Coming to a Brewery Near You: Beer Club

The Modern Times beer club meeting in San Diego in 2016. Photo: BeerAdvocate user dmcipod

A couple weeks back, I got an email from John Lovegrove, one of those all-around beer guys that form the backbone of a city's beer community (he's at brewery events, he homebrews, he makes beer movies). Would I like to attend a private tasting offered to Modern Times' bottle club, of which he was a member? Naturally, I accepted immediately, but I wasn't sure what he was talking about. Bottle clubs?

When the date rolled around, here's what I discovered. (I apologize to those of you for whom this is yesterday's news, but it was yet another one of those hidden crannies in the world of beer I'd yet to encounter; the list appears to be inexhaustible.) We were led to the open area where trucks pull into the brewery to find rows of folding chairs facing a makeshift living room set of oriental rug, two easy chairs, and a side table--all very cozy and inviting. Just as we sat down, a server brought out stemless wine glasses containing motor oil--[checks notes]--sorry, imperial stout. It was just as thick and inky black as four ounces of Pennzoil, but quite a bit tastier.

The brewery manager introduced the beer while someone else from the brewery gave tasting notes, and then both answered questions. In all, we tasted three barrel-aged stouts, an ultra-hopped IPA, and a very cool hybrid made with Basque cider. Everyone in the room was invited to purchase these beers first, before the public had a crack at them, and the club members, known as the League of Partygoers and Elegant People were the first to taste these beers. In fact, when I retired to the taproom after the tasting and chatted with the bartender, he explained that the club members get to taste them before much of the staff.

Beer or bottle clubs originated in California at The Bruery, and these were inspired by similar clubs wineries have offered for decades. The model for breweries differs a bit from the vinous original. Wine clubs were designed to create built-in clientele for annual production. Wine club members, often scattered around the region or country, select how many bottles they'd like and the winery ships them. Club members get guaranteed access to limited-run wines, and the winery can make better predictions about annual volumes.

Looking at the Modern Times club, a brewery has a slightly different goal in mind. Buying a club membership guarantees access to rare beers, and I suppose for some breweries this would be a concrete value--in rare cases limited-release beers really are hard to get. But for the most part, the access is secondary. Beer clubs allow breweries to identify their most avid fans and connect more deeply to them.

The tasting I visited was a great example of an extremely rare perk most drinkers never experience. Being able to sample beers with the brewer, ask questions, and get to know the beer more deeply has mainly been the province of writers. And as I writer, I've long felt that my access is something regular drinkers would love. While I was traipsing through Europe meeting with a murderer's row of famous breweries and strolling through breweries that in some cases predate our country, I would reflect on how much I wished I could share that experience. (The Beer Bible was my best shot.) This may not be quite that level of access, but it's not far removed.

Beyond the tasting and first-access to new beers, members receive a certain number of bottles each year, access to parties and special events (sometimes exclusive), and swag. Other bottle clubs offer access to restricted parts of the brewery or pub, discounts on beer and/or merchandise, mug clubs, and so on. As a concept, the variety of benefits is limited only by imagination. Brewery tours, classes, collaborations, field trips--the list goes on and on.

What breweries get out of this is not more stable sales (the volumes are just too low), it's a cadre of super fans who will spread the gospel. No brewery, no matter its size, can afford to overlook those local customers who are deeply invested in their success. They become ambassadors for the brand. Wineries use their clubs to move product; breweries are using clubs to move hearts. The investment on both ends is spendy. It costs $350 to join the club at Modern Times. When you account for not just the merchandise but time to implement the program, I'd guess Modern Times doesn't do much more than break even. Financially, they're a wash--but that's not where their value lies.

Near the end of the tasting, John showed me the "challenge coin" he received as a member. It is a large, heavy brass coin with the club name and embossed design. I remember thinking, "Damn, that is cool" and feeling a rush of greed--even though I'm swimming in swag and don't an additional commitment to drink a bunch of beers, and certainly not a brass coin. But that's what these clubs offer--a chance to connect deeply with a brewery you already love. The coin represents that special close relationship.

My guess is Modern Times' isn't the last club we'll see in Portland, and I bet you can expect to see them in your town, too--if they're not already there.