The Meet the Brewer event has drawn to a close; it's now dark outside the bar where patrons entered earlier that evening, wide eyed and waiting to hang on every word of the star of the show. The Question and Answer session which followed the formal tasting was lively, generally good natured and enthusiastic, but now Ash Williams of the Evil Dead Brewery waits somewhat apprehensively at the fire escape, looking tired, furtive and like he is steeling himself for the dash to the car outside waiting to take him away to the safety of his hotel room. Its also unlikely he'll be throwing any televisions out of windows.
The fire escape doors open gently and as the night air hits Ash, so too does the noise from the throng of people waiting outside, mobile phone cameras flashing, whooping, whistling and cheering is accompanied by screams of 'Sign my beer mat.... please Ash?!!'. Oh the horror.
Okay, maybe that's a bit too much. Probably. but the parody does carry some level of truth within it, especially based on experience over the last couple of years. Breweries and brewers are to a degree being fetished far more than has been seen before, certainly in my experience and those I have spoken to on the subject. Some breweries have to an extent, built a level of mystique and cultivated this status, although not entirely on purpose in some cases. These breweries not only have what would normally be perceived as a loyal customer base, but actually now have *fans*.
However, in an age where mobile phone applications, social media and the relative purple patch for beer and the brewing industry in general, there is a glut of choice and brand identity is as important and strong as ever for breweries. It's not beyond the realms of possibility that some drinkers even get a little bit emotionally attached and buy into the ethos of a single brewery moreso than others.
There is the occasion where some people can get a bit starry eyed when they hear of a brewer heading to their particular neck of the woods, especially from big breweries abroad who have built up a high level of the aforementioned mystique. Breweries like Stone, Crooked Stave, Russian River and so on have all made some exceptional beers and garnered themselves a place on the pedestal of having enthusiasts hang on their every brew. This is not limited to US breweries, there are those here in the UK that are heavy attention magnets whenever they release a new beer, attend a festival or a meet the brewer event. Without divulging any names, an event I attended recently saw a certain brewer who was swarmed pretty much the whole time they were present, not being left alone to wander to see people of their choosing at any point of their visit. That level of attention, whilst initially somewhat pleasing, must be exhausting in long run, mustn't it?
Any kind of psychological study of why this (relatively mild it must be said, in respect to music and sport) level of 'fandom' occurs in the beer enthusiast world would be quite interesting and quite revealing into what minutiae makes for a successful brewery (aside from the obvious good brand and good beer things).
In any subject of interest, where people choose something almost as a loyalty or a lifestyle choice, there is likely to be a level of partisanship and light emotional investment. People (however hard they want to dent it!) like to make lists and order things to give their thoughts some semblance of order and organisation and setting a personal hierarchy in brewery preference sometimes is an outcome. Brand identities in some breweries are pretty powerful and seductive tools in drawing in customers and enthusiasts in; a brewery with a good ethos, big personality and great beer in an attractive container must be the complete package?
Is there a point where beer enthusiasts become 'fans' of certain breweries? In just looking to grab a spread of opinions on the subject and I suspect you'll have had good exposure to it, if there is the 'phenomenon’ of this situation as it were?
Nick from Hop and Barley:
“Undoubtedly because the beer is good, but whilst great tasting beer is increasingly easier to come by, our allegiance to certain brands is a little harder to earn. Loyalty develops over time, and we place an increasing emphasis on factors such as consistency, quality and availability to forge these relationships. Few UK breweries exemplify this better than Derbyshire’s Thornbridge Brewery, whose unwavering commitment to quality has earned them swathes of followers - I don’t think you can be considered a beer lover unless you’re a fan!
But there’s been a recent shift towards accessibility, or rather, lack of in determining the popularity of some breweries. The limited availability of beer from the likes of Belgium’s Westvleteren or California’s Russian River, has empowered them with a mythical-like quality, where only the most devoted pilgrims are rewarded. Recently, we’ve seen limited edition beers from Cloudwater (DIPA V3) and Magic Rock (Un-Human Cannonball) generate unprecedented levels of hysteria, and whilst the quality of their offering has never been in doubt, we shouldn’t underestimate the power of flagship beers like these to convert people to the brand.
Ultimately, we’re creatures of habit and find comfort in familiarity. Our allegiance to certain breweries is no different to our preference for particular supermarkets, makes of car, or mobile phone brands.”
“When people fall in love with a brewery it tends to involve a number of factors: values, branding, personality, product and pitch. This holds true across the board for most products but there's something very visceral about beer. The way that the craft market has cracked it is that they make sure, in most cases, that product is first, then come the values and personality (along with branding of course, often that's the door opener as visuals are often the first contact people have with a brewery).
But it's really about engagement, so many of the breweries that I write about aren't just about the quality of the beers, although that's of premier importance to me, it's also about the ethos, the work, the thinking, the sense of society behind them. And the new generation of drinkers are even less forgiving to the faceless corporations who have been busy pumping out bad liquid in the name of beer over the last few decades and long may that continue.”
Tom Stapley from Craft Beer Hour:
“For me this about brands. Small breweries, creating lovely beer and marketing it (some almost by accident) in beautifully (or at least thoughtfully) designed bottles and cans. Craft beer is a competitive market place and new breweries especially, have got to be mindful of branding. That’s why we’re seeing a lot of attention afforded to design – some on the minimal side, others more elaborate.
At the same time, some bigger breweries (who are already well recognised on the shelves) are moving more and more into merchandise. In my mind, the moment you wear a t-shirt with a brewery on it, you become a fan first, a customer second! You become part of a following – just like you do with a football team. And by the way, I’m all for it. It’s really exciting I think – long may the great beer keep coming but also, let’s see what the breweries do to distinguish their brands!”
So there we go… any more thoughts anyone? Just drop a message below the line…
Until next time, cheers!
Many thanks to the contributors Melissa, Nick and Tom above for their time in the preparation of this article.