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Wednesday, August 10, 2016

Merchandising and Modern Craft Beer

As we make our way through summer and (soon enough) into early fall, I see breweries prepping for fresh hop and pumpkin beers. The industry has become all too predictable as it swings from one season to the next, with no one wanting to be left behind in the rush for seasonal beers.

One thing I rarely hear people talking about is merchandising. Craft beer merchandising is exploding. People who drink craft beer (and some who don't) clamor to get their mitts on hats, shirts and a variety of other trinkets sold at breweries, taprooms and stores.

The merchandising concept stared me in the face on a recent trip to Sunriver. During an afternoon in Bend, I watched patrons spend more money on shirts, hats and trinkets than they spent on beer. These were mostly tourists, who have absolutely overrun Central Oregon. Still, I was astonished.

Look, I'm well aware that merchandising has been a part of the craft beer movement since the early days. I have ancient hats and shirts from the Lucky Lab, Bridgeport and the Oregon Brewers Festival, among others. Craft brewers didn't just recently discover they could make money on this junk. But they're tapping into the growing demand with gusto.

The reality is simple. Folks want to identify with their favorite craft brands in basically the same way they identify with bands and sports teams. That means buying logo gear in a variety of forms. And brewers are getting more and more creative about what they offer and how much they charge for the stuff. It's big business.

What this trend has done is put increasing importance on brand identity. If you're a brewer, you want your identity to be more than just unique; you want it to be appealing and trendy. You want something beer fans will want to wear around or show off in other ways. If you can get it into their hands early on when you're new and few are wearing it, so much the better.

Talking with a fellow writer and blogger friend about this, we laughed about the current reality. A lot of new breweries develop their branding well in advance and start selling shirts, hats and such before they even open. He suggested we might be able to create a cool logo and backstory for a fake brewery and make money selling logo items. Such is the insatiable demand for the stuff.

What does it mean? Maybe nothing. But probably it means craft beer has attained a cultural relevance nearly on par with sports and music. Having reached that place, we see a growing emphasis on being the first to wear schwag from breweries that are newer or yet to open. It's similar to being among to first to wear a shirt advertising a hot new band or sports team that's doing well.

This is all fine and dandy, right? Except that it works to the advantage of newer places that may not be all that great, aside from a spify logo, and to the distinct disadvantage of established places that may not be seen as cool, trendy or relevant at this point.

But all's fair in love and beer. And that's the state of modern craft beer. Take it or leave it.

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