Category Archives: Russian River

Beer Displays and Brand Equity

You probably don’t notice it. It flies under the radar. The phenomenon of which I speak? The organization of the beer fridge in bottle shops.

To start this discussion, let’s examine the way wine is organized in most any given bottle shop or market. You walk in and you see shelf-talkers or hanging signs that all have a varietal on them. “Cabernet Sauvignon” is over here, “Pinot Noir” is over there, etc, etc, so on and so forth. Region and producer are most often ignored in favor of easy categorization.

The beer fridge however, tends to reveal a bit more variation. If you go to a supermarket, you’ll most often find a wall of two or three macrobrewer products (in many different packaging formats) that create the banner effect these companies covet in such retail outlets. What craft beer they carry tends to be organized by brewery. This of course applies only where they carry more than one beer from a given brewery.

Where we see a bit more variation is in bottle shops (those places whose focus is beer, wine and spirits). It is in these stores that the wine approach sometimes takes over the beer fridge. Rather than seeing all of a brewery’s product in one place, things get spread out by style. Tripels over here, IPA’s over there, Stouts all in one place, etc, etc, so on and so forth.

The question becomes, what to make of this? Having seen the brand-building power of social media in the craft beer world, I can’t help but worry a bit about the effect that organization by style may have. As far as wine goes, people tend to purchase by varietal, rather than by winemaker. In beer however, people still base their purchases heavily upon brewery.

If you enter a shop organized by style and want to buy a couple things from Ballast Point, you have to go to the IPA section to get Sculpin and the Porter section to get Black Marlin. Not good for the consumer, not good for the brewery. Obviously, if you’re looking to try a bunch of IPA, then its easier if the beer is organized by style, but I don’t believe such organization is good for craft brewers in the long term.

Organization by style completely destroys brand equity in the eyes and mind of the consumer. Rather than recognizing a bunch of beers from a given brewery, all the consumer sees is a bunch of Pale Ales. Breweries all have their own strengths and their own unique personalities. Many of them have used Social Media to let consumers get to know them, their philosophies and their personalities. They have spent a tremendous amount of time and resources defining themselves to the consumer.

Working in the beer industry, I find that more people ask what beers are available from “Brewery X” at a given time rather than what beers of a particular style are available. This is especially true at better beer bars, whose focus is a variety of style. You’re unlikely to find more than one Witbier or Porter on tap. However, customers consistently ask questions like, “What do you have from Stone?” or “What’s on tap from Russian River?” These and many other breweries have built a reputation for brewing excellent beer and customers will often drink whatever beer happens to be available from that brewery, regardless of style.

When bottle shops spread beer out by style, they degrade this brand equity and unknowingly move beer consumers into a frame of mind that mirrors wine consumers. Brand starts to matter less than style. Craft brewers and sellers of craft beer must be aware of this phenomenon and fight it. Craft brewers need to maintain brand equity. Sellers of craft beer must realize that they can leverage that equity to sell more beer. Put a brewery’s beer all in one place and you’ll sell more of that brewery’s beer. Do this for every brewery and the math does itself. You sell more beer and you create customers that are more loyal to a given brewery and a given bottle shop. It makes sense for everyone.

Photo Credit: Mike Beningo

Beer Hype: A Double-Edged Sword

You’ve heard the names ad nauseum in the craft beer world. Darkness, Dark Lord, Black Tuesday, etc, etc, etc. These are beers crafted in (necessarily) small batches from very well-respected breweries. They have dates on the calendar dedicated to their releases. They are the subjects of post after post (after post, after post) on beer-related internet fora. They can command sums 10 times their purchase price on eBay. And that’s all awesome. It’s great to see that type of interest in craft beer.

But these beers are also sources of alienation, consternation and anger. People who wait in line for hours for them are nonetheless precluded from purchasing them. People who wake up early and hit “refresh” constantly on a website to obtain release day tickets are shut out by those with faster internet connections. Those less fortunate inevitably take to the internet to call out the brewery or bar that wasn’t able to get them the beer they so desperately desired. It’s a bad situation for all involved.

There is no beer that exemplifies this dichotomy of experience better than Pliny the Younger. The Triple IPA produced by Vinnie Cilurzo of Russian River Brewing in Santa Rosa, CA seems to have a life of its own. Those who are able to obtain it feel as though the clouds have parted, bathing them in the light of the divine. Those who are unable, well, let’s just say they don’t feel that way.

Getting the beer usually involves a long wait in a line outside of a bar that has previously announced the date and time at which the beer will be tapped. This is where the problem starts. In this case, the demand far outstrips the supply. If the bar is lucky, the 5-gallon keg it gets will serve around 55-60 people (and that’s a BIG maybe). When faced with a line of 100+, there is no avoiding the fact that some people are going to walk away disappointed.

But how disappointed ought they be? That depends on a number of factors. The first that ought to be noted is the transparency of the establishment serving the beer. The bar runs the risk of losing some business by telling people that everyone past “Person X” in line won’t get the beer. However, one could argue that a lot more business is lost in pissed off customers if someone waits in line without knowing how much beer there is to go around.

Assuming the bar has told those waiting that there are “x” number of pours available, then the patrons are able to make an informed decision. If people still get angry, it’s because the specter of entitlement has reared its ugly head. Somewhere along the line, a number of beer geeks (a term I generally employ affectionately) decided that they should have access to every beer they desire. When they are shut out, they use any number of disparaging terms for the brewery, bar or proprietor in question. Sometimes it’s warranted, sometimes it’s not. Either way, objectivity is usually tossed out the window.

And this is the real issue with beer hype. On the one hand, it’s great to see a bunch of interest in craft beer. The mere fact that people would wait for hours to obtain a single beer is testament to the ever-growing popularity of the product. On the other hand, such hype leads to a host of unintended consequences.

For neophytes who are just getting into craft beer, the difficulty of dealing with such releases paints a skewed picture of the industry. Craft beer isn’t about hunting down the rarest of the rare (for most). Rather, it’s about being able to drink flavorful beer produced by someone who really cares about it. It’s about supporting an industry that gives a damn about its customers. But if your experience of the industry begins and ends with waiting in line for Pliny the Younger, you probably won’t be around for long if you aren’t able to obtain any.

For those who are already full-fledged enthusiasts, the view also becomes skewed. Sure, Pliny the Younger is a wonderful beer. It is clearly world class, and probably the best in its “style.” However, there are a ton of other beers that are probably as good, or at least close, that can be readily obtained. No lines. No disappointment. No reason to be pissed off. Also, there’s something to be said for discovering the next awesome beer rather than braving the masses to drink one that everyone already knows is good. This part of the chase gets lost in the hype.

There is no elegant solution for this issue. The brewers literally can’t make enough of their most hyped beers. If they are higher in alcohol or sour (and they usually are), they just take too long to make. In order to produce more, the brewery would have to sacrifice its financial wellbeing and also its core brands in the process. Understandably, they’d rather a lot of people enjoy beer they can readily produce than appease a few more myopic rare beer chasers.

So it comes down to this. If you go chasing a beer like Pliny the Younger, know what you’re getting yourself into. You’ll wait in a long line. You may not get the beer. But look on the bright side. You’ll be at a beer bar. There will be other awesome stuff to drink. And you’ll be around a lot of like-minded individuals. If you don’t chase after it, you can take solace in the huge world of incredible beer that is otherwise currently available. The explosion of craft beer in America has made it possible for most to obtain a world-class beer merely by stepping down to the local bottle shop. So go take that trip and revel in how lucky you are to live in a world where it’s ridiculously easy to find great beer.