A Letter to Craft Beer Breweries: Now is the Time to Define Your Core Values
I wrote a couple of weeks ago about how craft beer fans and drinkers need to do some self-reflection and think about how they decide which breweries to patronize. The issues that each drinker feels important will help determine which breweries fit their philosophy, and honest self-reflection helps in this endeavor. However, this effort will be much easier if you have a good idea of what a brewery holds dear. It’s like a dating service for drinkers and brewers – if both sides of the rail are honest about what they care about, then the best matches will find one another.
In no uncertain terms, how you as a brewer/owner choose to prioritize the different aspects of your business will have an impact on the business you do and on how happy you are in brewing. I suggest that a defined set of core values for each specific brewery, perhaps written and displayed on a website or reflected in a series of FB or Twitter posts will help drinkers decide on whether a brewery is for them. Walter suggested posting them unobtrusively in the taproom – I like that idea.
Before opening a brewery, any thinking individual or group of people will sit down to consider why they are doing this and what issues are most important to them as business owners/beer makers. As stated in Chapter Two of the craftbeerbrandingguide.com, your core values, “are a set of emotional and qualitative rules that set the stage for your entire business ecosystem. Why do you exist? Who makes up your tribe? What do you stand for? It’s important to define these because they directly influence your brand essence, positioning, storytelling, and broad strategic decisions. They inspire your internal team, attract the best talent, and get customers excited to support you.”
Very briefly, a potential brewery owner should make a list of traits that they hold and want their brewery to represent. By examining these dozen or so traits, one can hone them down to 3-5 core values, actionable through the way you choose to run your enterprise. Are you willing to lose money in order to sustain your chosen trait? Are you proud to tell patrons about what drives your brewery? If yes, then these are your core values. Do they reflect you, warts and all? Remember, nobody is perfect, you shouldn’t try to make your brewery all things to all people – just be yourself and be true to yourself. At this point, you are ready to brand your brewery and develop the story that helps your patrons know who, and more importantly, why you exist.
The kind of investment in capital and devotion required to open and run a brewery demand that a prospective owner have a definite idea of why they are entering this enterprise; therefore, they have to think about the factors in making and selling beer that drive them. Do you make beer because you are an artist; are you compelled to create beers – and if people like them, so much the better? Or are you driven by the financial portions of the business – that’s OK, everyone needs to make a living, and if you gauge how well you do your job based on the amount of money that comes in, then fine. But if you don’t know what you stand for, then your patrons certainly never will. And they won’t become evangelists for you – you need that.
Some brewery people see themselves primarily as a member of the community and the welfare of those in their area is priority one. I think the actions of Central State and Mashcraft Brewing in the opening of a diner in Fall Creek neighborhood show that they first consider themselves parts of the community. Hunter’s Brewing feels it is important to be a vegan brewpub; filling this niche is how they try to fit into their community.
On the other hand, Stone Brewing is militantly independent – they have stickers that say so. Being an independent brewery is so important to them as to be their primary core value. The point is, the reason you have a brewery will be reflected in everything you do, and your patrons will see that.
As many, but not all, brewers will tell you, brewing craft beer is a rather introverted activity. Introverted people might be drawn toward it, while it might be the hardest thing about running a brewery for extroverts. One brewery I know has taken the idea of personality and turned it into a core value. Jason Wuerfel writes an eloquent declaration of core values for Books & Brews in Indianapolis (and other exotic locales) each year on their anniversary.
This past March he wrote, “I’m a little weird. I feel awkward in social situations. I don’t make friends easily. People don’t get me. I don’t have anyone I feel like I can call to hang out. I don’t have a place that I can go where I feel comfortable, especially if I’m alone. More importantly: I don’t know what to do to change this. I don’t know if it’s a chemical issue or personality issue, but either way I don’t have an answer…. One day I thought: I can’t be alone. I can’t be the only one that is this way. I can’t be the only one that feels like this. I can’t be the only one who sits in their car with their key in the ignition with nowhere to go. I can’t be the only one who holds their cell phone and even though they have tons of contacts they have no one to call.”
Therefore, Books & Brews opened with a mission to be, “a place for those without a place.” And yet, some people might be surprised to find that the beer is a catalyst for Books & Brews, not an end unto itself. This is easy to forget by the way that Bryan Suter attacks beers styles and gives us the detailed looks at the heart of styles all the time. But as Jason wrote, “I want to make good beer like anybody, but beer is just the medium through which I communicate, it isn’t my business. My business is people. My business is connection, appreciation, acceptance, encouragement, and inspiration.” I can’t think of a better way to express a core value. Now – get it out of Facebook and located somewhere that everyone will see it – in your brewery and on your website.
As I was writing this piece and trying to figure out just how specific brewers/owners map out their core values, Andy Meyer of TwoDeep Brewing came out to say hi. I cornered him and started asking questions. TwoDeep Brewing in Indianapolis is an unabashedly malt forward brewery, and this is a philosophy that impacts and molds their clientele. Do you want to call that a core value or a style choice? When Andy was thinking about finding a niche, he looked for a way to stay close to the German lagers that helped him fall in love with craft beer, while at the same time making uber-clean beers with an American stylized bent. But how many people know this? I think that if more people knew that Andy wants to highlight the malt in every beer he makes, then more malt-loving beer drinkers would seek out his brewery and become TwoDeep crusaders.
Even more, Andy told me that he wants to stay true to his home brewing roots – good beers take time and care. Some people think he’s nuts for leaving a beer in the tank for three months, but he stays true to what he believes makes craft beer good. Time as a brewery core value – I like it. He knows what his core values are and he does reflect on them, it’s just that he has never taken the time to put them down on paper or codify them in anyway. My suggestion is that we all do this from time to time.
Without doubt, two brewers/owners that have thought about these things and can state them plainly are Mike Orkey and Greg Ortwein of Deviate Brewing. I asked for a core value from Mike, and there was no hesitation before he told me bluntly, “Your tongue.” Delighting the palate of their patrons is the main goal for Deviate. He and Greg are basically foodies, and it is their search for interesting flavor combinations and ways to present those ideas in their beer which is at the center of what they hold dear as brewers. Anything held this dearly must be a core value, and for Deviate, this hasn’t changed one iota since they opened in 2015.
However, as the philosopher Bertrand Russell once wrote, “In all affairs, it is a healthy thing now and then to hang a question mark on things long taken for granted.” Since you opened your brewery, have the ideas that drive it changed/evolved? It’s OK if they have, as long as you recognize this, and it is a conscious choice that uplifts craft beer. Here again I learned something from Andy at TwoDeep. He thought, mistakenly, when he opened his brewery that distribution would rule the day and the taproom would really be just a place where the brew house happened to be located.
It didn’t take long for him to switch his core value from “get my beer everywhere” to “a place people see as an extension of their home.” It became apparent to Andy early on that the taproom was the soul of the brewery, a gathering place for the brewery family and the neighborhood family. As he put, “People just want a place where they can gather, feel at home, and enjoy each other.” It is this kind of re-evaluation that helps make a brewery what it is, and as such, helps patrons find their best fits. The key is to keep the patrons in the loop.
I know one brewer who has reconsidered his early mantra that the customer is always right – Yelp reviews will sometimes do that. Just how much you stand up for your own opinions and business practices has become a bit of an issue in in and out of Indiana lately. There was the online dust up a few months ago with Dave Toth and Byway Brewing concerning their policy of charging for unlimited four ounce tastes rather than trying to limit the number of free splashes given out as tastes. A patron did not appreciate that this was not made patently obvious to them before he/she was charged, while Dave pointed out that the menu stated just such a policy. Then the claws came out and both sides got snippy.
It’s fine if this is the attitude you want to adopt for your brewery, just as long as you are happy with the consequences. A similar situation occurred mere weeks ago with Scofflaw Brewing in Atlanta. A number of patrons (online) asked if a problem of consistency could be addressed. The brewery answered with a picture of the entire staff flipping off the camera and telling those patrons to go buy someone else’s beer. This was their response to a problem that they themselves had already acknowledged did exist.
True, this is mostly an online issue, pertinent to only the geekiest of beer geeks, but these are also your most ardent fans, as witnessed by the fact that they are following and commenting on Twitter and Facebook. I have no problem with a brewery that adopts such a “scofflaw” attitude, but they won’t be someone I will be visiting or buying in the store. I am assuming they are fine with that, but what happens when many people decide the same thing? If they are being true to themselves – good luck with that.
In the end, if enough craft beer fans agree with your core values and are comfortable in your world, then you’ll be fine. If not, you may close, but you will be true to your own values and that is also a victory of a kind. This is the best way to avoid tragedies like Blank Slate in Cincinnati. Yes, breweries are going to close; the days of unfettered growth are past us. But a brewery with really good beer shouldn’t close just because it couldn’t stir up enough passion to create ardent patrons. Perhaps if they spoke to us more instead of relying on only the beer to do so, they might still be with us.
A special shout out to Jessica Leonard and Chad Childers of Inklin Customs for my new avatar image. See them for all your Magic: The Gathering custom work – some of their acrylic custom cards are made by Anthony Noel of Zwybie’s Custom Works. See this article about his tap handles, flight boards, and other craft beer paraphernalia.