Brew, Brew, Brew For the Home Team: Craft Beer Makes Inroads at Stadiums and Sporting Arenas

Feature by | Sep 2014 | Issue #92

Boulevard employees proudly display bottles of Championship Ale.

In a way, beer saved baseball from an early demise. Before graduating to national pastime status, the bat and ball game suffered from growing pains that left some doubt about its future. After a number of promising amateur seasons in the late 1850s that carried it through the Civil War era and into the next decade, professional baseball began the 1880s with a tarnished reputation. Feuding managers, game-fixing, undisciplined athletes and expensive tickets threatened attendance and profits.

By 1882, the young sport needed a boost. Fortunately, help arrived in the form of a new league calling itself the American Association of Base Ball Clubs. Alluding to the fact that brewery owners sat on the boards of six of the teams, the Chicago Tribune quickly labeled it the “Beer Ball League.” Although meant as an epithet, the nickname held some truth: owners like Chris von der Ahe of the St. Louis Browns (himself a successful saloonkeeper) were nearly as interested in selling lager as they were in selling tickets. And so, departing from the rules established by the older National League, the American Association held games on Sundays, lowered the price of entry from 50 to 25 cents, and in a decision that would forever change the relationship between professional sports and entrepreneurial breweries, allowed fans to buy beer.

Today, beer and baseball (or basketball, football and soccer for that matter) are practically inseparable. For most of the 20th century though, the biggest breweries dominated the ballpark and the playing field. Perhaps the most famous example is that of Jacob Ruppert, Jr., a four-term US Congressman from New York who bought the Yankees in 1915. His piggy bank happened to be one of the country’s biggest breweries, a $30-million factory in upper Manhattan with a capacity of 2 million barrels. For more current reminders look no further than Busch Stadium in St. Louis, Coors Field in Denver, and Miller Park in Milwaukee.

Over the last decade, as smaller, independent breweries have steadily chipped away at the market share held by larger national or multinational competition, they’ve also found ways to move into spaces formerly controlled by Big Beer. A few years ago, flagship products from brands like Bell’s, Brooklyn, New Belgium, Sam Adams and Sierra Nevada began to appear at stadiums around the country—baseball stadiums in particular. Times are changing quickly, and now more breweries have begun working with a variety of teams and hospitality management companies to offer special beers and creative promotions on game day. Could an even more diverse and flavorful future be on the horizon for season ticket holders?

“We’ve been largely domestic in the past, but have listened to our customers and their wishes for more variety,” says Bryant Fillmore, public relations manager for entertainment at the Palace of Auburn Hills, home court for the Detroit Pistons. “We also have put less stock into assigning beer category exclusivity, which allows customers more options.”

Last year the Pistons introduced a Craft Beer Series in a new lounge space called Club 300. Partnering with Michigan favorites like Founders, Arbor Brewing, New Holland, and Arcadia Ales, the $39 package included a ticket to the game, ten 2-ounce pours of beer, and food prepared by their in-house culinary team.

“We sold out Club 300 for our six-game Craft Beer Series last season,” Fillmore says. “That’s 1,800 fans. We plan on doing it again this season and if the demand continues to be present, we’ll look at expanding.”

In Oregon, the Craft Brew Alliance introduced the Widmer Brothers Fan Haus at the Moda Center on opening day of the Portland Trail Blazer’s 2008-2009 NBA season. Featuring 150 seats and 30 tap handles of core Widmer beers like Hefeweizen, Upheaval IPA and Alchemy Pale Ale, the bar poured 69,710 20-ounce pints of draft beer last year. And beyond the Moda Center, Craft Brew Alliance also operates the Widmer Brothers Southern Front bar at Providence Park, home to the Portland Timbers.

In Indiana, Sun King Brewing began selling its three house beers at Lucas Oil Stadium, home of the Indianapolis Colts, in 2013. Quarterback Andrew Luck has been spotted more than once at the brewery filling his growlers.

Across the country, supporters of Major League Soccer seem to pay particularly close attention to the beer selection at their stadium.

“I distinctly remember feeling like the options have increased year to year,” says Luke Andrews-Hakken, a New York Red Bulls season ticket holder. “Bronx Brewery, Six Point and Flying Fish have all made appearances in the last two years. I tend toward darker ales and Stouts, a rarity at sporting events, so anything not a Pilsner is catching my eye and wallet contents.”

Daniel Wiersema, founder of a soccer advocacy website called the Free Beer Movement, agrees.

“The fan is demanding more than just watered down macro brews while they’re enjoying a game,” he says. “MLS has the luxury of being in some great craft beer cities like Portland, Seattle, Philadelphia and Kansas City and so the selection in these stadiums reflects the craft beer culture of those cities. The people that are filling MLS stadiums are intensely local—they’re holding a scarf with their local colors in one hand and a pint of local beer in the other.”

Adding momentum to this shift is the fact that many brewers have long been followers of their hometown clubs, too. In 2011, Jeff Hancock and Brandon Skall opened DC Brau in Northeast Washington, DC, just over three miles from RFK Stadium, where soccer’s DC United hosts visitors. Last year, as a tribute to fans and with encouragement from the team itself, DC Brau produced 90 barrels of a sessionable Golden Ale called The Tradition and distributed it to a few dozen bar partners. Its positive reception encouraged the brewery to increase this year’s batch to 420 barrels.

“Growing up in DC, there was a huge amount of pride for DC United,” says CEO and co-founder Skall. “And it’s all craft beer at the tailgates. The Tradition is a product for the fans and we were definitely United fans before this went down.”

A thousand miles from the nation’s capital, a similar story also unfolded in Kansas City this year. After Sporting KC won the 2013 MLS Cup, the team approached Boulevard Brewing, their official beer sponsor, about a collaboration. Both sides embraced the idea, but faced the challenge of finding room in Boulevard’s busy production schedule for a one-off. Determination made the difference however, and in May they announced a limited, 2,000-case release of Championship Ale, a Saison brewed with Mandarina Bavaria hops. According to Jeremy Ragonese, Boulevard’s director of marketing, working together was a win-win for the brewery and the soccer team.

“Sporting KC has catapulted to such a revered brand in the market in a relatively short timeframe,” he says. “The brand’s strength and appeal is extremely potent with young adult fans, and that has enabled us to reinvigorate our connection to local millennials. Sporting KC looks to us for the same reason, and we’re always looking for ways to extend our reach with meaningful marketing programs that reward consumers for being a fan of both. Sporting Kansas City is our No. 2 on-premise account in the Greater Kansas City Area,” Ragonese adds. “Kauffman Stadium, home of the Royals, is No. 1.”

In San Francisco, Anchor Plaza at AT&T Park is that brewing company’s largest on-premise account in the world. Since opening the taproom in 2012, they’ve sold close to a quarter of a million servings of Anchor brews during each of the Giant’s seasons. The success of the partnership has led to the creation of Anchor Corral at Scottsdale Stadium, the baseball team’s spring training facility, and the future development of a new brewery, distillery, restaurant and museum on Pier 48.

“While we were one of the first craft breweries to sign a large partnership deal with a major sports franchise, there are many other examples around the country of large franchises opening up to the idea of working with smaller breweries and concessionaires taking the initiative to answer the call for greater variety,” says Marisa Bettencourt, account executive at Dog and a Duck, Anchor Brewing’s PR representative. “Of course there is a lot of pressure by the big brewers to have that variety answered through their new innovations or brand acquisitions and maintain their high-volume handles, but we have seen some vocal backlash against those tactics by consumers.”

Ultimately, teams and brewers want to keep fans happy. Even if that means changing the way they’ve done business in the past. The original owners of the Giants certainly understood that. Before establishing a National League franchise that changed names and moved from Manhattan to San Francisco, they founded the New York Metropolitans, a professional baseball team that played in the crowd-pleasing, beer-friendly American Association. Which makes the presence of a local brewery at today’s Giants games all the more fitting.