It blows my mind a little that there isn’t a place called “Clean Tap Brewing Company.”
I would drink that beer.
This is what I’m thinking of while at the Wild and Scenic Film Festival event at the Sierra Nevada Facility in Mills River. The space is huge, the brewery carries the nickname Hogwarts, and everyone is here of good will. Still, I can’t help but wonder who benefits who.
The Mills River Valley Trail Project raises funds. Wild and Scenic collects their rental fees and exposes filmmakers to a wider audience. Sierra Nevada has a reason to sell a few beers and attract a new audience.
Seriously, the space is like Hogwarts.
Also, Sierra Nevada has a chance to showcase how much they all love riding bikes with Death Ride - tapping into communities everywhere: cycling, brewing, California, North Carolina, and so on.
That’s the point of all this: building a community. Sometimes, though, I wonder if the communities are built the wrong way - maybe they should build from the top-down, rather than the bottom-up?
I’ve just seen this all play out before in Denver.
I don’t think anyone got the full story on why Del Norte Brewing shut down. It was over night, closed their doors, stopped producing, gave away their stock. This all happened right at the dawn of the craft beer explosion, right after Del Norte had quadrupled their production and entered into a mess of new markets. Then, overnight, gone.
They did good work. Hell, who doesn’t love a good Mexican lager?
The closure was forgotten as a swell of press about the local craft brewing industry grew it’s roots and took hold. Over the next five years, hundreds of different brewing and beer-centric operations would open. Not a weekend would pass without a brewery, somewhere, having their grand opening weekend. Each of them more or less brewing the same handful of styles at similar quality. All of them dealt with the same startup costs. They were all after the same audience.
It was about this time I started working with the team at Denver Off The Wagon - one of a dozen magazines all competing for the same headline attention. There was no such thing as too much press, not in the beer world. Brewers love attention.
Every brewery leveraged slightly different themes and stories. Most of them had furniture built out of beetle-kill pine. All of them leaned heavily on the idea of “community” to build their businesses.
Hell, they had to use community. Otherwise they were left with “We sell the thing that gets you drunk.” ¯\_(ツ)_/¯
They started with the literal community - those who lived nearby. They relied on their foot traffic for baseline sales and on their signatures to petition for liquor licensing. Most expanded into the community of craft beer drinkers who traveled from all over to check into the taproom and collect a sticker for the back window of their van. There were communities revolving around festivals, music, dogs, fermented foods, death metal, motorcycles, hiking, and so much more.
Community was the through line when breweries couldn’t, or wouldn’t, take the time to find out why their customers were loyal to them. When it came to craft brands, it was rare to buy the same beer twice. After all, there was so much of it, you never knew what you really liked. The beer you loved today might never be brewed again - bets not get attached. This is fun for the craft beer enthusiast, a night mare for determining who was going to drink how much of your next beer.
Some breweries closed up. Others moved to cheaper parts of the city. Others relied on huge distribution models to get in to as many pockets as possible. Community is great, but it doesn’t circumvent commercial competition. It’s hard to spend money at one taproom while filling a barstool in another.
When you leverage community for competition of a dollar, you either eventually break the community or the community breaks from you. You see this when AB InBev buys up another "local craft brewer" or when you feel the bad blood flowing around a craft beer festival where the size of a line doesn’t always reflect the quality of a brewer. You see this when the Craft Brewer's Alliance stands in for the overall promotion of the industry, but finds a very weird allegiance with huge brewers and constantly seems to rewrite the rules to accommodate for capacity over community.
Craft beer isn’t alone in this.
Just about everyone in every industry aims high in ambition but always stop short of where we think we can belong. I do this too.
I believe the opportunities any of us have for expanding our presence and establishing the trust (loyalty? repeat visitors/ buyers?) of our audience is somewhere in the great beyond of the greater good.
Maybe we are too shy to go that far. Maybe most of us don't have the empathy. It's the difference between joining something like Craft Brewers For Clean Water so you can write off your efforts as “charitable” or add the little NRDC logo to something you can hang in your taproom. The efforts are worthwhile, but it is a case of the bottom-up community. Brewers are supportive, but they aren’t necessarily invested . Breweries rely on clean water because it directly impacts the quality of their product. It’s a noble effort, but I want to see them go further.
Why not take the mantle away with the statement:
"We make beer because the only thing we care about is clean water. For our beer. For you. For everyone."
Then, even if your customer doesn't drink beer, they still care about your company because you are speaking from the platform of the greater good. Who doesn’t want clean water?
That’s the difference between brewers for the idea of clean water, and the Clean Tap Brewing Company. Good beer, clean water, and shirts that are made with that super soft cotton I think everything should be made out of.