Breweries should focus unwaveringly on their local markets and not rely too heavily on one flagship beer, according to American industry pioneers.
Founders of Russian River, Firestone Walker, Karl Strauss and Drake – all of which were founded in the 1980s and continue to prosper today – comprised the Staying Relevant After All These Years panel at the Craft Brewers Conference 2017.
Continuously evolving marketing and product offerings is absolutely crucial, according to Karl Strauss CEO Chris Cramer.
Below are some of the panel’s other tips for ensuring the longevity of a brewery.
Heritage doesn’t sell beer
Beer drinkers are much more influenced by beer quality and innovation than they are by heritage or history, according to Firestone Walker co-founder David Walker.
He was responding to a question from the floor about the merits of using a brewery’s seniority to sell its beers, from a representative of one of America’s oldest continuously operating breweries.
“It’s great that you’re 145 years old, we’re 21 years old. But I don’t think people are that interested in it,” said Walker.
“I think they’re interested in the beer that you make and the flavours and the innovation, and then all the stories associated with that beer.”
According to Karl Strauss’s Cramer, breweries should only rely on history to the extent that it is relevant to a targeted consumer group.
“In our company, we say that Karl was in our roots and he’s in our soul, and yet Karl is not alive anymore, he died ten years ago,” Cramer said.
“It’s important to know where you’re coming from, but to just reiterate something from the past won’t necessarily resonate with existing consumers.”
One flagship isn’t enough
Many breweries start out with a particular beer style as their unique selling point, according to Drake’s Brewing Company founder John Martin, who questioned the sustainability of this approach.
“They go out and decide, well we’re going to be an English ale brewery, or we’re going to be a hoppy brewery or a stout brewery.
“That’s all fine… [but] if you want people in the long-term, it’s about your brand. They have to really trust you as a brand, so that of course means quality.
“What I like to see… is breweries that you just go, ‘God it’s Russian River, whatever they put out is awesome!’.
“That kind of feeling, that’s what you want out of your brewery, for people to trust you,” he said.
Martin said many breweries rely too heavily on one flagship without having the complementary products to back it up.
Stay local, local, local
The days of breweries sending their beer far and wide are over, Martin furthered.
“Get deep in your markets, don’t send beer just all over the place,” he said.
“Make sure you have a tap handle at the first bar down the street before the next town, that’s what I think.”
David Walker said a common refrain of his partner Adam Firestone is that “beer is perishable and it’s heavy”.
“I think you need to focus very heavily on concentric circles around your brewery and not move in to another circle until the circle you are in, you’re happy with,” he said.
Karl Strauss’s Cramer said breweries need to work hard to understand their local community.
“You have to get engaged in that community, you’re going to have to communicate with them,” he said.
“One of the easiest ways to do that is through charity work. There are a lot of breweries that get their start and made their name because they found out, ‘hey, we can at least get sampling through working with local charities’.
“If you can go and support causes that are important to you and important to other people in the community, that will at least start bringing them in to the world of craft beer.”
Controlling owners that are not properly engaged with a brewery are a “disease”, commented David Walker.
“Buy them out,” was his blunt advice for an audience member.
“They’re like ship anchors. The last thing you need in your life as a craft brewer is partners that are not engaged.”
Walker said that it is easy for owners’ attentions to be diverted as a brewery matures into a multi-faceted business.
“There’s a little bit more space and you can make choices… you can spend more time either in the brewhouse or the market or the office,” he said.
“You can sort of lose that holistic engagement with your brewery. I think that’s actually a bad thing.
“I think you have really have to audit yourself and make sure you’re engaged in every piece of the enterprise.”