COVID-19 has seen many breweries look to direct-to-consumer sales and online stores as a means to replace lost on-premise sales. It has also seen breweries renew focus on their regular subscription services and beer clubs. We take a look at the business case for beer clubs, what they are and what the brewers aim to achieve with the model.
Victoria’s Bridge Road Brewers was one of the first breweries to create a direct beer subscription service for consumers, dubbed The Posse, back in 2009.
“When it comes to growth, being a regionally-based brewery, the population is not on our side,” Bridge Road Brewers’ founder Ben Kraus told Brews News.
Bridge Road has been selling beer online since its launch in 2005, a time when buying beer online was still a relatively new concept. Since then they have expanded to the point where Kraus attributed some of Bridge Road’s growth to its beer club community.
“It also provided customers who live in locations where there isn’t much craft beer available to ensure they always have something interesting in the fridge.”
The relative merits of independent versus mainstream bottle shops have often been discussed, but when you have access to neither or one with a poor range of beer, a craft beer enthusiast needs to look elsewhere.
Similarly, those that are time-poor or want to support their favourite breweries from across the country have turned to beer clubs, and over the past decade, The Posse has grown to 1,000 members, highlighting the demand for fresh beer from customers.
“Since the club’s inception we have been brewing beer specifically for the club members,” Kraus said.
“With a new release every season or quarter, the volume required for these ‘Posse’ beers is based on member numbers, and we can scale up production as required.”
However, Kraus said there are also significant challenges to starting consumer beer clubs.
“From communications, through to billing and delivery, but also third-party delivery services,” Kraus noted.
“Having the right software for managing subscriptions and payments is definitely a risk in being able to manage growth.
“We’re currently on our third software platform, and aside from having custom software built, we’ve found there is no perfect solution,” he said.
“Delivery is our biggest challenge, and although it is out of our hands once it has left the brewery, we are responsible for ensuring our members receive their orders in a timely manner.”
Kraus added that one of the lessons he has learned is to communicate with members consistently – and interestingly, not to create beers that could be polarising.
“As these beers make up around a quarter of a pack, we don’t want people having six smoked beers they don’t enjoy taking up space in their fridge,” he added.
Managing Bridge Road through the bushfires and the pandemic has made this year exceptionally challenging, especially from a distance after Kraus and his family relocated to Austria prior to COVID-19, but The Posse has proved to be an invaluable asset to the business.
“Our beer club has been a great help in getting us through 2020 and we look forward to welcoming members through the doors again in the coming year,” Kraus said.
Beer clubs grow
Since 2009, several other breweries have followed Bridge Roads’ lead.
Stone & Wood launched its consumer Beer Club in November last year as a way to directly connect with its customer base.
“When people drink our beer, they can reach out and ask us about it,” said Stone & Wood ‘Direct to Drinker’ manager Steve Blick.
“They know they can share something with us, or if they want to know more, we’re able to facilitate.”
For $15 a month, Stone & Wood Beer Club participants receive monthly videos, stories, and beer education resources, limited-release beers five times a year, plus the annual Stone Beer Vintage Pack.
While beer clubs aid engagement, communication and relationship building, Blick said they also bring with it the obligation to be present and relate to the customer.
“The long-term vision is not to be a product that customers pick up off the shelf and think nothing of,” he said. “But to have chats about things that we both enjoy and care about.”
Stone & Wood is being very care not to push the club too hard, instead, taking a slow and steady approach.
“We want to maintain a good level of service and connection with the Beer Club members,” Blick explained.
“We don’t want it to become unmanageable.”
For Modus Operandi Brewing, a brewery in Sydney’s Northern Beaches, the challenge of staying connected with customers during the pandemic influenced the creation of its beer club.
“We didn’t create the Modus Beer Club to achieve anything except a community where we have the opportunity to share more of the day-to-day at Modus and create an environment where people can ask questions and converse about beer,” explained Jaz Wearin, co-founder of Modus Operandi.
Modus Operandi’s events and direct-to-consumer coordinator, Amanda Baker, added that although the beer club is currently closed to new members, it will reopen in late November.
“We exhausted our allocation pretty quickly, which is also very exciting,” Baker said.
“We will be opening up more allocations come Christmas time.”
Wearin explained that it’s not just about creating something ‘worthwhile’.
“It’s about creating and keeping that connection with those who’ve supported us since day one, and continually sharing not only our product but knowledge as well.”