Breweries, Know Thyself

On Tuesday, I gave a speech at the Craft Beverage Expo called "telling your story." This is a subject I've been working on behind the scenes as I do consulting with breweries, but not one I've talked much about publicly. There are a lot of moving parts there, but there's one thing is of general interest because it's immediately evident to beer drinkers: the importance of a brewery's identity.

Breweries all have personalities. Like people, they have a particular appearance, a vein running through their interests, a way of doing things or behaving in the world. When I write about a brewery, this is the paramount quality I'm looking for. In a recent example, when I walked through Harpoon with brewer Jaime Schier, bits of information slowly collected, but remained fragmented, like shards of broken glass. They all came together when I asked him about kettle-souring. He got a little uncomfortable and said, yes, they'd experimented with the technique, but, "If you don’t want a second pint, that’s not a beer we’re likely to make." Bing--the whole operation snapped into focus. You don't expect Harpoon to make a brett-aged old ale or a lavender grisette. It's not in their DNA. It's not part of their identity. Nearly every brewery has something very distinctive and original about themselves that makes them who they are.

But here's the thing: very few actually know what it is.

When a brewery doesn't understand its own identity, it's easy for its leaders to make mistakes that dilute it. They release products that cut against expectation. Their brand is off-message. Their communications are banal or confused. The story a brewery tells must be consistent with its identity. If it's not, we customers immediately see through it. There's a serious consequence when this happens. This was the last slide in my speech:

As an exercise to demonstrate this point, I posted a question on Twitter recently. "You’re in a bar. French guy next to you says he’s in the US to sample beer. He points to three names and asks you to tell him briefly about them. In 1-2 sentences, how would you describe: 1) Sam Adams, 2) Lagunitas, 3) Deschutes?"

The responses I got were obviously not scientific, but they are at the very least suggestive. The largest contrast is between Deschutes and Sam Adams, two breweries founded three years apart from each other 30-odd years ago. See how they were characterized (bullets correspond, so the third bullet in each list was written by the same person and so on):

Both have areas where they might show improvement. Deschutes has something of a bimodal distribution in its responses--its flagships (Mirror Pond Pale Ale and Black Butte Porter) have aged about like you'd expect them to, but there are clearly other beers there exciting fans. The brewery might want to figure out how to connect those two pieces of their identity. But poor Sam Adams is in real trouble. The elements that emerge are of a pioneering brewery that has failed to keep up with trends; it may be solid in terms of quality, but feels more like a bland big (even corporate) brewery than an exciting smaller one. Deschutes can easily live with (and possibly celebrate) the story people are telling about it; there's no way in the world Boston Beer would see themselves in these drinkers' words. They've lost control of their own story.

There are thousands of breweries out there making tens of thousands of beers. It was once possible for breweries to neglect this element of their business, but the risks of doing so--especially in the mid-term and longer--are existential. A brewery that doesn't know its identity, the thing that makes it distinctive and attractive to its customers, will over time slip into irrelevance. The beer market has begun to mature, and we'll see many more failures over the next five years than we did in the past five. And "irrelevance" is a terrible way to enter this period. Branding, marketing, communications, label design--all that stuff is important, but when breweries don't base it on their actual identity, much of the effect is wasted. You gotta know yourself before you can begin selling yourself.