Even with more than 4,100 U.S. craft breweries to choose from, there’s still a group of drinkers who just want to drink a homebrew. Unfortunately (or fortunately), wider access to those products is virtually nonexistent, which means most of us will probably never try Victoria’s Vanilla Chai Imperial Stout.
Enter Noble Brewer, an online retailer that aims to digitally connect amateur brewers to thirsty consumers.
Officially formed in 2014, the Oakland, Calif.-based company solicits recipes from amateur artisans, scales up production at nearby contract facilities like E.J. Phair Brewing Company, and sells a few hundred cases to beer of the month club members under the “Noble Brewer” private label.
Recipe creators are paid a flat fee and retain full ownership of the recipe, unlike winners of the more well-known Samuel Adams’ LongShot Homebrew competition, where grand prize winners are given $5,000 but have to turn over their recipe to Boston Beer Company.
“I wanted to make a way for someone who was really passionate about homebrewing to share what they love doing with a larger audience,” said Claude Burns, founder and CEO of Noble Brewer.
The company began selling private label offerings last march, just 10 months after securing $500,000 in start up capital from private investors as well as a small business loan from ODBC Small Business Finance, a local community development group.
Noble Brewer products are currently sold exclusively through the company’s own website via one-time purchases and direct-delivery subscriptions. Members can receive quarterly shipments that include four different beers, tasting notes, and profiles of each homebrewer — a standard 4-pack of 22 oz. bottles runs about $36 for subscribers and $52 for non-members.
Although Noble Brewer only produced 250 barrels of beer last year, the company is hoping to double production and grow its user base in 2016, Burns said. Noble Brewer also plans to launch a new digital platform that gives consumers more influence over the beers being made while simultaneously transitioning the company into a pre-order business model.
“The piece that we want to focus on, going forward, is really more a of crowdsource-based model of which beers should be produced,” he said.
Similar to the subscriber-led brewing program at Wisconsin’s MobCraft Beer, which makes custom craft beers based on user-submitted recipes, Noble Brewer’s members will be able to learn about, review and select submitted recipes, which will only be produced if enough orders are received.
And while Burns wants Noble Brewer to continue growing its community of featured homebrewers, he ultimately wants to collaborate with commercial breweries on unique offerings that his users help create.
“The craft beer industry is kind of blowing up as a whole with everyone doing everything the same ways,” he said, “Beer has been sold in the same way essentially since Prohibition.”
Burns is hopeful that the new platform will establish Noble Brewer as an e-retailer, giving beer aficionados “more of a say” in what their favorite breweries produce along the way. At the same time, breweries could utilize the site as a marketing tool and share stories directly with consumers rather than relying on wholesalers and retailers to relay the message.
“What we want to do is use technology and digital infrastructure to connect people,” he said, explaining that this kind of sales-based digital interaction between brewers and consumers would allow companies to communicate “in a more robust way.”
Burns believes that the relatively recent digital media boom presented massive growth opportunities for “industries that weren’t being disrupted,” and thinks digitally-focussed companies, like Noble Brewer, could fundamentally “change the dynamics” of U.S. craft beer sales in the years to come.
But with less than a year of active production under its belt, Noble Brewer is still very much a startup. And while a hybrid crowdsourced, contract brewed, private label, beer of the month e-retailer business model feels somewhat unfocused, that’s not terribly unusual for a new company still searching for an identity — American Express used to deliver mail and Samsung used to sell seafood.
“A lot of it, to be honest, is just seeing how it goes,” Burns said.