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Friday, October 28, 2011

Maximizing the Power of Social Media

I'm not sure who reads this blog. Maybe no one outside immediate friends and family. But I suspect a few fellow bloggers, media types and brewery people click in here from time to time. My guess is there aren't a lot of casual beer fans reading this or any other blog.

Most of us who write about beer, paid or unpaid, have Google alerts that provide a constant flow of information related to craft beer...grist for the mill, as it were. It's easy to set one of these alerts up and an efficient way to get regular updates on what's happening in beer land. But I digress.

Yesterday, my Google alert delivered a link to a story confirming what I already knew or suspected about craft breweries and social media: craft breweries lean heavily on social media for promotion and advertising. There's a big reason for this, which I'll get to, but there's a general point I want to make first.

Almost all businesses are trying to figure out how to use social media (Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Yelp, blogs like this, etc.) to build their brands and increase revenue. This is happening at a time when the power and reach of traditional media (TV, radio and print) appears to be diminishing in relation to its cost.

Of course, some businesses aren't great fits for social media promotion...likely because they have a product that has zero appeal on the open market. A company that makes smart bombs, for instance, may be a poor fit for social media. You get the idea.

Craft beer is on the flip side of the coin. It's a product that is sold to the public and, more importantly, there is a growing segment of the customer base that is quite rabid about the product. This is an ideal setup for social media because rabid customers can be used to draw in additional fans via word-of-mouth advertising. In a nutshell, this is the heart of social media advertising.

Which brings me back to craft breweries. And why they are leaning on social media. They're doing it partly because they see the value; more importantly, they're doing it because they can't afford to promote and advertise in traditional ways. Budweiser and MillerCoors spend close to $1 billion a year to promote beer that is essentially undrinkable. Craft brewers have a quality product, but shallow pockets.

Why am I bringing this up? Because many craft breweries do not do social media well. They aren't alone in doing social media poorly, admittedly. One of the mistaken assumptions with respect to the social media concept is that anyone can do it. Someone who works in a small brewery and knows something about the web and computers is likely involved in running the social media program.

What's wrong with that? The problem, contrary to prevailing opinion, is that running a successful social media program requires communications skills, knowledge of the medium and planning. Back when traditional media was king, advertising messages were filtered. There's no such thing with social media. Everyone is a prospective expert.

Some of the results: disjointed posts, spelling and grammatical errors, lousy (usually dark or blurry) photos, poor quality video, too many frivolous posts or too few posts to be relevant. In short, bad social media presence. I see it every day on Facebook and Twitter, arguably the most powerful sites.

Look, I know social media is evolving and businesses, including breweries and pubs, will adapt. One of the adjustments they need to make to maximize their social media presence is go pro. They need people who can write effectively, take decent photos and think strategically when it comes to creating a coherent, branded, social media presence.

Sure there's going to be a cost. But this work is too important to be farmed out to an employee, whether it's the owner or a dishwasher, just because that person thinks he or she is an expert. It just ain't so.

Monday, October 24, 2011

Beer Wars: Protect the Integrity of Independent Beer

I'm a little late to the game here, I admit. The documentary film, Beer Wars, appeared more than two years ago. I just watched it on Netflix last week. I can't say why it took so long. Sometimes these things happen.

The point of the film is quite clear. Director Anat Baron, a former bigshot with Mike's Hard Lemonade, intends to reveal how the beer industry is structured to maintain the power of the large breweries, represented primarily by Anheuser-Busch and MillerCoors (Miller and Coors in 2009), to the detriment of small breweries.

If you toss out a few ridiculously stupid and campy cartoon graphics, Baron does an admirable job. Some of the more important points:
  • Shows how the "three tier" beer laws (which make it illegal to brew and sell beer directly to consumers) make it difficult for craft brewers to enter the marketplace. These laws, established long ago to guard against monopolized beer markets, have been turned upside down by the large companies
  • Shows how the large companies use political influence to keep the laws as they are, very much to the benefit of the major brands.
  • Shows how the large companies have used advertising dollars (more than $800 million a year) to con consumers into thinking they are getting a well-made, tasty and refreshing product, despite the fact that macro-brews are made using inferior ingredients and automated processes. Image is everything.
Why bring this up now, two years after the fact? I mean, craft beer is continuing to gain a foothold in the marketplace, despite the stacked deck. Why should we be concerned about the message of the film?

Here's why. The continued growth of the craft industry means the big guys are increasingly trying to find ways to either squeeze or co-opt craft brands. Making distribution difficult is their first line of defense. They are also buying up small brands, closing down the breweries, firing employees and producing the beer at gigantic, automated factories. Another strategy is creating shill brands, like Green Valley Brewing of Fairfield, Calif., brewed at a huge Anheuser-Busch facility, but marketed as a small brand.

I need to digress for a moment. There's been some argument on various blogs about the meaning of craft. My opinion is the term has little meaning today. To me, craft suggests small and perhaps handmade. But great beers are being produced by breweries that are not small. Deschutes and Widmer come to mind. There are many others. What these large craft brewers share is independence and an attention to quality ingredients and processes.

Which brings me back to the call to action of Beer Wars? To me it's this: If we want to protect the integrity and longevity of true craft brands, we need to buy the products of typically small, always independent brewers whenever and wherever possible. That usually means buying locally-produced beer because most of these brands have regional distribution at best.

Secondly, it means staying away from beer produced by the major brands, even if they are decent (Blue Moon, a Coors brand, comes to mind). Why? Because the big guys use those dollars to undermine the integrity of the true craft industry. End of story.

Monday, October 17, 2011

Women in Oregon Beer Expanded: Irena Bierzynski

Over the summer, a lot of us beer geek types saw For the Love of Beer, a movie highlighting some of Oregon's most awesome women in beer. Sarah Pederson (Saraveza) and Tonya Cornett (Bend Brewing) kind of dominated the film, although we heard from Lisa Morrison (author), Veronica Vega (Deschutes Brewing) and a few others along the way.

The field of beer and brewing, long dominated by men, is opening up to women. Nonetheless, women are still a vast minority in the industry. Of something like 50,000 craft beer employees in the United States, fewer than 600 currently belong to the Pink Boots Society, an organization of women in the industry. The fact that things are changing is good, however slow.

Another potential member of the Pink Boots Society is Irena Bierzynski, the latest addition to the group of brewers at Lompoc Brewing. Irena joined Lompoc after graduating from Lewis and Clark last spring and is immersed in learning the trade. She came to brewing in an roundabout way.

On the brewery floor...a great place to be.

"My interest in beer and brewing perked when I was 18 and on a vineyard tour," Irena said. "I had plans to become a chemist. Then and there I realized there was chemistry involved in wine making. That evolved to beer and brewing when I came to Portland to attend Lewis and Clark for obvious reasons."

Bierzynski (yeah, that's her real name) hails from Detroit. She spent her high school years in Shanghai. Her dad, an engineer who works for General Motors, was sent to China to help set up auto plants. The international school she attended had kids from around the world. It was a unique experience, she says.

Coming to Portland to attend Lewis and Clark, Irena became interested in the beer festival culture that has taken off in recent years. That led her to an increased interest in brewing. But not homebrewing.

"I had decided I wanted to brew professionally before I started homebrewing. I didn't have any formal brewing education, but I understood the chemistry of brewing thanks to my science background. It helps a lot."

Most of what Irena is doing at Lompoc is pretty basic. She's mastering the work of transferring and racking beer into kegs, cleaning tanks, working on the bottling line, taking gravities and keeping the Fifth Quadrant bar stocked. Her responsibilities will grow with time.

A batch of Bierz Brown in the tank.
"Irena volunteered to help on the bottling line last spring," said, Bryan Keilty, Lompoc Production Manager. "Based on that experience, we thought she would be an asset to the company and we asked her to join the group. She's smart, a hard worker and driven to succeed. She'll get more in-depth training on brewing as we move along."

Part of the brewing training involved coming up with a recipe for the recently released Bierz Brown. Irena developed the recipe with input from other brewers at Lompoc.

"Bierz Brown is my first," Irena said, "I think it's been fairly well-received. What's next? I'm not sure. I like the idea of making beers for particular times of year. The next beer could be a winter beer. I actually want to go light if I do a winter beer. Everybody makes dark beers in the winter. I wouldn't make a super light beer, just not a dark beer like everyone else."

Like all brewers, Irena has an ultimate goal that is similar to that of most brewers.

"I think most brewers ultimately want to run their own brewery or brewpub. That could happen someday. It's down the road. What I’m doing now is great and I'm enjoying it. Lompoc has a great team. If you ever need help with something, you get it.I'm learning so much."

Sometimes, you just need to kick back and have a beer.

What does the fledgling brewer do for fun? When she isn't enjoying one of the countless festivals around town, Irena is a hardcore hockey fan who loves the Red Wings and Winterhawks. She also enjoys live music in small venues.

"As a hockey fan, I'm a little nuts," she said. "I'm from Detroit. What do you expect? I also like concerts at the Aladdin and Roseland…small places, new music, electronic music. Arena shows don't excite me."

If you want to meet Irena, plan to attend a Lompoc release party at the Sidebar. They are always low key and friendly. Highly recommended.

Monday, October 10, 2011

Fresh Hop Shot in the Foot

Back when I was a regular  home brewer and also grew my own hops, I often used homegrown hops in my beers. I even used fresh hops a few times, typically in beers made in September or October. I don't remember the results being particularly spectacular, but it was a fun thing to do and I liked the creative concept.

While I was experimenting, so were the real brewers. I don't know which brewery produced the first fresh hop beer of note, but it seems like these beers started appearing about a decade ago. It was a trickle at first, but fresh hop beers are everywhere now.

Spendy $8 glassware
Fresh hop beers are a seasonal affair. It's not so hard to figure out why. The hops needed to make these beers are only available in the fall...and that's the way it will stay until we come up with a way to replicate hops (ala Star Trek). That makes fresh hop beers arguably special, and presents brewers with a marketing opportunity. Which they are running with.

Enter the plethora of fresh hop festivals popping up. There was one in Hood River on Oct. 1st and one in Portland this past Saturday. Those are not the only ones, I'm sure. Plus, numerous breweries are rolling out fresh hop brews with special release parties, events and fanfare. Fresh hop beers have become part of the festival scene. For better or worse.

The biggest problem with fresh hop beers: The vast majority of them aren't that great. I was beginning to form that opinion prior to visiting the Fresh Hop Festival at Oaks Park, based on prior tasting experiences around town. That opinion was confirmed at the festival, where I tasted a collection of beers I hadn't tasted before.

I'm not even going to get into the beers I tasted and thought less than stellar. They were made by breweries large and small. The common theme was a lack of depth and character. These beers had very little hop aroma or flavor. IBUs were all over the place, but most tasted obnoxiously bright...or perhaps some would say, green.

The line-up...character not included.
Look, I understand fresh hop beers are not going to taste like beers made with dried hops. The question is, can you make great beers with fresh hops? Based on recent experiences, I'm not convinced you can. I'm a fan of hoppy beers. But the fresh hop beers are mostly disappointing. Just my opinion, of course.

Festival Comments
To enter this festival, you had to buy a tasting package. They were charging $1 per ticket, with each ticket good for a 4 oz. taste. Oh, I should note that a few beers required more than one ticket. Still, that's good value, consistent with what other festivals do.

On the flip-side, you had to pay $8 for a shaker pint glass that cost them a fraction of that. Sure, I'll add the glass to my collection at home. But I didn't need to pay an exorbitant price for the privilege. It has become stylish to overcharge patrons for a tasting glass or mug as a way of making money. I wish this annoying practice would stop, but I'm not going to hold my breath.

I met Nutmeg, who was getting lots of attention
The overall setup at Oaks Park was pretty good, with plenty of room under the tent and lots of tables. It was not crowded during my mid-afternoon stint and most of the numerous tables were empty. Up front, there were lines for some beers, caused mostly by the fact that they seemed to have one person pouring 6-8 beers. It wasn't much of an issue, but that arrangement would not have worked very well with a large crowd.

Next up: the pumpkin beers

Monday, October 3, 2011

Planned Brewery Growth, Part 2

Anyone who follows this blog will recall my Sept. 22nd post on planned new breweries. The premise of that post was that the bulk of craft beer brewery growth (craft is the only segment of beer that is growing) is occurring in areas that are currently and historically under-served. Here's a link back to that post, if you haven't read it.

I intended to get back to that topic sooner than this, but events intervened. The original post contained only a general accounting of where the new planned breweries are located. It's worth taking another look at the data, which reveals some interesting things.

First, take a look at map below. This is the baseline, showing areas with high and low concentrations of existing craft breweries. This map isn't the easiest to read, but my re-creation isn't any better. So this is it.

The main points are clear enough: All of the deep South is woefully under-served  There is a lot of population there and not that many breweries. Then you've got the Midwest and Atlantic Coast, including New York and New Jersey. Again, lots of people and not all that many breweries, per million folks

Then you have the flip side of the coin, which is the concentration of craft breweries in the Northwest, Colorado, Wyoming, Vermont, Maine and New Hampshire. Most of these states aren't very populated. Wyoming has less than 600,000 people; Vermont just over 600,000; Montana less than 1 million; Maine,1.3 million. These states look good on the baseline graph because they have a few breweries and not many people. Oregon and Colorado are off the hook because both have populations and many breweries.

Now dial in the map below, which shows where the high and low growth areas are for 2011. A few things jump out:

Texas and Florida, both in the lowest category on the first map, show dramatic growth. Texas is the second largest state by population, Florida is fourth. The high number of planned breweries is good news for deprived beer lovers in these states, although it likely won't change the states' positions much on the first map due to their huge populations.

California, the largest state in population, already has a fair number of breweries (282). The 97 planned breweries there may seem like a lot, but really isn't given the enormous population. I'm going to guess that even with 97 additional breweries, California still won't catch up with Oregon, Montana, Wyoming or Colorado in breweries per million people.

The same holds true for the relatively high growth in New York, New Jersey, Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, Michigan, Virginia and Illinois. All of these states have large populations and have been late to join the craft beer revolution. You have to believe demand will support continued growth in these areas for quite a few years.

Finally, you have Colorado, ranked 22nd in population and already possessing a fairly high concentration of breweries. They are set to add 51 more. What? That's right, 51 more. Which seems a little wacky to me. If all those breweries open, Colorado will have 181 according to the numbers. Oregon, with roughly a million fewer people than Colorado, has 112 breweries and 16 planned. I'm not sure what to make of this. It seems crazy. Maybe it's just that Colorado is beer crazy.

Nonetheless, the areas of high growth seem well-positioned. Looking at the map, you would hope to see big growth in the South, the upper Midwest and the Northeast, particularly New York, New Jersey and Pennsylvania. For the most part, that's exactly what you see. The numbers for Texas and Florida are huge, obscuring to some extent the lack of progress in other southern states.

Clearly, there are some states where the revolution has not caught on. Mississippi, with 2 current breweries, has plans for 3 more; Arkansas, with 4 current breweries, has plans for 4 more; Oklahoma, with 11 current, has plans for 3 more. You can't help thinking some of these states are lagging behind due to wacky alcohol laws leftover from Prohibition and, perhaps, earlier.