Mention “marketing” and “beer” to the average beer drinker, and the first thing to come to mind is probably Super Bowl commercials. Clydesdales. Talking dogs and frogs. Maybe the occasional big-budget historical epic.
Small, independent craft brewers don’t have Super Bowl commercial cash. But then again, their most loyal customers aren’t average beer drinkers.
“The beer geeks, they get in pretty deep,” says Karen Hamilton, director of communications for California-based brewer Lagunitas Brewing Co., a company that straddles the line between craft and corporate (more on that later). “They want to know ingredients. They want to know the ABV, the IBU, the style, the process—all of those things.”
ABV is alcohol by volume, in case you’re stumped by the acronym stew. IBU is international bitterness units. Add them to the long list of in-the-know aspects of craft brewing, from hops schedules to barrel types, for a heady brew of information that appeals to a hardcore audience.
That hardcore audience—along with more casual drinkers who develop a taste for something that has more of an actual taste—represents a growing market, too.
The Brewers Association estimates the craft beer market was worth $23.5 billion as of 2016. That’s a market made up of 5,000-plus small to medium breweries, none of which are backed by Anheuser-Busch levels of money.
Do they need it, though? “The smart breweries, the ones we like to partner with, really embrace storytelling,” says Alan Moreno, co-founder of Plank Road Tap Room in Elgin, Illinois, with wife (and—full disclosure—Imagination project manager) Breanne Moreno. “They put themselves and their thoughts out there on Instagram. They even provide a peek into their personal lives once in a while.”
In other words, craft brewers are getting on board with what content marketing does well: authentic storytelling. Behind-the-scenes information, rich with details. Sharing the personalities behind the products an audience knows and loves to sip.
“There’s an ‘I liked the band before it was popular’ factor at work,” Moreno says. The key, then, is to give the beer geeks something to like.
Beer geeks unite
In 2008, Michael Kiser started the “Good Beer Hunting” blog as a passion project. Beer was the first thing on his mind, not business. He had experience as a design strategist at an innovation agency working for Miller, and he sought to bring insider coverage of the industry, from craft to corporate.
More than a decade and countless pints later, beer is still on Kiser’s mind, but Good Beer Hunting is now a full-blown editorial operation. Its staff of around 25—writers, photographers, designers and videographers—creates content that has earned awards from the Webbies and Saveur, among others.
The evolution was natural. In a world full of beer blogs, high production value, insider perspective and strong stories made it possible to build a known name. “We were surprised by the low-production nature of industry coverage,” Kiser says. “It became easy to stand out by crafting high-quality content using professional writers, photographers and designers.”
It helps that the staffers, just like Kiser, are among the beer-geek audience.
They’re also not just producing editorial. The site may have begun as a passion project, but in addition to being a respected outlet, Good Beer Hunting has a consulting arm. Kiser and team provide branding strategy, design and other services to clients like small brewers and taprooms.
“They come to us for business, and they say, ‘You seem to get it,’” Kiser says.
Successful brewers operate with goals similar to Good Beer Hunting’s. By sharing stories and content that show a like-minded audience just how much they “get it,” brewers and other businesses become thought leaders you’d want to share a beer with.
“They are fans, too,” Kiser notes. “Many were home brewers. They never left behind that beer fandom and that desire for quality. And that becomes a communicable passion for their consumers.”
How craft brewers spread that disease is where things get interesting.
For example, a typical story series from Maine mainstay Allagash Brewing Co. may feature an in-depth explanation of the intricacies of white beer, followed by an extensive look at founder Rob Tod’s history with that variety of beer, which happens to be a major staple for the company. These stories offer a peek behind the curtain and a level of context and detail that appeals to a hardcore audience.
This scenario plays out again and again across social accounts and blogs nationwide. Colorado’s New Belgium Brewery Co., which has breweries in Colorado and Tennessee, experiments with social story modes (Periscope, Snapchat, Instagram Stories) to offer inside insight about new and special releases—typically from the POV of the people making the beer. Chicago’s Goose Island Beer Co. offers playful Instagram photos that sometimes look straight out of a science experiment—hello, brettanomyces bruxellensis (yeast). The culture matters.
Call it storytelling by beer geeks, for beer geeks. And it works for the people who sell and serve the beer, too. Plank Road Tap Room produces a video series called “Shift Beers” with a twist on the behind-the-scenes concept.
“What do the people who serve you beer talk about when they finally get you to leave?” says Moreno. “What’s it like to talk over that first beer after you mop the floors?”
The production quality has steadily improved since Plank Road launched “Shift Beers,” sometimes with the helpful feedback of audience members, but the concept and conversation remain the same. Moreno and a Plank Road cicerone—think sommelier for beer—host brewery owners and brewmasters, who in turn pour out insider insight over their beverages of choice.
It’s not about reviews. It’s definitely not about advertising. But when a guest like Ryan Clooney, a well-respected brewmaster from Crystal Lake Brewing who’s what we content marketers call an influencer, shows up, the view count goes up. That episode—which hit Facebook in August—earned 6,500-plus views, and customers sometimes mention it when they visit the taproom.
“It has been such good marketing for us, and we never even thought of it that way,” Moreno says.