More than ever, it seems, ambitious home brewers, energized by the success of their peers, are aspiring to bring their beers to a thirsty public. And many of America’s 1 million home brewers do indeed make very good beer, as beer judges will readily attest.
But making the leap from beer hobbyist to professional brewer requires skills not typically associated with home brewing, like strict quality control and a predictable product, articulating an authentic brand identity, and standing out in an uber-crowded market.
As Calicraft Brewing owner Blaine Landberg points out, “You can make the best beer in the world, but if nobody can get it and you can’t run a business, what are you doing?”
“The artistry of making beer is easy to do. The hardest part is running the business and creating relationships,” says Dan Del Grande, owner of Bison Brewing in Berkeley.
Brewing great beer consistently and predictably is the minimum table stakes for entry into the commercial craft brewing game. Variations that might be considered “creative” in a home or nano brewery are unacceptable in pubs or stores that demand a product that tastes the same batch after batch. “Small operations don’t have the control of quality, but it’s OK because it’s unique. You can make a nice hobby out of that,” observes Del Grande. “It’s different if you’re selling 40 kegs of every batch. If the beer is not of equal quality, the variability is no longer cute.”
Pubs that drain-pour returned beer soon replace that tap handle with something else.
Building a Brand
Craft beer drinkers form a personal relationship with where their beer originates. “Beer always has to come from somewhere,” points out John Martin, owner of Drakes Brewing, Triple Rock and Jupiter. “You want to know what’s in it, what it is, who is making it and where it’s made.”
Successful businesses are typically rooted in a “story” that evokes who they are and that resonates with consumers. “The story you create has to be interesting enough that people have to understand it and want to repeat it,” says Del Grande. At Bison, Del Grande makes beers like organic Chocolate Stout and Honey Basil Ale. “The theme is organic beer with a twist.”
After acquiring Drakes Brewing a few years ago, John Martin updated the brand by embracing the brewery’s gritty surroundings. “We’re brewing in a tin shed in back of Walmart in industrial San Leandro. We have the town dump between us and the water. Let’s take this and make it a little more real. So we changed the branding around to fit that image. We wanted to get a little of that through the label.”
Baeltane co-owners Alan Atha and Cathy Portje established the brand of their three barrel-system brewpub as a mythic homage to Atha’s Gaelic heritage. Beltane means “first fire” and the Beltane Fire Festival is an annual arts event and ritual drama held on April 30 in Edinburgh. The Baeltane brewpub in Novato held its own fire-lighting ceremony on April 23.
Blaine Landberg built Calicraft’s brand around locally sourced ingredients, and his beers reflect a regional focus: Buzzerkeley, Cali Colsch and Oaktown Brown Ale. Landberg is also brewing a beer to celebrate the 41st anniversary of the iconic locavore restaurant Chez Panisse in Berkeley.
Damian Fagan and Jesse Friedman’s Almanac brand flowed out of their passion for seasonal, local, farm-to-table foods and beverages. “We thought the farm-to-bottle concept was one of those very obvious things that nobody was doing. Given where we are in Northern California, where there’s so much attention paid to that ethos as far as food is concerned, we knew there was a real opportunity to bring it to the beer world,” says Fagan.
Almanac was uniquely poised to bring its story directly to the bottle. Before shifting careers, Fagan led a marketing and design firm in San Francisco and Friedman was a well-known writer in the Bay Area locavore community. “Our visual identity, our branding, whether it’s the labels or the website, the quality has to reflect what’s in the bottle. You’re really doing yourself a disservice if it doesn’t, because you can have the best liquid in the world, but if you can’t get somebody to pay attention to what you’re saying, it’s all for naught,” says Fagan.
Finding the White Space
These days, simply making great beer is no longer enough to be featured on store shelves or in pubs; the beer also has to stand out in a crowd.
In the early 1980s, Sierra Nevada Pale Ale was remarkable because the Northwest-hopped beer was different from anything else on the market. At the time, Sierra Nevada Pale Ale represented a new style category that revolutionized the beer industry and transformed the company into a legendary brand. For many years, hop-forward ales have been the standard for craft beer and remain so today.
“For the first five years you could get three to four beers (at Triple Rock) and that was it: pale, red or amber, porter or stout,” says Martin, who opened his Triple Rock brewpub in 1986. “Back in those days, that was all you needed.”
Today’s craft beer market is awash in countless iterations of the bitter style of SNPA. “If I bring a pale ale into a house that sells Sierra Nevada, how much pale ale do you think I’m going to sell?” says Landberg. As he scanned the beer landscape, Landberg asked himself a fundamental question: “What would Fritz and Ken do?”
To be noticed in today’s market, Landberg reasoned that he had to offer beer distributors something different. “You’ve got to make sure you give them something they’re not going to steer away from,” says Landberg. Distributors don’t build brands, “they sell brands that sell. Finding out where the gaps were from the distribution standpoint was the first piece. Two was, where are the gaps in the market and what do you want to stand for?”
Landberg is placing his bet on lighter-style beers made from local ingredients that represent the intersection between wine and beer and appeal to customers beyond the prototypical craft beer drinker. “There is a huge crossover and nobody is talking about this. Nobody is saying where we get our stuff from and why that’s important, and more importantly, how do we drive styles more toward wine?” To underscore his point, Buzzerkeley, Calicraft’s Belgian blonde ale, is fermented with wine yeast and Landberg’s next beer will be a wit made with white wine. “We are people who bottle the taste of California and we focus on where beer meets wine.”
Scratching Your Niche
Knowing its audience and market can be critical for a niche brewery. “You have to fundamentally say, ‘Who is your consumer?’” Landberg says. “At craft beer festivals, we’re busy but not super busy. We do have an inordinate number of females in our line. If we go to an art and wine festival or a cultural event, we have a line that’s two to three times as long. It will be a small segment that will slowly grow, and if we build it correctly and get into the right accounts, and slowly get it, we’ll be able to get a new and interesting category moving,” he says.
“We just straight up do not sell to certain places if we know that the brand is not going to work,” says Landberg. “You want to build a good brand in your core market that you can slowly build out over time. If you get a few key spots around the country, it takes on a life of its own.”
Almanac’s beer might not appeal to a lot of “typical” craft beer drinkers, and its farm-to-bottle ales are more likely to be paired with food in fine dining restaurants. “You want to get your beer in front of the right audience,” says Fagan. “We didn’t want the shotgun approach where we just put the beer everywhere because we knew that our beer wasn’t going to work everywhere, and we still feel that way. Our beer isn’t going to make sense in a lot of places.”
Almanac, like Calicraft, has honed in on “influencer” accounts. “Whole Foods was an obvious fit. Everything about Whole Foods and their entire company ethos is in many ways identical to Almanac’s,” Fagan says. “Whole Foods has a relatively large footprint, so we knew if we could get in there our beer would get in front of a lot of the right people who were interested inherently in what we were doing and would pass the news along to their friends.”
Niches can also be regional. Baeltane’s Atha saw a local opportunity for building a Belgian-style brewpub that would appeal to Sonoma County wine drinkers who might stop in for an interesting tripel, along with some acoustic music. Atha doesn’t want his beer in just any bar, though. One Novato pub that asked about carrying his beer would only talk dollars. “We thought they should be able to charge more for our beer, but our number didn’t fit into their mold.” So Atha passed, although his beer will soon be poured at a different Novato pub.
John Martin sees a way forward in going back to Drakes’ roots in less hop-forward, lower-alcohol English ales. As a result, Drakes is collaborating with breweries like 21st Amendment and Magnolia of San Francisco and with Pete Slosberg to celebrate Session Beer Month in May as a counterbalance to Strong Beer Month. “All of the lupulin but none of the stumblin’,” is how Drakes’ Kelsey Williams puts it.
Lots of Room for New Brands
Fortunately for brewers just starting to venture into selling their own beer, the so-called craft beer bubble shows no sign of bursting anytime soon. Craft beer share remains under 10% but it’s growing steadily while industrial brewers become increasingly desperate. “The industrial beer market is the one that’s going to burst, not craft beer,” says Martin. “I find it wonderful to see little breweries opening in industrial areas. People go way out of their way to find good beer. It’s really amazing. What can be better than that?
“There’s a lot of room for brands. There’s not infinite room for tap handles or store shelves, but there’s infinite room for breweries with little tasting rooms. There could be a million of them in California.”