31 Mar 2010 @ 10:53 AM 

This column isn’t really beer related so much as it’s a long ramble of thoughts in preparation for a panel presentation at the upcoming Craft Brewers Conference. If you’re heading there, come see Storytelling 2.0: Social Media as a Conversation on Saturday morning where I’ll probably spend almost a whole minute talking about the contents of this column.

The reason that I’m focusing on Twitter and Facebook is that they are the two most ubiquitous forms of social media. Are there others? Yes. There are many others. It’s quite possible that one of them will turn out to be the Next Big Thing. It’s even more possible that the Facebook-killer is sitting as an unrealized dream in somebody’s head, waiting for VC and a team of developers. Let’s worry about the now.

Right now, Facebook and Twitter are kings of social media space. Very recently, Facebook logged more visitors than Google in a weekly metric for the first time. The media will write all kinds of grand, sweeping assumptions about what this means for internet usage, advertising markets, etc., etc. What it means to you and me is that a freakin’ lot of people are looking at Facebook. Twitter doesn’t see nearly that much traffic, but it’s equally as important. You just have to understand how it’s being used.

Social media is a unique medium. It is one in which you can’t necessarily target your audience, your audience targets you. That might not seem quite right up front if you think about traditional forms of media and advertising (television, radio, newspapers, magazines, and on and on) because you’re not in control of who is consuming your ad, right? Sure. Okay. But in all of those cases, the people who are selling advertising have a really good idea of the type of market demographic they’re reaching. They know their audience(s) and will tell you all about it. Television and radio change their advertising based on time of day because they have a good idea of who is watching or listening when. There’s a reason why sugary cereal commercials play on Saturday mornings and laxative commercials play during golf tournaments.

With Twitter and Facebook, you can only do blanket targeting a la, “I know that my target audience is beer-drinkers.” Certainly, using ads on Facebook you can target specific demographics quite effectively, but when it comes to someone “becoming a fan” of your business and consuming your day-to-day content, it is identical to Twitter where you have no control over who decides to actually follow you. It’s possible that down the road longitudinal data will be collected and statistics will be able to show you that, “Traditionally, 25 – 45 year old males use Facebook between the hours of 9 AM and 5 PM,” but that doesn’t currently exist. Or if it does, I’m not sure I’d trust it to be reliable, yet. There are broad sweeping rules that seem obvious: If you want clickthroughs, post to Facebook on the weekend… y’know.. when people aren’t at work.

In reality, I think that knowing your social media audience is about knowing their consumption habits.

Here’s my theory on Facebook v. Twitter. I have no scientific data to back me up. I have conducted no studies. I am just a big nerd that likes listening to himself type.

I think of social media as being made up of 3 types of usage. These usage types overlap with each other, so it’s a pretty classic Venn diagram.

Obvious: Creators create content, repeaters aggregate and disseminate content, consumers consume it.

For the most part, every user is built of all three of these. However, the extent to which they do any given one of these vs. the others will vary greatly. 90% of content on Twitter is created by 10% of the users. Think about that for a minute. It’s not that those other 90% aren’t there (okay.. some of them aren’t there), they’re there. They’re consuming.

You, as a brewery, as a business, are a Creator. It is important that you are also a Consumer, or you will come off as a Douchebag, which is not good for business. It is also important that you spend time being a Repeater, because Repeaters create community and community is what you want, but your primary role is a Creator. Your task is to get information to the Consumers, and you will largely do it through the Repeaters. Many Consumers will find you directly, but chances are they will do so via a Repeater. So why is it important that you Consume and Repeat as well as Create?

Because social media is a conversation.

I mean, it’s “social” media for crissakes. Like any good conversation, it’s about give and take and balance. When you show that you are willing to interact with others, others will feel like you’re a valuable conversation partner and will disseminate your content as well. It’s about relationships – just like sales.

If you are only a Creator – if you use Twitter and Facebook as a press release machine – people will stop following you pretty quickly because you have no added value. You need to engage with people to be successful in this medium. You can’t just put stuff out there like it’s a billboard. It won’t work. However! It is essentially the largest, free-est billboard you have available to you.

Let me get back on topic: The difference between Twitter and Facebook.

Facebook, regardless of what their founders may have envisioned or would like it to be, is built (maybe even a little ironically) around privacy. That is probably the largest source of their success. It allows people to have an environment where they can be both social and more-or-less safe and private. People that are posting pictures of their babies and families don’t necessarily want that information to be repeated and shared to total strangers.

Twitter has no filter. Everything that is created goes out to everyone. People that use Twitter a lot revel in that. They are attention seekers.

Note: You can protect your tweets – lock them from people seeing them without your permission – but there is anecdotal evidence that shows that when you protect your tweets you essentially cut yourself off from viral community growth, which is the strength of Twitter. People won’t ask to follow you if they don’t personally know you.

In other words, Twitter is an extrovert tool and Facebook is an introvert tool. It’s a gross generalization, but it works.

Here’s a guess: I would bet that most Twitter users have a Facebook account but that most Facebook users do not have a Twitter account. Twitter users will talk to anyone and everyone, Facebook users only really talk to their friends.

While there’s a fair amount of content crossover between Twitter and Facebook, you have to use these tools differently.

When you post something on Facebook that people like, they will “Like” it to give you feedback that you’ve done something, or said something right. Some people may comment on it. For the most part, it’s only going out to the people that are following you as fans. These people are enthusiastic for your product, since they have chosen to receive updates from a business in the midst of their private and personal space. That is even more reason to not treat it as a press release machine. Remember: You don’t have to convince these people. They already know who you are and what you do. They’re already fans and customers. They’re following you because they’ve bought into your vision and they want to engage with you and interact.

When you post something on Twitter that people like, they will Re-Tweet it. Those people may not be following you because they’re existing customers. Twitterers are just as likely to follow you because you look interesting, you seem interesting, or you’ve Tweeted something once that they were intrigued by. They are also just as likely to stop following you because you’re boring or you’re annoying. They are the social butterflies of the internet.

When you post to Facebook, it’s your job to make announcements to your customers and start conversations. Ask leading questions. Get feedback. Invite people to events. Post photo albums. Most importantly: Consider that the information on your Fan Page takes a much longer time to move than it does on your user’s “Recent Posts” listing and that they can and will use your page as a time line to go back and read over recent, and even not-so-recent posts. Facebook is much more of an on-going time line that people will scroll back through to see what’s happened. Because they generally are only friends with people they know in Real Life, they’re likely to be following far fewer people than your average Twitterer. You can over-post.

When you post to Twitter, it’s your job to be a fun and interesting conversationalist. Ask leading questions, but also answer them. Create relationships, because those with whom you have good relationships will be your biggest fans. Post photos, but use them as part of your daily story line. Don’t assume that they’ll necessarily stay around for people to see later, because most people won’t bother finding them. Twitter is like a snapshot of life. Because of that, it might seem like a smart idea to repeat the same information over and over again so that others who aren’t looking at the snapshot when you post will see it, but by doing that you’ll antagonize the frequent watchers – and those are the big Repeaters.

On both sites, trust that information will disseminate. It’ll happen. These sites are the very definition of viral marketing. If you have something valuable, it will spread. Like any good conversation, people will revisit a topic later, especially one that they’ve enjoyed. Let them do it. The challenge is to create something valuable and to keep that conversation going.

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Posted By: erik
Last Edit: 31 Mar 2010 @ 03 24 PM

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 26 Mar 2010 @ 7:08 AM 

One year ago, I started this blog thanks to the advice of my great friends who told me, “We’re sick of hearing you rattle on to us about beer. You should go start a blog and have an outlet elsewhere… where we can’t hear you.”

In blog years I think that means the blog is a teenager. It sure does talk back to me enough. Sheesh.

Anyway, I know I said some of this a few months ago on my 100th post, but, thanks for coming by and reading and, most importantly, thanks for coming by and commenting. Discussion and debate are the seeds through which our future is grown.

Now help me celebrate by going and drinking a great beer.

Cheers!

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Posted By: erik
Last Edit: 26 Mar 2010 @ 07 08 AM

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 22 Mar 2010 @ 3:40 PM 

I will admit to having the same thought while I was brewing. It was a novelty idea: “I want to have a dark beer that tastes like an IPA.”

For me, it was about trying to make something dark where the bitterness wasn’t contributed by the roasted grain, but by the hops. A nice malt backbone, a nice dark kind of chocolaty flavor, but a nice hop profile as well. It was a challenge to make something with a unique, balanced flavor from two essentially distinct flavor profiles and have them meet somewhere in a balanced, drinkable, middle ground.

I brewed it up for Fullsteam’s Backyard Brew Fest, and it got great reviews.

Later, I found out that I had actually been brewing in, what people are saying, is a new style. “Cascadian Dark” they call it. In fact, there are already proposed style guidelines for it. Here, let me show you where that style guidelines surprises, bold emphasis mine:

History: A style that came to prominence on the Northwest Coast of North America in the early 21st Century. Northwest hops play key flavor roles, balanced with malt, roast malts give color and flavor, but body should be reminiscent of an IPA, not heavy like a porter or stout. The style celebrates the hops of the Pacific Northwest, but is commonly brewed in other regions.

Really? That’s a lot of Northwestiness. No offense to ya’ll up in the north-left corner, but this is not only limiting, but a little cocky. You don’t think a Black IPA or an IBA or whatever can’t be made without using hops from the Pacific Northwest? I made mine with Goldings and Fuggles. Should that be a new style, too since I wasn’t celebrating the Pacific Northwest? English Cascadian Dark?

I hear the English Cascades are beautiful this time of year.

And, for the record, let me throw this article out there that puts the origin somewhere around the 1880’s. Also, this article which pegs the idea behind the “style” to Greg Noonan up in Vermont. So, nyeah.

I’ve got a healthy load of snark saved up for the name “Cascadian Dark”, too, but I’ll hold onto that because what all of this really got me thinking was this:

How does a new style come into being these days?

Most of the styles that we recognize have some basis in fairly recent history. Not many of our currently recognized styles go back farther than a few hundred years, and only a very few of them you see are from within the past few decades in which we’ve seen the rise of American Craft Beer: American Pale Ale, American India Pale Ale, American Brown Ale, Dark American Lager, American Wheat, American Stout, American Barleywine. You see a trend here?

In all of these cases, the new style is simply a regional style from elsewhere in the world, but with more hops. It’s very American; not just because of the hops, but because of the multicultural background, co-opting, and re-imagining of the concept.

It’s kind of what we’re seeing going on with Breakfast Stouts, as well, which (I’m told) is defined by the presence of oatmeal and coffee. Someone might have thrown coffee into their Oatmeal Stout because they thought that the flavors would work well together, but once many people start brewing them up at what point does it stop being an Oatmeal Stout with Coffee and start becoming Breakfast Stout? At what point is the critical mass upon which a new style is reached?

Similarly, we’ve got a handful of breweries making Black IPAs. Are they now a presence in the marketplace? Sure. But how many are there? 13? 15? 20? 50? Out of 1500 breweries in the country, is 3% enough to declare a new style? Are we just jumping the gun on this because beer geeks (and especially Americans) tend to be rabid classifiers? Or are we jumping the gun because whoever writes out a definition first has the best possibility of getting that definition followed? I’m looking at you Oregon.

Finally, if someone is jumping the gun and pre-defining style, how does that limit creativity in the evolution of that style? It took decades or longer for some of the styles that we brew to develop into how we recognize them today. Isn’t it a little premature to say that something that’s been marketed for a year or two is a new style? What if it hasn’t finished evolving yet?

I don’t have a good answer.

These questions certainly seem to fly in the face of my previous stance on style guidelines and what they mean for the industry, but I’m not sure they do. Part of me would like to see us hang out with these hybrid styles for a little while to see if they stick around before we rush to put labels on them. Brew them, drink them, enjoy them, and play with them in the creative forum that is the craft beer industry because we label them for posterity. I’m pretty certain people will know what you mean when you say a “Black IPA” for now, the silliness of the name notwithstanding.

What do you think? When is the time to declare a new style vs. a creative trend vs. “I put some new stuff in my beer”?

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Posted By: erik
Last Edit: 22 Mar 2010 @ 05 33 PM

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 12 Mar 2010 @ 8:00 AM 

A little news item just flitted across my desktop that really caught my eye. It was an item titled, “Less is More? Are There Too Many Breweries?” Since I’m working on starting my own brewery, this article gave me a pause. I had to read it.

It was a little article about a topic that’s apparently been cropping up at the 2010 Beer Industry Summit: Are there too many breweries? The argument runs that there are so many breweries that distributors cannot possibly represent them all well. It seems like a fair cop:

…no one really believes that any single distributor can properly handle 100, 75 or even 50 breweries. Even the best salesperson doesn’t have the time or opportunity with their retail customers to make proper presentations for that many breweries. For a distributor with such a large portfolio of brands, the larger volume brands are going to get a lot of attention, but the rest will suffer. In theory, the top 10 breweries out of 50 may flourish and the remaining 40 will get neglected.

Of course, the argument that you’re going to see around most of the internet for this one is something about how the three-tier system is flawed. I can’t really get behind that argument, either. The three-tier system is exactly why craft beer has been able to grow so well. Plain and simple, if there weren’t laws keeping distributors separate from breweries, everything would be owned by BMC, and craft wouldn’t be distributed at all. But, look – there’s more:

One brewer I spoke to this week worries that his brand doesn’t get enough attention and becomes “clutter.” That means he’s concerned that his beer gets stale on the shelf and that shipping and logistics become troublesome and expensive due to small volumes. Yet another brewer has suggested that distributors should focus only on their top 10 (or so) craft brands, thus streamlining their operation and making it possible for them to make more frequent and more in depth presentations for those remaining brands.

I don’t know who these guys are, but I’m kinda glad, because I have very, very little sympathy.

Part of me really wants to call horseshit on this entire argument. I hate making the comparison between wine and beer because it’s loaded. People get all bent out of shape about it for all of the wrong reasons. But let me just throw a comparison out there. Here’s a quote from the article:

Right now, the Brewer’s Association will tell you that there are almost 600 breweries in the United States that bottle, can, keg or otherwise distribute beer. That number doesn’t count the many hundreds of brewpubs that brew beer for sale in their restaurants. In most markets, there are only 2 or 3 beer distributors that will carry and sell craft beer, which leaves a theoretical total of 200 to 300 brewers per distributor in any particular area, not including the wide array of import brands that are currently available.

Okay. Fair. 200-300 breweries per distributor? That’s a LOT!

There are 5218 wineries in the U.S. (2307 in California, alone). By the same math that’s 1700 – 2600 wineries per distributor. What a scale difference! It’s almost a factor of 10!

Good heavens! There must be too many wineries!

I mean.. fair. There are too many wineries.

The other day, I went down to the beer store closest to my house and noticed that they had expanded their beer inventory to two full aisles. One section is ONLY sixpacks, one is ONLY bombers, and one is single 12 oz. bottles (that sell for like $1.50/ea. – yikes). It’s all split by country and state (though no split on style).

Clutter? You bet! How is a consumer supposed to make sense of all that?

Then I realized that what I was looking at is just two aisles of the store. Out of 10 aisles. The rest of the store was filled with wine.

I like to give wine people a hard time by saying that there are only two types of wine. Yeah, you can tell me that they go by all of these different names, and there are all these different flavors made from different grapes, soil conditions, weather patterns, aging techniques, and the color of the t-shirt that the vintner was wearing on the day they bottled. But in the end your wine is more or less going to taste like a red wine or a white wine. They might be sweet or dry, but they’re still going to taste red or white.

There are thousands of bottles of wine at my local package store. It dwarfs the beer selection. And it’s just two types of wine.

There are too many breweries? What an incredibly selfish accusation! Wahh! I don’t want competition, that means I have to make a quality product! That way lies industrial light lager, my friend.

This all said, there are big differences between the wine market and the beer market that are worth considering:

1) The wine market is not dominated by a handful of players.

Are there huge wineries? Absolutely. I can’t speak as to whether or not they make a “premium” product that smaller.. er.. craft wineries look upon with disdain, but I don’t see a clear analog in the wine market to ABI or the other big players. You don’t have 3 companies that take up 90% of the market and, correspondingly, 90% of the shelf space.

What difference does that make? Look – craft beer makes up almost 5% of the beer market. It’s barely a dent. It’s barely a pucker in a divot. The fact that you can walk into a beer/wine retailer and see such a good selection of craft beer on the shelves is actually a pretty good testament to the three-tier system and a decent distribution network.

Unfortunately, because you have these huge players in the market, they have weight to throw around in the distribution channels. If ABI thinks that their distributor isn’t pushing their beer well and they threaten to pull their products, that distributor can and will lose a significant portion of their business (there are a lot of laws about this, too, and many are difficult for craft breweries to navigate because of the scale difference). Add that on top of the fact that there are less-than-scrupulous salesmen out there who aren’t afraid to go the whole “shady business practice” rout (ie – free stuff in exchange for accounts, which is illegal) and you begin to see why craft has to work so hard to carve its niche. I don’t believe that wineries have this same kind of battle.

2) Wine is ahead of beer in point-of-sale education.

Simply put: If you walk into a wine store without knowledge of what you’re buying, you have no way of telling if the product you are about to buy is decent or not. Just because it’s $15 doesn’t mean you’re going to like what’s inside the bottle. Actually, that doesn’t sound that different from beer, does it?

Luckily, most wine stores employ someone who is more educated about wine than your average bear. This person’s job is to cut and paste descriptions about wines from Wine Spectator into little leaflet things that they tape to the shelves so that a literate shopper has an easier time making a decision. That person is generally available to ask questions to if you need extra help.

Try finding that person for beer in any store that isn’t explicitly a beer bottleshop. Virtually non-existant. Beer, for the most part, relies on the consumer to be educated. Wine, for the most part, relies on the retailer to be educated. The retailer is the one ordering from the distributor.

I can’t really believe that there’s been a distributor salesperson in doing a specific presentation for each one of the wines that’s being carried in that store. They’d never leave. No, they might do a new brand, or a new vintage from a favorite winery, but certainly not every single one of the hundreds of wineries present in even a small wine shop.

3) A significant portion of the wineries in the U.S. sell local.

I will admit that I’m speculating on this one (heck, I’m speculating on 99% of this), but I bet I’m at least close to right. Out of the five-thousand-some wineries in the U.S., there are only a few hundred, tops, represented at my local wine store (and there are equally as many, if not more, from elsewhere in the world). There’s a whole section of local wine, and then there are selected wineries from certain regions within the U.S. – California, Oregon, New York, etc. A decent representation of each, but certainly not even close to every single one.

At my local package store, I can get beer from all over the U.S. and from countries all over the world, but I’m always surprised if there’s more than a handful of local breweries represented. To be fair, there’s only a handful of breweries in North Carolina that package their beer, but because of that I tend to expect to be able to get ALL of them at a local store, and especially at most local restaurants, and yet locally-made beer is embarrassingly difficult to find.

So what’s my point in all this? There aren’t too many breweries, and the problem isn’t with distribution. Not really. The problem is that the craft market is still small and it is still young, but people insist on treating it as a mature industry with a significant market share.

The average retailer – be it restaurant, bar, or package store – is woefully undereducated about craft beer. Is it so surprising that your average waitstaff can’t tell you what the Sam Adams Seasonal is or that a package store won’t know anything about the beers that a distributor is offering? Most of what they sell is Bud Light with Lime! What’s to know? They know their big sellers. Craft is a luxury purchase, not a money-maker. They have no incentive to learn.

Education, education, education – it needs to be stressed by every brewery and every person in the beer industry to every distributor and retailer they come in contact with. Support the Cicerone program because it will help you in the long run! Once there are Cicerones placed everywhere that you find a sommelier, THEN the only thing you have to do is make great beer (not really, but.. y’know). Until then, educate, educate, educate.

Finally? Sell deep before you sell wide. I keep going back to this quote from the beginning of the post:

One brewer I spoke to this week worries that his brand doesn’t get enough attention and becomes “clutter.” That means he’s concerned that his beer gets stale on the shelf and that shipping and logistics become troublesome and expensive due to small volumes.

There are countless bottles on the shelves of my local package store that I will never pick up because they’re from a small brewery somewhere on the other side of the country that I’ve never heard of. If I’m going to drop $14 on a six-pack, I’m going to make sure I damn well enjoy it. I’ve bought too many beers that were old, light-struck, infected, or just ruined from poor handling and storage on cross-country trips to make a gamble based on novelty alone.

This will not be a problem if your growth curve is slow. If you’re shipping your beer outside of your local market to an audience that has never heard of you to be sold by a retailer that knows nothing about beer, then I guarantee you that your product will get stale on the shelf and that you will be nothing but clutter.

Sell deep before you sell wide. Is it hard? Hell yeah. It means having YOUR staff beating the street rather than trusting in a distributor’s staff to do the work for you. Nobody knows your product better than you. Get out there and sell it. If you’re indispensable and ubiquitous in your local market, then when you finally move beyond it your product will sell because your reputation has preceded you.

So, again, back to the first question – are there too many breweries? No. In fact, I’d say that the main problem is that there aren’t nearly enough.

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Posted By: erik
Last Edit: 12 Mar 2010 @ 07 21 AM

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Think of it as a book club, but for beer.

What is it?

It’s a group that’s being put together for beer education. To help people who are new to craft beer to explore the flavors in their glass and to help people who already drink craft beer expand and explore their palates. It’s about learning how to taste your beer and building up your vocabulary about what you like – and what you don’t like – about beer and its ingredients.

This is not about getting trashed and pounding back a bunch of beer. If that’s your goal, please respect the purpose of this group and come by later to have a social beer with us when we’re done.

When is it?

The third Monday of each month. 6:30 PM. Expect to spend at least an hour, maybe an hour and a half, talking beer.

What are we drinking? How does this work?

The goal is 3 – 4 beers per month. We’ll try beers that are related to each other in some way. They’ll either be different examples of the same style, different styles that have a similar ingredients, or different beers from the same brewery. Each night, someone will speak a little bit about the over-arching theme of the evening, maybe a little bit of history, and a bit about what you can expect. Then, we’ll try each example separately and talk about what we taste.

How much will it cost?

Expect to spend $20 – $25. We’ll arrange a flight of samples (separated by time, so no cheating ahead), and a little bit of food to cleanse the palate.

I’m not much of a beer person, but I’m curious, can I come?

Absolutely. This is for you. Come learn. We welcome learning and growth.

I’m a huge beer geek, but I like trying beers like this because it helps me expand my palate, can I come?

Absolutely. We’d love to have your palate, your experience, and your vocabulary, but please respect and support people who are just beginning.

How do I get involved?

To help manage numbers, we’re using Meetup.com.

You can find our group at http://meetup.com/TasteYourBeer

If you plan on joining us, please take the time to RSVP on Meetup. While we’re getting this group off the ground, we’re capping participation at 20 people. We may expand in the coming months, if it seems manageable. In the meantime, we will only have prearranged samples for 20.

Important: If you RSVP yes and end up not being able to make it, please log in and change your response so that a person who is on the waiting list may be notified of an open spot.

The first meet up is this coming Monday, March 15 at 6:30 PM. See you there. Details about location are available once you RSVP.

And that’s all, if you have any questions e-mail me or post them below.

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Posted By: erik
Last Edit: 11 Mar 2010 @ 01 24 PM

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