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Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Breweries in the Social Media Age

I started writing about beer back when dinosaurs roamed the earth and ink was actually applied to papers and distributed throughout a city. In those olden days, breweries had very few options for promoting themselves. They could either take out ad space or try to attract the attention of slack-jawed (and fairly easily bribed) freelancers to write stories about their beer. The latter choice was considered FAR superior, because readers tend to trust (even slack-jawed) freelancers more than ads.

This system held sway until really just a few years ago. Bloggers were the first to arrive, but I will confess that we had little influence overall. Then came MySpace, which turned out not to be so hot, but it was followed quickly by Twitter and Facebook as well as apps like Taplister. These latter innovations, particularly when combined with each other, have been game changers. I don't want to be too breathless about this, because social media advocates always over-estimate their own influence, but I believe social media may ultimately become the most valuable tool breweries have in their communications arsenal. The reasons vary depending on the nature of the brewery, but whether a company is turning out 500 or 500,000 barrels, social networking plays a key role.

Small Breweries - Getting Information Out
Last week Coalition Brewing threw open their doors, knowing they'd have a pretty decent crowd. True, it was only the second sunny day we'd had this year, but mainly, they knew it because they've been counting down the days on their Facebook page. They have a regular web page--but it's effectively a digital yellow-pages listing. The Facebook page is where they actually communicate with their 600 fans. They've been posting pictures, answering questions, and adding links. It has made the launch far less scary and may save them a slow ramp-up.

Social media also helps small breweries find their customers and promote their beer. Take the example of Gilgamesh, a small brewery in the even smaller town of Turner. In an earlier era, the physical barriers for a brewery like Gilgamesh might have put it on the thinnest of ice. But Gilgamesh has become nearly ubiquitous online--I get updates for all their releases and events and know more about what they're up to than I do the Lucky Lab, which is about a mile from my house. The small-bore promotion breweries manage through their own social media is magnified when they coordinate with other establishments--beer stores, pubs--to stage events and releases. I've watched Double Mountain release beers at Belmont Station, Eastburn, Apex, Fire on the Mountain, Saraveza--and those are just off the top of my head. (They do similar releases in other cities.) Most also promote their events through social networking, doubling the volume of the announcement. Social networking is huge for small breweries.

Large Breweries - Getting Information Back
Promoting small breweries is sort of a no-brainer. Getting the word out for free makes a lot of sense. But what about the big breweries? Some have been way out in front on social networking--Widmer and Deschutes, for example. Both have active Facebook pages and tweet regularly, and Deschutes has their own blog. That's cool for someone like me, but these breweries have business models that depend on selling to more huge numbers of people--far more than they can reach via social networking. It seems like a tweet blast about cheap pints at the Gasthaus (which I've seen), can't possibly affect their bottom line. But that's not how big breweries use social media. For them, it's a way to get feedback about what they're doing. Here's Rob Widmer:
"Facebook and Twitter have given us opportunities to have conversations with and give instant answers to consumers and fans. Our growing fan base on Facebook has provided us with good insight to consumer thoughts, it's given us a great outlet to announce new products (as have the blogs), and helped us put a personality to the brewery name for some people who may have never had the chance to meet Kurt or me or anyone from the brewery, for that matter"
I think this is exactly right. Selling beer is always going to have an element of personal connection. In the past, breweries concocted ad campaigns to give themselves personalities, but now they can actually behave like people. They don't need to talk to every single customer to know how they're doing--staying connected with ten thousand Facebook fans is adequate. My guess is that the breweries that succeed in the decades to come will be those that are most responsive to the actual interests of their customers.

Blogs and Amateur Media
The last big change is the rise of blogs and the simultaneous collapse of coverage by newspapers. The Oregonian is quite rare in continuing to pay someone to work the beer beat; mostly, news is now carried forward by buzz created at the blog/ratings-site level. This cadre of amateur and semi-pro fans puts by far the most print into cyberspace and, on the internet, no one knows the review was written by someone in his jammies. Do a search on "Russian River Pliny the Elder," and not a single review pops up on the front page from a dead-tree source. All the reviews that appear are from blogs and amateurs doing video. If a brewery's not reaching out to bloggers, it's really limiting the coverage it gets.

For special releases, the proportion tilts even more toward bloggers. This is why Gary Fish describes us as "directional beacons."
"The other thing is that practitioners of social media (bloggers, etc.) tend to be among our core customers. You are not “small fry” in the sense you are pathfinders and trendsetters. As a group you tend to put yourselves out ahead of the crowd and, as a result, become valuable directional beacons in a very crowded, noisy marketplace."
If you think of the world of chatter as a great big hive mind, having directional beacons is an important way to try to shape the conversation. You want to make sure that someone's talking about your beer, creating the opportunity for the entire hive to look your way.

And I think it even goes a little further than that. A few years ago, movie studios used to have art house divisions that they would use to burnish the company's brand during rewards season. It's similar with breweries. Deschutes is going to continue to make its bones with Mirror Pond and Black Butte, but their specialty lines serve a purpose beyond just a profit margin: they provide an aura of quality to the entire line. People chat, they ask what's good. They tend to put credence in the word of fanatics, so the reputation of Deschutes is magnified when a blogger recommends the brewery to a casual fan.

Breweries will only get more dependent on social media in the future (the smart ones, anyway). We are rapidly moving away from the bottleneck of the past. I've been thinking about it for awhile, and there only seems to be upside here. It allows niche breweries to get their message directly to their fans, allows big breweries to stay in touch, and gives customers far more information than they've ever had. In all ways, the brave new world looks pretty good.

Update. In comments, someone noted that it was surprising I didn't mention Ninkasi, one of the earliest adopters of social media and the most active. The official website started out on MySpace, and now most of the action seems to be on Twitter and Facebook (though they do now have an actual webpage, too). Others I'd single out for mention are Oakshire, Boundary Bay, Rogue, and Allagash. That last one gets special mention for the use of travel pictures posted via Twitter. Nick and Block 15 and Alex at Upright have done some nice blogs themselves, which opens up the inner workings of a brewery in ways not possible a decade ago.

In comments, Jack also mentions the Beer Mapping project. Like Taplister, it's a great resource that incorporate new technology. I should also give a shout out to Barfly, which is a pretty indispensable resource for Portland bar-hoppers. I assume other cool projects are happening in other cities, too. What'd I miss?


  1. Thought you would mention Ninkasi at least...

  2. Interesting analysis.

    The collaborative Beer Mapping Project,, merits mention; albeit, it does not fit your categories.

  3. Anon and Jack--good points. Updated text to reflect them.

  4. Further, about brewery websites.
    Bear Republic website has a most comprehensive reporting of tasting notes and IBU and ABV value I have encountered. A now departed Bear Republic employee, Kirsten, deserves credit for collecting and post these details for all their beer, past and present, up to March 2010.

    It surprises me that so few breweries provide technical information about their beers. [I mention this knowing many brewery monitor your blog for direction / insight.]