Bottling authenticity

It’s clear that despite only having 7% share of the volume sales of beer in the USA, craft breweries are having a seismic impact not only the beer market in the States, but on the global alcoholic drinks industry.  Why?  I believe it’s because of the evident passion and devotion displayed by the brewing and drinking community surrounding craft, which is reinventing the marketing model for drinks.  It’s something I call bottling authenticity.  Understanding and applying it can help any drinks producer capitalize on the zest and diversity that the craft revolution has brought us. 

Bottling authenticity

What is beer terroir?

The other day while watching Beer Culture, the documentary about craft beer in Colorado, a phrase leapt out at me.  In the opening salvo of talking head interviews that set the scene, Marty Jones, then of Wynkoop Brewing Co., said, “Craft beer has just as much terroir as wine.”

Technically, or at least in the traditional sense of the word, this is nonsense.    As any wine buff (or snob) knows, terroir is the quality given to a wine by the specific geography in which its grapes are grown; usually meaning soil, climate, and “aspect”.  The word came into use mainly in reference to Burgundian appellations, which were created to acknowledge noticeable differences in quality between wines made from grapes growing next door to each other.  A Burgundian vintner would contend that the wine made from the same pinot noir grapes will taste very different even if grown in different parts of the same field – dependent on elevation, drainage and length of daily exposure to the sun.  There is no precise definition of the term, but terroir has come to represent the sense of “place” that wine has.  (Its use was popularized alongside the explosion in industrial wine-making, when the  grapes used to make a bottle of wine might come from several vineyards tens or even hundreds of miles apart,  principally to defend the much higher price of a bottle of estate-grown, traditionally made wine.)


Back in the day, as in prior to the industrial revolution, this would be somewhat true of beer.  The brewers of 18th century England, Belgium or Germany would use ingredients produced very locally, by necessity.  But these days no brewer will use solely “estate-grown” ingredients to make his or her beer.  Chances are, whether you are MillerCoors or Midnight Sun Brewing Co., you use malt made with barley grown in Idaho or North Dakota and hops grown in Washington.  And, of course, a mass-made light beer will use ingredients grown in wildly different locations carefully brewed to taste exactly the same regardless of when or where the beer is made. Which is the opposite of terroir.

So why do craft brewers claim a sense of terroir for their product?  Is it credible?

I think so, and it’s part of the innate authenticity driving the popularity of craft – not just in beer, but in spirits or even wine too.  Where a drink is made is important to consumers, but more important by far is who makes it, and how.  As Sam Calagione of Dogfish Head  said in an interview earlier this year, “Terroir in beer isn’t so much the dirt underneath the brewery, it is the mind of the brewer.”  In other words, it’s the unique vision and skill of the brewer; combined I would say with the personality of the the brewery.  (Epitomised by Dogfish Head’s own slogan: “Off-Centered Beers for Off Centered People”.)  People drink craft beer because it’s good (often), tastes interesting (almost always) and has variety.  But – in my opinion – people are drawn to craft beer more because of what it says about them – and this is influenced by where the beer has come from and who made it.  You could call this branding, but the genuine and product-centric approach justify the term “terroir”.

If terroir = brewer, what’s so special about craft brewers?

Beyond quality and taste, I think there are three elements of so-called beer-terroir that will draw people to a particular beer.   These can be (and sometimes are) replicated in more mainstream beer brands, and in today’s market I think they can lead to breakthrough success.  For the sake of readability I’ll talk in terms of beer, but it would apply just the same to whisky, wine or vodka.

1. The brewer (/distiller/vintner) lives and works in a place I like

Probably one of the fewest-mentioned drivers of the craft revolution is the provenance of the beer – it’s not just American, it’s local.  Provenance (or perceived provenance) has long been a huge driver of beer brands: Budweiser has been the all-American flagship for generations, and the success of import brands has hinged on the glamour and differentiation their foreign birthplaces provide.  In so many categories people have turned away from things made in far-off lands and are demanding those made nearer to them.  This trend has driven a lot of the success of craft breweries: they don’t just make beer in your country, they make it up the road.  From a quality perspective, this makes sense as a beer that doesn’t have far to travel is likely to be fresh; but it also creates a sense of “from the community”. You feel that by buying this beer you are supporting that community.

This doesn’t only mean that people will relate best to beers made nearby.  It could be that the Michiganian living in New York will always look out for Bell’s beers to support her home state; or that the tourist just back from San Diego will make a point of picking out Stone’s IPA to remind him of those 72-and-sunny beaches.  What’s key is that you feel a connection to the place a beer is made, and more specifically to the place that the brewery has in its community.

2. The brewer is someone I relate to and want to support

Craft brewers are, by-and-large, small business owners.  Not only are they usually stalwarts of a community, they’re regular guys making a living doing something they love.  To a man, they wear jeans to work, spend as much time shifting kegs around as they do in front of a computer, play the Grateful Dead on the drive to work and have an active recycling and energy-efficiency program at their breweries.

Okay, maybe some exaggeration there, but you get my point.  Craft breweries are by definition small, and pretty much all have been founded by ridiculously passionate men and women who gave up on their previous careers to dedicate their lives to making interesting beer, with a very high chance of failure.  People like this, and relate to it.  Way up to the tip-top echelon of breweries – like the 20 or so biggest ones out of the 3,000+ there are now in America – the founders/owners/managers don’t make much money either.  They do what they do because they love beer and because they want to be active in a small community.  People like this too.  It’s similar to the One Dollar Shave Club type anti-marketing campaign, except it’s not marketing, it’s just people making beer.

3. The brewer cares about making a great beer

According to a supposed edict issued in 11th century Poland, “Whoever makes a bad beer shall be transferred to the dung-hill“.  Brewing has always been and should always be about top-quality beer, and every beer company knows that.  But for consumers, a perception has grown up that mass-brewed beer equals sterile and flavorless.  When thinking of mainstream, international brands, people tend to visualize millions of pristine bottles running smoothly through pristine factories, being filled, capped and labeled by stainless steel robots.  If there is a person present, he is sat in a control room, wearing a lab coat and goggles and staring at a bank of switches and dials.  Mention craft brewing to the man on the street however and he will likely conjure up images of plaid-shirted men carefully pouring freshly dried hops into a bubbling vat of their latest seasonal ale, all the while arguing whether they have exactly the right ratio of Cascade to Simcoe hops to bring out the grapefruit aromas.  Clinical efficiency vs geeky enthusiasm.

Those who know brewing know that the work, effort and cost required to maintain the quality and consistency of large scale brewing is significant, and arguably proportionately greater than that needed to sustain 20,000 barrels a year, especially if it’s brewed in small batches.  (A big watchout at this year’s Craft Brewers Conference was that as the number of small breweries grows, so does the incidence of poorly made beer.)  However, diversity, boldness and novelty in beer is inarguably being led by the craft sector, and this creates a convincing case for the consumer that craft beers are imbued with greater passion, care and excitement.  Or better beers.

Filling a growler

Marketing beer terroir

If craft “brand” appeal is created by the people behind the beer, how and why has it caused such an explosion in demand?  You could very credibly argue that the US was ready for tastier, more flavorsome beers, but brands like Guinness, Bass, Smithwick’s, Newcastle Brown Ale, even Anchor Steam have been chipping away for years without the kind of dramatic growth craft has recently seen.  You could also say that craft rode the wave of farm-to-table, Ben & Jerry’s, granola-from-Colorado popularity that has so clearly impacted the US food and drink industries. But there are two craft-specific marketing tools that craft breweries have used so subtly they didn’t even know they were doing it…

1. Brewers as celebrities

Craft brewers are, often, minor celebrities in the beer world.  This happened at first by sheer necessity (when you start a brewery you don’t hire Hollywood actors to star in big budget commercials, you have the local press come to your tap room and interview you) and later because it clearly works.  The best two examples of this are Boston Beer‘s Jim Koch (who can definitely afford Hollywood celebrities these days) and Dogfish Head’s Sam Calagione (being a former male model also helps).  The two guys go out of their way to represent their brands, and they legitimately are heavily involved in the day-to-day brewing operations of their respective breweries.  But there are prominent personalities at almost every successful craft brewery you can think of: Fritz Maytag at Anchor Brewing; Steve Hindy and Garret Oliver at Brooklyn Brewery; Kim Jordan at New Belgium; Greg Koch at Stone; Ken Grossman at Sierra Nevada; Dale Katechis at Oskar Blues.  All are genuine, passionate, opinionated and come up real easy when you type their names into Google.

Having a recognizable, relatable (I challenge you to find a picture online of any of these guys in a suit), genuine spokesperson for a brewery creates instant authenticity that is very compelling in getting people to try the beer.  The whole thing would collapse if, Hollywood-style, word got out that the “face” of a craft brewery was just a paid actor, but these literally are the people who gave up their jobs and invested their life savings to make the beer you’re drinking.

2. Beer geeks

The rise of craft beer is often credited to the internet, but the internet was simply the medium through which beer geeks could talk about their hobby and bring newbies into the fold.  Without access to traditional media, start-up breweries had no way of telling consumers about their product, making marketing something of a challenge.  But when the internet chat room came along, fast followed by Facebook, Twitter and dedicated sites such as BeerAdvocate and RateBeer, breweries only needed to tell a small number of deeply passionate people about their beer and watch the good word spread.  So it is you come to have beers such as Heady Topper – never once advertised – being traded for relatively vast sums on the black market.

Somewhere along the way, geekery of all sorts became fashionable, and so the beard-and-sandals brigade of beer enthusiasts in 1980s Britain, such as CAMRA (in no way fashionable at the time, trust me) became the beer-and-plaid brigade of 2000s Britain, Ireland and America (and Canada and Australia etc etc), wielding pretty significant cultural impact.  Bluegrass, barbecue and hand-crafted espressos became cool, and so did craft beer, and the mainstream looked to the geeks to know what to drink.


Applying the lessons of “Beer Terroir”

So what does this mean for all drinks producers stepping bravely forward in the 21st century?  I think there are three lessons anyone working in drinks can take on board from how craft brewers have marketed and sold their product.

1. Make sure the quality of the beer is the message

Craft beer is about making great beer, and craft breweries proudly tell this to the world.  It might seem straightforward, but let’s not forget that the emergence of craft was in response to an excess of irrelevant marketing in beer, when in the 1990s beer was about good times and good buddies, success in sport and success in life.  All nice things to put on TV, but beer branding got away from telling people how good beer tasted, and how much hard work went into making it that way.  When watching an ad for a mainstream beer brand, it might make me laugh, cry, or feel good about myself and my friends; but does it make me want to drink the beer?  This is never in doubt after reading the press release of a new craft seasonal, or even watching one of Boston Beer Co.’s fine ads for Sam Adams, such as this.

2. Focus on the people who make the stuff

Consciously or unconsciously, craft breweries market their people.  The beer geek can probably name the founders of the top 15 craft breweries, but even the craft novice has an awareness of the people behind the beer (helped by things like the famous I Am A Craft Brewer video) and the fact that they tend to band together, work hard, play hard and devote themselves to making beer.  And the great thing is, it’s all true!  But I believe there’s no reason this can’t work for any drinks producer.  Two examples of large-scale breweries doing just this are the Blue Moon Brewmaster’s Touch spot or the new Guinness Irish campaign, In Pursuit Of More.  Which segues nicely to point three…

3. Be authentic, always

What’s the difference between the two TV spots for Blue Moon and Guinness?  While I certainly hope that the two gents in the Blue Moon ad are actual brewmasters working for Tenth And Blake, there’s no denying a little artistic license to give the spot its style.  The Guinness ad on the other hand is shamelessly open.  These are guys who work at a big brewery, and they’re proud of it.  The ad points to the tradition, the passion (why should a brewer at a mega-brewery be any less passionate than one at a micro-brewery?) and the work that goes into brewing Guinness.  And if ever there were a sense of terroir in a beer, how about one that’s brewed on the same spot the brand was started in the 18th century?  (Disclaimer: I used to work for Guinness and I love the stuff!)  Every brewery was started by a person acting out of passion, and the skill and ability to make a great beer was what made that brewery a success or not.  Coors, Budweiser and Miller all come from proud brewing traditions, as does Sierra Nevada, Sam Adams, Brooklyn, Deschutes etc.   Be open about it, as craft brewers are, and appeal to the intelligence and discernment of beer consumers.


Throughout my time in the drinks industry, I’ve always held that a superior product should sell well.  Most craft brewers & distillers hold this view (as noted above, a few need to get back to basics on some of the foundations of quality), and all big drinks producers should hold it too.  In a flat market, such as beer in the US right now, the pressure to grow profit, especially at publicly traded firms, may lead to cutting costs and corners in making your drinks.  DON’T DO IT!  Instead, look to win by appealing to the growing base of highly discerning consumers – just by being authentic.  Amplify your passion for your product.  Don’t look to the polish, look to the grit.  Speak in an intelligent tone of voice.  Explain your product, and what makes it great.  Pretty much everyone who is involved in making drinks loves drinks, and this is arguably the best connection you can make with consumers.

If terroir is as valid a concept in beer and spirits as it is in wine, brewers and distillers should leverage that to differentiate themselves.  Drinks come from specific places, and are made from high-quality ingredients by unique people.  In large part, that is what makes the industry so special, and so interesting.  I believe people want to sense that in every sip – it’s why they drink.


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