Guiding your way through Craft Beer
Beer is sold on draught, in bottles and in cans. It is also sold in books, magazines, at tastings and training sessions. At the core of the craft beer movement is beer and the people who brew it—and both have stories to tell. Effectively telling the story behind beer is essential to building the craft beer community, generating fans and ensuring the success of the liquid itself.
America’s beer IQ has been on a steady climb, thanks in large part to an army of dedicated beer “educators” who do everything from help people learn how to produce better homebrew to making it easier to find the next great place to have a pint.
A Civilized Approach
Samuel Merritt got started in the beer business by “fighting for draught lines every day” as a brand representative at Brooklyn Brewery and later the Craft Brewers Guild, the former distribution arm for the company. “I don’t ever want to put another keg of beer in the trunk of a car,” he quips.
While he is no longer interested in hawking beer, he is still motivated to help sell more beer. “Beer is really one of the first things man ever made and sold,” he says. “Being a brewer is probably the third oldest profession.”
Merritt formed Civilization of Beer in 2006, a company focused on beer education and consulting. In addition to doing consumer tastings and corporate events, Civilization of Beer focuses on improving beer knowledge among distributors and retailers.
You have to have the beer appreciation thing down and it has to go right alongside the professional side of selling,” Merritt says of the making of successful distributors or retail salespeople. “Educating the ‘old-timers’ is the hardest part of what we do. We start off by having them take the Great Beer Test, which is a 100 question multiple-choice test. Most of the time they end up saying, ‘I really thought I knew about beer, but I don’t.’”
Civilization of Beer is based in New York and teaches regular monthly consumer and professional training classes in that city, as well as traveling to states like Illinois, Texas, Florida and California to offer classes. The recreational division of the company does private parties and corporate events, and also offers classes through the Institute of Culinary Education in New York City. “It is still a discovery process for many consumers,” Merritt says.
The need for training of hospitality industry professionals became apparent to Merritt while he was still selling beer for Brooklyn. “Instead of talking about the features of our brand, I ended up teaching people about what beer is,” Merritt says. “The sales people I was dealing with were selling beer like it was any other fast moving good. It might as well have been toilet paper.”
The more you know about beer, the easier it is to hand-sell beer,” he says. Merritt notes that the formal Cicerone certification process is proof of how far beer has come and where it is headed. The Civilization of Beer training program for distributors and retailers uses assigned readings from books, videos, pop quizzes and reviews of the tasting panel section of All About Beer Magazine to immerse students in the world of lagers and ales.
We can turn the light on in an hour or two, and make a pretty big transformation in a day,” Merritt says. Still, he points out, when you look at the time spent by both restaurant staffs and consumers to become beer smart, it is still a fraction of what people put into learning about wine.
Merritt calls himself “an anti-beer snob. I’m a Miller High Life and a Chimay drinker. I drink them with equal pleasure.” And being educated can help you enjoy them both more.
Kristi Switzer says she has “the best job ever.” What does she do? Switzer is the publisher at Brewers Publications, an arm of the Brewers Association in Boulder, CO, that turns out books for both professional brewers and homebrewers.
We publish good, solid books that people come back to again and again as they brew,” says Switzer. “It’s great when we hear a brewer say, ‘You have to have this book’ when they are talking to a another brewer, or when a tattered book shows up at a book signing. It’s great to see a well-loved brewing book that might have stains and smell of hops. You can tell they are getting used.”
Brewers Publications has 50 titles to its credit. Its best-selling book, How to Brew by John Palmer, was self-published by the author when Brewers Publications started publishing it in 2006. The book has sold 60,000 copies since then.
Switzer came to Brewers Publications after spending 13 years as director of marketing communications at Alaskan Brewing Co. in Juno, Alaska. She “learns something everyday” reading the manuscripts of brewing books and often finds herself drinking a particular beer style based on a project she has in the works at the time.
I consumed copious amounts of wheat beer while working on the new Stan Hieronymus book, Brewing with Wheat,” Switzer says.
Brewers Publications typically releases two books a year. Switzer looks for holes that need to be filled in the knowledge base of homebrewers and commercial brewers. She networks with brewers and writers, making herself accessible at craft beer events so that she knows the right people in order to match them up with a project down the road.
Sales for Brewers Publications continue to grow as the homebrewing hobby has prospered. For Switzer the key to a successful project is “taking the science of brewing and making it accessible in a practical book.” All of the Brewers Publications books share a focus on brewing styles, ingredients and the process of producing better beer.
The process of publishing a book on brewing is a lengthy and involved, starting three to five years before a book hits the shelves. Brewers Publications will focus on a topic and discuss potential authors for the book. The project starts with a rough outline that the author will gradually fill in. Once a detailed outline is approved, the author will go to work on researching the book. The actually writing then begins and Switzer plays the role of coach and monitor, setting a deadline for the manuscript and establishing a target release date.
I’ve tried to add in more time to the process to plan for every contingency,” Switzer says. “You want to have time built in so you have the openness to be gracious. There are just things that happen during the writing of a book.”
Once the writer delivers a manuscript, Switzer will do an initial check before it is sent off for technical review to make sure that the science end of the project is accurate. The document comes back and undergoes copy editing, footnotes are added and references are chronicled. Meanwhile, Switzer is holding meetings about cover art and the interior look and feel of the book. Then, it is time for final editing and proofreading. Only when every step is complete is a book ready to be published.
Switzer has homebrewed for a number of years and her time at Alaskan Brewing provided her with a good understanding of the art of brewing. But reading the how-to brewing books as they come to life has allowed her a better understanding of what it takes to make a great beer and what goes wrong when a beer has a flaw.
We’re feeding off the growth in craft beer and homebrewing, and the demand for current information and knowledge,” Switzer says. “We’re trying to satiate that thirst for knowledge.”
Mapping Out a Plan
Jonathan Surratt describes himself as “a pretty visual person.” He combined this trait with a desire for finding great beer to create a tool that many beer enthusiasts find invaluable when they visit a new city for the first time.
Surratt and his wife, Robin, were living in North Carolina and became interested in craft beer. They found it difficult to track the locations of breweries and brewpubs in the state and realized others likely were struggling with the very same issue. Surratt decided to build a map plotting the 30 breweries and brewpubs that were located in North Carolina at that time.
The reaction to the North Carolina beer map was so positive that Surratt repeated the process for Michigan and Indiana, then went nationwide. The Beer Mapping Project (beermapping.com) is now international with locations in 20 countries.
We want to give people as many options as we can, so they can find places to try new beers,” Surratt says.
The Beer Mapping Project utilizes Google’s free mapping API and the hundreds of beer fans who submit locations. So far, 9,250 breweries, beer bars, brewpubs, beer stores and homebrew shops have been cataloged.
Confirming the information we get is really hard because no one is getting paid for this,” Surratt says. Robin Surratt has the ultimate approval power for a new listing and is on the lookout for duplicates of places already on the list or for entries submitted by owners. Contributors are urged to photograph the exterior, interior and tap list so first time visitors can more easily find the location and know what to expect when they arrive.
The Beer Mapping Project does offer a $15 lifetime subscription that links the data to GPS devices, which “basically pays the server bill,” he says. “We’re basically giving away the site.”
Surratt says the payoff has come in the form of knowing that the Beer Mapping Project “has helped a tiny bit” in building a stronger beer community and making it possible for consumers to find new and out of the way beer spots.
I hear people talking about using it to find good craft beer,” Surratt says. “It’s fun to see someone walk into a bar with one of our T-shirts on.”
Surratt now works as a web developer and he realizes that the original need for the Beer Mapping Project is starting to fade.
It is getting easier to find good craft beer,” Surratt says, assessing that the site is shifting from being a purely a locator and source for directions to now having a social side by allowing comments and reviews that help consumers select which location to try. “I guess you could ask if it is still necessary to have a website like this, but I think with some of the mobile apps and giving people the ability to separate the good from the bad, we bring value to the equation.”
Women Drink Beer, Too
Ginger Johnson’s entry into the community of beer all came together one night in 2002 at a beer dinner at Granite City Brewing in Sioux Falls, SD. She was on a first date and had decided on the beer dinner as a safe and fun way to get to know her new acquaintance.
He threw back the first sample and slammed down the flute and announced ‘This is not going to do,’” Johnson says. “I was thinking exactly the same thing, but it was not about the beer.”
I had an epiphany at the beer dinner,” Johnson says. “There was this community of food and beer people, but I realized that most brewers were only marketing to men.”
As it turns out, the Granite City beer dinner was significant for Johnson for another reason; Larry Chase, Johnson’s future husband, was the brewer conducting the tasting. Johnson was managing hardware stores, but was intrigued by the beer business.
Johnson developed a presentation with the title “What About the Other 50 Percent?” for the 2009 Craft Brewers Conference in Boston. The marketing manifesto was part of Johnson’s birthing of “Women Enjoying Beer” (www.womenenjoyingbeer.com), which has the aim of helping the industry cultivate female beer enthusiasts.
The industry has new market share it can add without cannibalizing existing sales,” Johnson says. “I want to do what I can do to make the industry thrive. This segment can make a difference in brewery sales.”
According to Johnson, beer is already a socially acceptable beverage for women to consume at a wide range of events. She says the key is moving to a point of social familiarity where women have a knowledge base and comfort level to order beer in a variety of settings. She notes that some markets around the country, such as Portland, OR, have already experienced this transition.
Johnson’s goal is to educate beer marketers so that they know more about what motivates female customers and that they avoid pinkwashing an issue or outright pandering to half of their potential customer base.
Marketing beer to women cannot be an initiative,” Johnson says. “It has to be a permanent part of the culture. They shouldn’t care about the plumbing of the customer, they need to want to sell more beer.”
Brewers need to focus on events that help educate women about beer and make sure participants recognize the benefits they will find as an educated consumer, she said. Another essential factor is building in social elements to the program that women tend to crave.
By all means the answer is not brewing a ‘woman’s beer,’” Johnson says. “We believe in tossing out preconceived notions and supplying beer education materials where and when it is possible.”
The more we know about beer, the more we enjoy beer. From finding the roots of brewing traditions to uncovering today’s best new craft brewers, knowledge is power. For brewers, no matter how healthy the craft segment has been, without the spread of information through marketing, journalism and beer education, future growth would slow to a halt. Craft beer has overcome the mass homogenization of the beverage in large part because the stories behind craft beer are almost as enticing as the flavors of the beer, itself.
Rick Lyke is a drinks journalist based in Charlotte, NC, and the founder of the Pints for Prostates campaign, www.pintsforprostates.org. The group reaches men through the universal language of beer.