Brew Talks: Authenticity Leads to Differentiation

As brewers across the country start or continue their dreams of full-scale operation, beer’s ubiquity presents a profusion of challenges. Standing out on the shelf, which is vital to a brewer’s success, remains one of them. This goal is commonly known. Doing so can be the hard part, though.

Left to right: Chris Furnari, Bill Butcher, John Bryant

Monday night in Washington, D.C. on the third-floor of the Smith Commons, a dining room and bar in the Atlas Arts District, Brewbound editor Chris Furnari aimed to divulge methods of brand differentiation in a question-and-answer forum with Bill Butcher, founder of Port City Brewing in Alexandria, Va., and John Bryant, cofounder of No-Li Brewhouse in Spokane, Wash.

The forum served as the latest edition of Brewbound’s Brew Talks, an ongoing series of educational and networking events for craft brewers and industry professionals. Butcher and Bryant insisted that authenticity can carry a brand to strong sales and a point of differentiation. This authenticity derives from more than just a friendly smile; it’s rooted in well-crafted beer, a genuine connection with consumers and a drive to maintain your brand.

“You might not know how to define it,” Butcher said of authenticity, “but you know it when you see it.”

Bryant said that No-Li aims for authenticity by continuing to represent Spokane. The small city — its population is approximately 210,103, according to the United States Census Bureau — is a place not typically regarded as a craft beer locale a la San Diego or Portland. However, Bryant said that No-Li embraces that fact. His brewery understands its place in the larger scope of craft beer, and reflects that understanding through its branding. The city’s name adorns the No-Li logo. The company uses ingredients within 300 miles of the brewhouse. Bryant and his staff consistently share their local history to purveyors, bartenders, retailers and distributors.

“There is something special about being small,” Bryant said.

When Butcher launched Port City two years ago, he knew that Washington D.C., an enormous market with an abundance of thirsty locals and tourists, didn’t have a microbrewery inside the Beltway. By identifying that hole in the market, Butcher felt confident that his geographic positioning, coupled with quality beer, would serve as a source of differentation and a key to sustainability. The Beltway served as Port City’s initial market. Now the beer can be found in Maryland, Virginia, and North Carolina as well as D.C.

“It is important to have a plan and know who you are and what kind of identity your brand is going to have,” Butcher said.

Despite 2,336 operating U.S. breweries and 1,254 breweries in planning, as of Jan. 11, according to Paul Gatza, director of the Brewers Association, Butcher and Bryant don’t yet believe that there’s an oversaturation in the industry. Bryant compared it to music and said that there’s a seemingly limitless number of genres. He also said you can’t close the patent office, and believes that craft beer has room to grow.

Butcher noted that by his count, there are more than 7,000 wineries in the country and few say that there are too many wineries. If anything, complaints stem from the industry’s snobby nature; a trait he doesn’t want to see carry over to the craft beer industry, despite the profileration of 750 mL bottles and the widely perceived influence of wine on craft beer.

“I don’t know that the raw number is really that important,” Butcher said of breweries.

Instead of focusing on competition, Butcher said that he follows the market and allows it to bend his business model. He believes that a typical startup should produce 20 percent of its beer in packaging and 80 percent of its beer for draft. However, when Whole Foods, Giant Food and Safeway requested packaged beer for their shelves, Butcher adjusted. He said that retailers continue to demand a full stock, so he approximates that his brand became 30 percent packaging, 70 percent draft. It’s all about flexibility.

Bryant and Butcher agreed that while every brewer has a specific figure they need to produce and sell to sustain business, barrels produced seem to be an infatuation within the industry that can define progress, but not authenticity. A number can only take you so far. The fidelity of the product and the marketing, if done properly, can sustain a brand.

“It’s more than just a number,” Bryant said. “We’re not chasing the ghost.”

Join us at the next Brew Talks in Chicago on Tuesday, April 9 at Quenchers Saloon.

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