Down in the trenches: Beer marketing by tap takeover

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A recent Bridge Brew Works tap takeover at Sam’s Uptown Cafe in Charleston, WV, was a very visual demonstration of what it takes for a small production brewery to succeed in today’s craft beer industry.

Bridge Brew Works is located in the small town of Fayetteville, WV.  It is a true production brewery and does not operate a brewpub or taproom where it sells its own beer by the glass. It depends on others to sell its beer to the consumer.

Bridge Brew Works logo“We’re here at Sam’s Uptown Cafe doing an official tap takeover with all eight of their taps,” said Nathan Herrold, co-founder of Bridge Brew Works.

He said it might be the most Bridge Brew beers ever on tap in one place at one time.

Herrold went through the list of beers being offered and, significantly, several of them were limited, small-batch releases that are rare to find on-tap in the Charleston market. The more rare specialties included their Iapetus Gose, Seldom Seen Saison, and a Bourbon-Barrel-Aged Moxxee Stout.

Competition for tap space fierce

Obtaining the share of beer taps needed for financial sustainability is a constant challenge for small production breweries everywhere. It is especially challenging for those located away from large urban areas. Most small town breweries in West Virginia and Appalachia largely solve this problem by operating their own brewpubs or taprooms, at which they sell their beer for a premium profit. Those who choose not to do that face an uphill battle.

Small production breweries — those selling a thousand or two barrels of beer a year — cannot afford to advertise to create demand. Most do not have the luxury of dedicated, full-time marketing staff to promote outside sales. Yet these little guys have to compete for retail tap space with all the other, mostly larger, craft beer breweries that sell in their market.

While retail tap space is growing, it is not growing as rapidly as all the new offerings breweries are releasing into the market.

It takes cooperation among tiers to sell beer

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It takes everyone in the three-tier system working together to achieve success in promoting a small craft beer brand. Pictured left to right are Todd Moore of Proud Eagle Distributing; Nathan Herrold, co-founder/brewer at Bridge Brew Works; Paul “PG” Greco, Sam’s Uptown Cafe proprietor; and Adam Herrold, brewer at Bridge Brew Works.

For the production brewery, winning its share of craft beer sales is a three-legged stool. There is much more to it than simply making good beer. It requires cooperation among the brewer, its beer distributor, and the retailer.

In the case of Bridge Brew Works, they are finding success by brewing and offering a special set of small-batch, limited-release products in addition to their regular beer line-up. These one-off, limited-release beers are especially attractive for retail events.

Savvy bar owners love having special, limited-release beers. They attract craft beer fans like bears to honey. Holding a tap takeover with them gives the retailer something special to advertise and build business with on otherwise quiet midweek evenings.

sam's logoPaul “PG” Greco, at Sam’s Uptown Cafe, is one bar owner who appreciates using the tap takeover strategy to build business. Putting something unique on tap gets him more attention from the local craft beer fans who can be pretty fickle in their bar selection criteria.

“At our location we benefit from the hotels in the area,” says Greco. “We get a lot of travelers, and you’d be surprised that more people from out-of-town ask for a local beer than people that live here.”

That struggle to increase the attractiveness to  locals is something the tap takeover accomplishes. The Bridge Brew event was local beer that satisfied the out-of-town visitors and it was special, limited-release beer that satisfied the local beer geeks. That’s a win-win strategy.

And the distributor makes three

But while the brewer and the retailer may be in sync, there is still a  third leg required to make it all work. Small production breweries, such as Bridge Brew Works, depend on their distributors to stock, sell, and deliver their products to the retail accounts. For Bridge Brew’s regular line-up of brands, that is pretty straightforward. However, it takes considerable extra work for a distributor to stock, list, and offer tiny quantities of a bunch of limited-release beers, often amounting to only a few one-sixth-barrel kegs of each.

Proud Eagle logoBridge Brew’s distributor, in this case Proud Eagle Distributing of South Charleston, makes a special effort to obtain, program, list, sell, and deliver these limited-release beers because it knows how important they are long-term to building a brand. Though it probably does not make enough money on these limited-releases to cover the extra costs related to offering them, the distributor understands that offering these beers to its retail customers adds value to its business in other ways.

First, it helps the distributor cement relationships with craft beer retailers. like PG at Sam’s, who love getting something special that attracts attention and customers. Strengthening relationships with the retailer leads to increasing future sales opportunities for the distributor and all the brands it sells. Second, offering the special releases helps build a positive image for the brewery label and, therefore, helps the distributor sell more of that brewery’s regular brands over the long-term.

If a distributor does not appreciate using special-release beers as a business building strategy, a craft brewery will not likely find much success there.

Beer marketing requires constant effort

Beer marketing for small production breweries is something that most brewery owners don’t understand very well when they first open their breweries. They tend to think that if you make good beer, people will find you. While that may sometimes be true, the number who find you can be greatly increased by constant, rigorous self-promotion. Breweries that understand and practice this greatly increase their chances of financial success.

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