Anatomy of a Craft Beer Brand

March 8, 2013 at 8:02 am

In the hyper competitive landscape that is the craft beer industry brewing great beer will only take you so far. It is critical for the long term viability of the product to develop a strong brand that the consumer can readily relate to. Successful branding can be the difference in a customer selecting one particular brewery’s product over another. Successful branding makes a connection with the consumer, often times through the establishment of positive connotations such  as  reliability, quality, or status. To put it bluntly, branding is big business.

When surveying the hundreds of craft beer brands currently available there appears to be several common approaches to branding and hundreds more truly unique or hybrid approaches. For this article I would like to take a closer look into three particular branding strategies that are common place in the industry, and I believe to be extremely effective.

Theme Based

This strategy involves creating a theme for the brand and integrating it into every aspect of the company. The theme is integrated into the individual beer names and often times special release series product lines. Furthermore, it takes front and center on all logos, packaging, labels, and associated text for each of the companies products. This overarching theme provides the unifying element for the brand and promotes the companies message to consumers in a clear and consistent message across all product lines.

Examples: Flying Dog Canine Theme, Heavy Seas Brewing Co. Pirate Theme

Location Based

This strategy relies on using local information, wether it be geography, lingo, or landmarks to make an emotional connection with the consumer. This approach can be extremely powerful as it capitalizes on the consumers pride of place. Successfully linking a brand to a local identity also provides the opportunity for the brewer to capture additional drinkers who may not be as familiar with craft beer, but are able to associate a positive connotation of location with the product. Brewers employing this branding strategy also have the opportunity to tap into the extremely hot local food/drink renaissance currently underway.

Examples: Flying Fish New Jersey Turnpike Exit Series, Cigar City Brewing Company Local Tampa Culture

Brewing Philosophy Based

This strategy utilizes the brewers brewing philosophy or approach to brand the product. This approach seems to gaining popularity particularly among American brewers specializing in the production of wild or sour beers. Marketing the technique and hand crafted aspect of the product, particularly the quality and mix of ingredients allows the consumer to believe they are getting a truly unique product. Often times this approach is linked to higher premiums on the products as they require more time and ingredients to produce, thus they are brewed in limited quantities.

Examples: Dogfish Head Off Centered Beers for Off Centered People, Ancient Ales Series, Extreme Brewing Jolly Pumpkin Open Fermentation,Barrel Aging, and Bottle Conditioning, Crooked Stave  Brettanomyces Beers

Essential Components

This may or not be considered a branding strategy but I believe it is important none the less. The product model for the majority of the commercial craft breweries goes something like this. The staples, these are the brewers year round offerings, usually sold in six packs, seasonal offerings usually fall into this category. Big beers, usually marketed in some type of series, these high alcohol beers are usually sold in 22 oz bombers and command a hefty premium. Barrel Aged beers, a subset of the big beers series, have become increasingly popular in today’s market place with many brewers offering a bourbon barrel or wine barrel aged product in their product lineup. The newest trend among today’s brewers is the collaboration series, where two or more breweries team up to create a beer, often times with each of the participating brewers incorporating their hallmark brewing styles.

Lionheart Brand

While I am no where close to opening a brewery anytime soon, I have spent some time thinking about how I could potentially brand Lionheart Brewing.  My approach to branding would utilize the theme based strategy, specifically medieval royalty and nobility.  Lionheart is most commonly associated with generosity and courage, two traits of King Richard I of England, also known as Richard the Lionheart.  It was also a nickname given to me in high school by a friend of mine, and a name I thought would make for a good name for my brewery.

My Lionheart brand would consist of medieval based themes for my standard six pack and seasonal offerings.  My big beers would be branded as a “Nobility Series” and would be associated with famous Kings and Queens throughout history that embodied the characteristics of that particular beer.  I think that this approach could also be integrated with a tagline that plays into the courage aspect of Lionheart, almost as a challenge to drinkers to consume the product, similar to the approach Stone Brewing takes with its Arrogant Bastard beers.  Something along the lines of  ”Lionheart. Is it in you?” Obviously these are still half baked ideas, however the take away is that branding is an extremely important part of a brewery and should be thought of early on in the process as it can have long lasting implications on the overall success or failure a brewery.


Craft vs. Crafty: My Take

December 14, 2012 at 8:48 am

This past Thursday the Brewers Association, the not-for-profit trade association dedicated to small and independent American craft brewers, released a statement that called into question the marketing practices of the large brewers and the products they sell. The article sent a strike across the bow of the usually tranquil landscape of today’s beer industry, when is accused the large brewers of “deliberately attempting to blur the lines between their crafty, craft-like beers and true craft beers from today’s small brewers.” The article continues with a call to action for all craft beer drinkers to educate themselves about the products they are purchasing to ensure they are not being duped into purchasing a “crafty” beer from the big three. The article set off a virtual firestorm in the twittersphere, and ever since brewers themselves and craft beer drinkers alike have been offering up their opinions to the #craftvscrafty twitter tag. If you haven’t had a chance to read the full article yet, I would encourage you to read it here and join the debate.

After thinking about the article for the passed few days and reading some of the related banter on the internet a few thoughts come to my mind on the Brewers Association’s accusations, as well as a simple solution to the craft vs. crafty problem. First of, as an avid homebrewer and a person who considers themselves to be slightly more in tune with beer related issues than the average Joe, I can attest that the problem of less than transparent marketing practices is out there. One example that comes to my mind is Goose Island, which until fairly recently I thought was a craft brewer out of Chicago. Little did I know that it was actually owned and operated by the corporate beer conglomerate we’ve come to know as Anheuser-Busch InBev. On first glance Goose Island has all the characteristics of a good craft beer; good tasting beer, multiple varieties offered, speciality releases in 22oz bottles, etc. Hell they even had tap takeovers in some of the better Philadelphia beer bars when Goose Island first became available for distribution in Pennsylvania.

The problem for me lies in the decision of what to do with all my impressions of Goose Island prior to finding out it was owned and operated by InBev. I thought their beers were solid, they had a presence in some popular beer bars, cool marketing, I even bought a few of their specialty ales and stashed them away for a special occasion. I never had a bad beer from them or any experience with the brand that would lead me to not like it.

However when I found out that it was owned by InBev my feelings towards the Goose Island brand almost immediately turned negative. Is this fair? Probably not, but I often compare the craft beer industry to the music industry. When a band is underground it is “cool”, but when that same band becomes popular to a certain point they are more often than not labeled as “sell outs”, and in turn less desirable and sometimes intolerable to those original fans for no other reason than that. As a craft beer lover, my “sell out” moment came when I found out that Goose Island was owned by InBev, they rightly or wrongly became uncool in my mind.

I believe that it is this very kind of thought process that the large brewers are hoping to avoid by blending in with the other craft brewers. They know that their status as the Big Three is a stigma that those within the craft beer community do not wish to be apart of, therefore they seek to disguise themselves in their product placement and marketing as a craft product, in the hopes of capturing a share of the ever increasing craft market place. After all, this is America and we live in a capitalist society, and they are publicaly traded companies that have a fiduciary responsability to their shareholders to maximize profits. Like many large companies their methods are often times less than desirable, and sometimes border on unethical, this instance is no different in my mind.

While I do agree that their should be a healthy debate amongst those who have far more experience and insight into the beer industry than I as to what constitutes a craft brewery, I do think that the consumer has a right to know who brewed the beer they are purchasing, be it is from a craft brewer, one of the Big Three, or a homebrewer’s driveway. In my mind there is a fairly simple solution to this problem, that being the creation of a an authentic craft brewer designation icon or logo that would be required on all beer labeling.

This is not a new concept in the beer industry as the Trappist breweries of Europe have instituted an “Authentic Trappist” labeling on their products for the very same reasons mentioned in this debate. Similar examples of this kind of product awareness can also be found in the food industry, specifically the Certified Organic moniker. This approach would provide the craft beer consuming public and craft beer advocates such as the Brewers Association, with the added level of transparency they desire. From there it would be up to each individual if they want to buy craft or crafty beer with their hard earned money.

Authentic Trappist

Too Many Taps a Bad Thing?

December 12, 2012 at 8:07 pm

Last week I read an interesting article tweeted out by the highly acclaimed beer author Stan Heironymus, about the growing concern amongst some of the leading craft brewers that the current diversity of beer offerings is actually detrimental to the future growth of the industry as a whole. The crux of the article is that craft brewers opened up pandoras box by adding seasonal beers to their existing rotations, and over time the expectations from the craft beer consumer have been steadily raised to the point were they now expect new beer offerings more frequently than ever before. These expectations have been fanned by the rise in popularity of craft beer in general and in turn the proliferation of the “beer bar”, whom often times offer upwards of 30 to 40 beers on draft at any given time.

The article goes on to argue that this diversity, particularly at beer bars is actually damaging to the brewers as many of the bars are constantly rotating their drafts and do not allow brewers to get designated tap handles at their bars. This rotation, it is argued, doesn’t allow the brewers to build their brands with the craft beer consumer as the bars and consumers themselves continuously seek out the newest and most exclusive beers available to date. The article goes on to say this rotation of taps, and lack of tap real estate is even more detrimental to newer less established start up brewers who have less brand recognition than some of the bigger household names. To read the full article click here.

While I’ll have to admit the topic of the article never really crossed my mind while enjoying a pint at my favorite beer bar, I would have to refute some of the claims made in the article, and chalk them up to jockeying amongst craft beer owners and beer distributors over potential profits in an ever growing and competitive market place. For one when I go to a beer bar one of the first things I usually do is scan through the draft list looking for a new brewery that I have not yet had the opportunity to try.  It is the variety that attracts the connoisseurs of craft beer to the beer bar in the first place, and it is these very same people who are also passionate enough about the beer to promote the new brewer to their friends, co-workers, and on the internet.

This old fashioned word of mouth advertising coupled with a modern day blitz of social media will do more to build and promote a brand than a permanent tap handle ever would.  In my mind beer bars are the place for new up and coming brewers to break into the market, and while I admit the lack of tap stability might be problematic to some, it is essential for any business this day and age in addition to offering a great product, to take advantage of effective marketing, design, social media, etc. in order to build a lasting brand in a hyper competitive market place.

Furthermore the argument that the Dogfish’s or Brooklyn’s of the world need permanent tap space to build brand recognition is laughable. These companies have been able to rise to the top of the competitive beer market through a firm understanding of the consumers demands and an ability to meet and often times exceed them. They are champions of marketing, social media, and varieties offered, they have also broken into new non-traditional markets such as restaurants, stadiums, bowling alleys, etc that the smaller brewers are unable to. The big craft brewers prominence in these more main stream venues has provided them with a greater competitive advantage in both sales and brand building potential than any permanent tap handle at some beer bars ever would.

At the end of the day the beer business is just like any other, it comes down to having a good product people want and the ability to overcome all barriers, however small or large to fulfill the created demand. The rotation of taps and highly diverse offerings found at many beer bars are not a detriment to growth and branding, but in fact a benefit.  That is if the beer is great of course, because at the end of the day thats what its all about.

Get to know your Beershed

October 24, 2012 at 5:08 pm

Recently I came upon this cool map that combines two things that consume a large part of my time, making maps and brewing beer.  The map starts off with the standard beer brewing description and a visual interpretation of the basic formula of the ingredients that constitute a beer.  The map provides spatial information on three of the four main ingredients along with some facts about the production of each. Below the map is a pictogram depicting worldwide hop production by Country.

I think this map is very well done as it very easy to visualize each ingredient of the beer and where they comes from within the Country.  The layout of the graphic strikes a fine balance of color, cartography, and information making for an easy to read, polished looking product.

After taking a look closer at the map of America’s beershed  three things struck me as interesting.  First, while I knew that Oregon and Washington were responsible for a large percentage of American hop production, I was always under the impression that Idaho had large swaths of land dedicated to growing the crop as well.  I associated Idaho with highly mechanized hop operations in support of the Big Three’s beer production.  While this maybe the case based upon this map it appears the growing areas in Idaho are far smaller and much more concentrated than I ever imagined.

The second thing that struck me as somewhat odd was the lack of any malting plants east of the Mississippi. While its clear the large majority of the barley is grown out west, specifically the Northern Plains and the Pacific Northwest regions, one would think based on the map there is enough local barley production to warrant a malting plant in the Mid Atlantic region.  Furthermore from a distribution and logistics standpoint there would seem to be a need to be closer to the large amount of breweries located up and down the east coast.

Lastly I never knew that China was responsible for producing such a large percentage of the worldwide hop supply.  While many of us have brewed with German, American, or other European hops I would venture to bet many have never brewed with Chinese hops.  I find it strange that Chinese hops constitute 14% of the worldwide supply yet I have never seen them available for purchase, mentioned in any recipes,  and after spending sometime searching the internet, it appears there is little to no information available on Chinese hop varieties and associated flavor characteristics.  Oddly enough in this months BYO issue there is an article about the homebrewing movement in China and one of the provided recipes mentions the use of the Xinjiang hop.

Birth of a Barrel

October 9, 2012 at 11:27 am

As the days grow shorter and the seasonal taps begin to rotate from light to dark at your local pub, barrel aged beers will surely begin to appear.  Big beers aged in old bourbon, wine, or other spirt barrels have become a staple of many of the major craft brewery’s beer portfolios.

As the craft beer movement continues to evolve in America, so do the connoisseurs palates.  Barrel aging provides another level of complexity to what are already sophisticated beers, sure to satisfy even the biggest beer geeks desires.

Oak is chalk full of aromatics that can add additional flavors including vanilla, clove, coconut, coffee and chocolate to name a few.  Additional variables in the barrel aging process include the type of Oak (American, French, Hungarian), toast type, and duration in the barrel, all of which play an important role in the final flavor of the beer.  This is where the fun, as well as the craft, come into making these beers.

While there is no doubt the creation of a well brewed barrel aged beer is a labor of love, the creation of the barrel itself is often overlooked and very much the same.  I recently came across this wonderfully filmed video called “Birth of a Barrel” that chronicles the creation of the barrels used at the Jack Daniels distillery. This beautifully filmed clip opened my eyes to the work involved in creating the barrels that contribute the complex flavors to some of my favorite beers.