Cincinnati’s Fifty West Brewing Company has quickly established itself as brand to watch.
The Ohio-based craft brewery, which opened its doors in 2012, topped market research firm IRI’s list of new vendors in supermarkets, with off-premise dollar sales of nearly $214,000, for the 27 weeks ending July 8, IRI director of client insights Patrick Livingston shared during last month’s Brewers Association Power Hour. Portland, Maine-based Lone Pine Brewing Company came in a distant second, with dollar sales of more than $63,000.
And Fifty West’s growth is poised to continue, following the fall resets. The Kroger grocery store chain sells Fifty West products in 60 percent of its stores throughout Cincinnati, Dayton and Northern Kentucky. That’s up from just 30 percent penetration earlier this year.
The growth of Fifty West sales in off-premise grocery store scans is even more impressive consider that the 6-year-old craft brewery’s products have only been available in that channel for five months. The craft brewery launched three brands — Doom Pedal White Ale, Coast to Coast IPA and American Lager — in 6-packs of 12 oz. cans for the first time in February, and added 4-packs of Punch You in the EyePA double IPA in the summer.
Fifty West’s road to the grocery store is part of a five-year-long strategy that began with on-premise retailers.
“Our whole purpose was just [to] build draft,” co-owner Bobby Slattery told Brewbound. “Let’s see how many draft handles we can get in Cincinnati with doing absolutely no package.”
“While everyone was chasing after grocery store shelves, we just focused on draft and developed the brand in-house at our two spaces,” Fifty West VP of strategy and operations Max Fram added.
By not selling packaged products off-premise, Slattery said Fifty West was able to win taphandles by convincing bar and restaurant owners of the “specialness” of their offerings.
The goal, Slattery and Fram explained, was to build a bond between consumers and the brand by hosting annual special events at the brewery, such as Punch Out, a boxing competition that pits workers from competing breweries against each other, and Fifty Fest, a beer, food and music festival.
Then, in spring 2016, Fifty West moved its production operations to a sports complex that hosts beach volleyball. Fifty West maintained the games and launched a lager to connect with athletes who drank Miller Lite and Bud Light. The move worked. The company’s “American Lager” became a top seller on league nights, Slattery said.
Now, Fifty West has set its sights set on kayaking, bicycling and running clubs. Starting next year, the brewery will begin training people to run marathons.
“If you run a marathon with Fifty West, there’s a good chance that when you go to the grocery store, you’re going to buy Fifty West beer,” Slattery said. “We’re finding ways to tie people to our brand through experiences as opposed to just, ‘Oh yeah, I like what the package looks like.’”
After growing 55 percent, to about 4,000 barrels, in 2017, the company expects to more than double its output by the end of this year, forecasting production of between 8,000 and 10,000 barrels, Slattery said.
Fifty West is also expecting to scale production to 14,000 barrels in 2019, a move that inches the brewery closer to its 17,000-barrel capacity.
Meanwhile, in the spring, Fifty West plans to test how well its brand can travel. The company plans to begin selling beer in Athens, Ohio, along the beer company’s namesake highway, U.S. Route 50.
“What we’re going to explore here in the next year is, ‘Is it possible to build a distribution network through no man’s land America,’” Slattery said. “Our dream has always been to drive this road and as you stop at all of these little gas stations along the way, pick up a Fifty West beer.”
Fifty West has pitched retailers such as Kroger on the idea of seeding its brand along the stretch of highway between Sacramento, California, and Ocean City, Maryland. The response so far has been positive.
“They like it,” Slattery said. “At the same time, we have to throw some beer out on that road to see how it can do.”