Craft Beer Hospitality 2.0
44. 537. 1,793. 2,751.
These numbers tell the story of the rise of craft beer in America. By 1979, the state of American brewing had hit its low, with a mere 44 breweries operating in this country, most of them owned by a small handful of corporate giants. Fast-forward 15 years and that number had grown more than ten-fold, following the steady and deliberate rise of the so-called microbrewers. A little more than 15 years later, that number stood just shy of 1,800 breweries, an incredibly impressive figure.
And then something almost comical happened: The United States added a thousand new breweries in two years. Whether the growth rests with nanobrewers, accountants or lawyers with money to burn, or recently unemployed homebrewers cracking out on their own, the industry has exploded in every reach of the country. That doesn’t even include another thousand or more breweries in planning.
As compared to the broad colonization approach employed by craft brewers five years ago, these new startups often prefer a decidedly local focus. In towns and cities across America, local beer drinkers increasingly benefit from craft beer entrepreneurship. In trying to establish their brands and capture greater profits early on, these new brewers have embraced a long-neglected opportunity for beer hospitality: the taproom.
In otherwise nondescript garages and industrial warehouse spaces, the sparkle of gleaming taps and a few barstools entice would-be craft beer customers to visit startups located far from the hustle of commercial centers. Carving out a small space for some tables has proven critical to the success of hundreds of new small brewers. These cozy, if functional, spaces offer new breweries the chance to connect with their customers on a more personal level, to extend their brand awareness and to score a badly needed cash infusion.
Often rejected by larger breweries as unnecessary distractions from the larger business of production, these longtime businesses prefer the version 1.0 practice of offering generic, perfunctory tours. Often run by unpaid volunteers or local college kids earning minimum wage, tours often leave visitors with little understanding of craft beer and the brewing process, and with no greater connection to the brewery. At their worst, these brief, stainless-steel sightseeing trips operate as inconsequential buffer points between the welcome and the inevitable free samples that follow.
In contrast, taprooms operate as an important welcoming space for the community and serve as a public face for the brewery itself. With well-trained, energetic and engaged staff, visitors become dedicated consumers and eventually advocates as part of a brewery’s core community.
Breweries are starting to realize that it’s time to rethink the standard tour they’ve been offering unchanged for years. As breweries remain in a near constant state of expansion, designers are starting to integrate expanded taprooms, beer gardens and community meeting spaces in their physical footprints; breweries such as Stone, New Belgium and Victory have built all of this, plus in-house restaurant spaces. Following in the footsteps of these breweries, Harpoon, Odell and New Glarus have recently expanded their public spaces in very engaging ways.
Growing from a half-dozen craft breweries to nearly 3,000 in 30 years is an impressive feat. As the industry grows, it should always strive to rethink the way it does business, especially how its constituent breweries engage with their increasingly enthusiastic consumer base. The antiquated age of the nickel tour followed by a 2-ounce pour is over. It’s time for craft brewers to solidify and grow their base of fans by inviting them in for a few pints. ■