPA from Black Sands - The SMASH series from Black Sands stands for "Single Malt and Single Hop" and Black Sands has no fewer than six of these SMASH series beers ready for SF Beer Week. As for SMASH Citra, it uses Weyermann Pilsner Malt to create a platform for the Citra hops to do its grapefruity, lightly resinous thing. The simplicity and restraint, at only 64 ibu's and 5.9% abv, works to this brews advantage.

Dark Bullitt Imperial Porter from Bartlett Hall - Brewmaster Wynn Whisenhunt described this beer as chocolate coffee milkshake beer. Thankfully, Dark Bullitt didn't taste like a chocolate coffee milkshake beer. Instead of the horrible syrupy sweet mess one might expect with that introduction, what I got instead was a dynamite combination of coffee, dark chocolate, vanilla beans and lactose sugar giving it a surprising light, complex, dark chocolate and milky coffee quality with very little sweetness.  At 8.8% abv, it hides its alcohol well and all the strong flavors find a way to meld comfortably together to all pop without becoming too intense. A real pleasure to drink.

Lightship Sour Solera from Headlands Brewing - Headlands Brewmast Phil Cutti takes his GABF Medal winning Point Bonita Pilsner, ages it in Cabernet barrels, and then adds various bugs to sour the brew, transforming it into something lively, lightly sour and surprisingly fruity despite no actual fruit additions. At 5.4% abv, it's an almost sessionable sour and a rare sour you can enjoy without thinking too hard about it....or enjoy by thinking real hard about it.

Park Hoppy Wheat Beer from Fort Point Beer - Wheat beers and hops is a tricky combination, and Fort Point really pulls it off with Park. A smattering of Citra hops creates an extra grapefruit dimension to the underlying wheat beer, producing a rather refreshing and at 4.7% abv, very sessionable brew.

A big part of SF Beer Week is discovery. Here's to your discovery of these beers, or those just as good, during SF Beer Week.

Thursday, January 7, 2016

Could mid-sized independent breweries start disappearing?

Will mid-sized independent breweries like 21st Amendment
find tougher going with industry consolidation? 
In this second part to last Tuesday's post on A-B InBev's business strategy, I'll take look at issues facing breweries in light of recent brewing industry developments. In brewing, the more beer you brew, the less the overall cost to brew it per unit volume, known as "economies of scale". Breweries get price breaks on malt and hops when they buy them in larger volumes and can justify purchasing expensive automated equipment like high speed bottling lines when brewing in large volumes are just two examples in the industry. With large breweries taking advantage of brewing's inherent economies of scale, mid-size breweries that still needing to sell in appreciable volume may really feel the pinch moving forward.

Large corporate breweries have always counted on economies of scale in the brewing process to increase profits and their strong distribution networks allowed them to sell the beer at high volumes to sustain their business. Smaller breweries are always at a cost disadvantage and often lacked distribution channels, but as consumers gravitated towards porters, pale ales, and IPA's and away from mass market lagers, customers were increasingly willing to pay more for craft beer, leading distributors to sign onto craft brands into their portfolios.

Recent investments by corporate breweries, whether Constellation Brands buying Ballast Point, MillerCoors acquiring Saint ArcherHeineken taking a 50% stake in Lagunitas, or A-B InBev amassing a war chest of craft beer brands are certainly motivated by extending these economies of scale to craft breweries that were unable to take these advantages on their own. There is a common perception that when big corporations take over craft breweries, they'll start cutting costs and inevitably water down the product, but there are counterexamples to this "conventional wisdom". For example, we're coming up on five years since A-B bought Goose Island, and even the harshest craft beer critics concede there's been no demonstrable decline in Goose Island's brews.

It's even possible these acquisitions will lead to more greater innovation and beers for unprecedented taste and quality, now these acquired breweries can rely on greater resources from their corporate parents. For example, 10 Barrel Brewing's Chris Cox praised A-B InBev for sourcing enough hops so that 10 Barrel's award winning Joe IPA could be widely distributed on the West Coast. Prior to the A-B InBev acquisition, the only way you could get your hands on a pint Joe IPA was at one of 10 Barrel's brewpubs in the Pacific Northwest. A-B InBev has been credited in providing the necessary resources to expand Goose Island's barrel-aging program. Several other brewers have cited access to corporate resources to improve and more widely distribute their beer as justification for selling their businesses to large corporate breweries. Of course, people always say nice things like this in press releases but this may actually turn out to be true. Beer consumers may very well be the big winners in this acquisition frenzy.

However, for the independent brewer, these developments are disturbing. Soulless corporate breweries churning out tasteless mass market lagers were pretty easy targets. Now, these same corporations are producing comparable beers at a potentially lower costs with plenty of corporate sales, marketing and distribution muscle behind them. While beer geeks might shun these beers as corporate sell-outs, the remaining 99% of the population is largely unaware of the ultimate ownership of these breweries and probably wouldn't care very much even if they knew. Corporate beer no longer means bad beer hyped with silly gimmicks like vortex bottles. It now means beer comparable to what you can find at your local brewery giving independent breweries plenty to be worried about.

One type of brewery that will still flourish is the local "nanobrewery", the small brewery which sells most of its beer onsite at a brewpub or tap room. These very small breweries exploit a little appreciated "reverse economy of scale" in the brewing industry not everyone is aware of. Since these small breweries sell most, if not all of their beer directly to their customers, they don't need to split the revenues with any distributor and make higher margins on beer sales as a result. Many small breweries I've talked to have decided to pull back distribution, or prioritize their production in favor of more profitable on-premise sales. Not only are these small breweries increasing their margins by staying small, they put themselves in position to satisfy their fiercely loyal local following. Many indulge in all sorts of fun, wild experimental beers adding to their allure which would be highly problematical to brew at even a modest scale of a few thousand barrels.

If you don't believe these small breweries are successful, try finding a seat in a tap room. Having visited tap rooms and brew pubs in Bend, OR, Fort Meyers, FL, Kansas City, MO, Los Cruces, NM as well as plenty all over Northern California in the past year, these business are clearly thriving. It's a force large corporations really have no answer for, and since these small breweries actually represent a very tiny fraction of beer sales in America, probably aren't worth their time bothering with.

So if you're a brewery aligned with a large corporate parent, you're in a good position. If you're a small neighborhood brewery with a tap room and loyal following, life is pretty good, too.  But if your a mid-size independent brewery, things might start getting difficult.  Already, A-B InBev is making moves stifle competition through an incentive program which rewards distributors if 98% of their sales are A-B InBev products. It's a pretty safe bet Heineken, MillerCoors, and Constellation Brands will make similar moves.

What will the unaligned mid-size breweries do moving forward? Some of them are large enough like Sierra Nevada, Stone Brewing, or Deschutes that they should be able to keep chugging away. But will a 50,000 barrel a year brewery start to have trouble finding distributors? Will it become harder to secure hop contracts for specialty hops, now that big corporations are starting to buy these hops as well? Will smaller independent breweries have to swallow thinner margins or price their beer higher and be at a disadvantage on store shelves?

In the near term, I think most breweries should be fine and it' unlikely some catastrophic beer bubble will happen. Craft beer sales still continue to increase at a rate of 15% and can do so for a few more years, so there's still a lot of room for everyone. Of course, 15% growth is not sustainable forever and corporations are fighting back a lot more smartly to reclaim lost market share. We may see consolidation on a smaller level as well, with 50,000-100,000 barrel a year breweries merging together or forming strong business alliances. For example, in Northern California, it's entirely plausible to see something like Drakes and 21st Amendment joining together to form a larger brewery out of necessity to remain competitive.

There's one thing I'm sure of. There will always be plenty of breweries brewing great beer, and ultimately, beer drinkers will be the winners. We may not like it when corporations take over our favorite breweries. I have mixed feelings about this myself. However, this development has the potential lower beer prices while stimulating innovation in ways that previously weren't possible. This may be one of the most fascinating times in the history of brewing and I for one am watching it intently.

Tuesday, January 5, 2016

A-B InBev's Desperate, Diabolical Plans Come into Focus

Building a Death Star to destroy small rival breweries was considered by
A-B InBev's management but ultimately nixed by the company's legal team 
It was the dominant story in the beer industry to close out 2015. Anheuser-Busch InBev (A-B InBev) went on a brewery shopping binge a week before Christmas, picking up Arizona's Four Peaks Brewing, London England's Camden Town Brewing, and Colorado's Breckenridge Brewing in just five days. Considering A-B InBev has already acquired a collection of other craft breweries including Goose Island, Blue Point, Elysian, 10 Barrel, and Golden Road, what should we make of this buying frenzy?

The first take away is this is good news, in that A-B InBev sees craft beer as the future and so is investing heavily into it. This makes sense, given craft beer's annual 15% growth rates which show no signs of slowing, while the overall beer market is in slight decline. The second take away is that A-B InBev has decided they can't get into the craft beer game on their own and have decided to buy their way in. This isn't for lack of trying on A-B InBev's part as they've made several efforts to tap into the craft beer market with decidedly lackluster results.

Remember Budweiser American Ale? What about Budweiser Black Crown?  And who recalls Project 12?  All were attempts by A-B InBev tap into craft beer's popularity that flopped. Some of these brews were well received by beer critics and all of them were arguably more flavorful and more "craft-like" than Bud. Looking back in hindsight, it's not surprising there were few takers with these releases.  Loyal Bud drinkers were fine with the usual Bud. Craft beer drinkers were not persuaded to try anything associated with A-B InBev.  There's been lot of derisive comments from the craft beer community directed against A-B InBev of the variety "They could brew craft beer if they really wanted to!". This totally misses the point.  A-B InBev actually tried to brew craft beers and it didn't work. While technically, A-B InBev could come out with "Budweiser IPA" or even "Stella Artois Dubbel", ask yourself, would you really spend your hard earned money to buy these products? Didn't think so.

There's the other problem of a company structured to brew and sell beer at hundreds of thousands of barrels at a time reorganizing those efforts towards craft beer, which is still a niche' brewing product in the grand scheme of things. To put things in perspective, a highly successful IPA like Bear Republic Racer 5 might sell at a rate of about 50,000 barrels per year. That 50,000 barrel of beer is what A-B InBev sells in a little over five hours. A-B InBev simply doesn't have the skills, experience, or business structure to introduce and distribute beers in small batches at bars or beer festivals to launch niche' beers, something craft breweries do effortlessly as part of their business.

Given the decline of mass market lagers and their failure to break into the craft beer market, A-B InBev was basically left with two choices:  Suffer a long, slow painful death or start buying up craft breweries. Not surprisingly, they chose the latter. A-B InBev also seems to appreciate the importance of regional loyalty in the craft beer market, as beer writer Jeff Alworth and economist Patrick Emerson pointed out in this recent Beervana podcast. Rather than buy one or two breweries and attempt to turn them into national brands, they are buying several well established craft breweries to build up several strong regional brands throughout the United States.

Perhaps A-B InBev learned from their first acquisition, Chicago's Goose Island Brewery, which they've attempted to turn into a national brand. While Goose Island has been modestly successful nationally, it hasn't turned into the craft beer juggernaut A-B InBev may have been hoping for. Here in the Bay Area, Goose Island does a decent business but most likely trails many strong Northern California breweries like Anchor, 21st Amendment, Lagunitas, Sierra Nevada, and Anderson Valley.

The final piece of A-B InBev's puzzle is an attempt to create a network of distributors devoted exclusively to A-B InBev's beers through a controversial incentive program which rewards distributors if 98% of the beers they sell are A-B InBev brands. For those not familiar with America's three-tier system, most breweries cannot sell beer directly to stores, bars or restaurants. Instead, they are required by law in most states to sell to distributors who then resell it to businesses where consumers finally buy it. Only a few short months ago, it was highly unrealistic to expect distributors to agree to 98% exclusivity with A-B InBev, given that craft beer was already 10% of the beer market, and growing rapidly.

For small breweries, this was a particularly ominous development, given Anheuser-Busch's notorious history of using their considerable leverage with beer distributors to stifle competition. They began losing this power as consumers began shifting tastes to smaller breweries, and distributor found they could make good margins with craft beers. Now, with A-B InBev picking up several regional breweries and most likely on the hunt for a few more, they can reassert themselves with distributors with an array of both national and local beer brands to pressure them to go exclusively with A-B InBev. Given that the number of beer distributors in the United States has significantly declined and some markets are served by a little as a single distributor, small independent brewers have plenty to be concerned about.

How this all plays out is an open question. Will A-B InBev be successful is setting up a vast network of exclusive distributors and shutting out their competition?  Can small breweries continue to prosper in this new environment? Will the brewing revolution in America come to an end? Personally, I see beer consumers benefiting from recent developments, although for certain breweries, things will get more difficult. There's no way this country is going to revert back to a time when the overwhelming majority of the beer was a tasteless, indistinguishable product, that last century being a historical anomaly of beer's 5,000+ year history. I sincerely believe the coming years could easily be the most vibrant times in the American beer scene although things may start looking differently than it does now. This coming Thursday, I'll further elaborate on these thoughts and discuss how the beer industry might look years into the future.

Monday, January 4, 2016

Rambling Reviews 1.4.2016: South Bay Brews from Red Branch Cider, Hermitage and Mission Creek Brewing

Once again, time to ramble on about a three brews that recently crossed my path. For this installment, I'm keeping it local as all of them are from the Silicon Valley.

First brew up isn't a brew but a wonderful cider from a gem of a place I recently discovered, even though it's been around for a couple decades. It's Red Branch Cider, brewing mead since 1995, and making cider starting in 1999. I recently stopped in on a cold night to sample a number of their wide ranging fermented creations from mead to ciders to beers to even an excellent port. One of the high lights was their Peach Cider.  The first thing that hit me was all sorts of wonderfully peachy aromas. As for the flavors, wonderfully clean, vibrant peach flavors dominate the underlying base of crisp apples. Delving a little deeper beyond the lightly sweet fruit flavors reveals a light floral character from the honey and a slight tannic finish.  This cider has lots of stuff going on and it all works together exceedingly well.

Next up is the latest from the folks at Hermitage who regularly explore the wild world of hops with their Single Hop IPA series.  The latest brew in the series features the Green Bullet hop from New Zealand. It's a new hop finding plenty of work these days, most notably featured in a major Green Flash release. As for the Hermitage version, this brew is full of fresh pine and grassy flavors, with some lemon and pear throw in for good measure. I get the "Green" part from all the pine and grassiness, but found this hop to be more on the soft and gentle side than the word "Bullet" suggests. Once again, Hermitage takes us on another successful little hop excursion.

Finally, there is Punch List Pale Ale from Mission Creek Brewing, located at the Whole Foods Market in San Jose on The Alameda. It was a cool overcast day when I ventured into their upstairs outdoor patio to finally check this place out. This brew pours a cloudy orange, with a nice biscuit malt character embraced by light floral and slightly citrus hop flavors and aroma. I'm tempted to consider such a flavorful, yet unassumingly drinkable brew a session beer, but at 5.7% abv, an evening of putting a few of these away would be a pretty hard core session. I also have to salute a California Pale Ale that is exactly what it says it is, rather than a piney, slightly dialed-down IPA in disguise. (Not that there's anything wrong with that.) Really nice.

Friday, January 1, 2016

The Session #107: Breweries as Social Media Friends

There was a time breweries ventured into communities as outside interlopers. Breweries shipped their beer hundreds if not thousands of miles as they churned it out in factories before it finally arrived in our neighborhoods. Breweries inundated us with ads, blaring down from billboards or broadcasted into our living rooms through the TV.

Over the past couple decades in America, that's changed. Now, most people live a short drive from a brewery and can often easily see the beer being made and talk to the actual people who make it. Breweries are becoming the social gathering places they once were before Prohibition wiped that out. Money spent on locally brewed beer is more likely reinvested into the surrounding community rather than transferred into corporate bank accounts. America's brewing revolution has done a lot more than simply create better tasting beer. It's created a culture were breweries are members of their community, interacting with their surrounding populace.

Dan Conley's question "Are breweries your friends?"explores a dimension to this recent phenomena on how breweries can most effectively interact through social media. Most small breweries use social media as a cost effective marketing tol to interact with their customers and potential customers in the immediate area. Both social media's and craft brewing's growth have roughly the same trajectory and that's not entirely a coincidence, since social media has undeniably provided fuel for craft beers popularity.

I follow a few of my local breweries on Facebook and Twitter and my advice for any aspiring brewery hoping I'll follow them is pretty simple: Act like a good friend. It's nice to hear from you from time to time but blast out five or more posts a day and I'll hit the "unfollow" or "unfriend" button pretty quickly. Rather than always talk about yourself, tell about your employees, some of your vendors, or other partners you work with. You can brag a little, but describing every single beer you brew as "AMAZINGLY AWESOME" gets old real fast. Show the beer being brewed, talk about the ingredients, and let the brewer explain how it was made. That's far more engaging than just blaring out "HAVE WE GOT AN AWESOME NEW RELEASE FOR YOU!!!"

Take advantage of the full interactivity of the medium. People like getting brewery responses and "likes" to their comments or Tweets. You can learn a lot from a conversation with your customers, and learn to take criticism well and with a thick skin. You don't have to be selling your beer, just talk with people, ask questions, and listen to the answers. People are more likely to purchase beer from someone they've gotten to know.

If I decide to follow you on Social Media that means I'm interested in hearing your story and the beer you make. You can let me know about new releases or brew pub specials but don't turn me off with lots of hard selling. If I get to know you and your beer, in the not too distant future I will pay you for it.