Are You Ready for Lifestyle Beer?
The splash page for Saint Archer Brewing Co., a San Diego company founded last year, is curious. On a recent visit to the page, there was nothing but a six-and-a-half minute video that began in grainy black and white and looked something like the early French new wave. It turned out to be a short promo doc about a guy who makes surfboards in San Francisco. Wait, what?
Welcome to the most ambitious lifestyle brewery in America.
Saint Archer makes beer, but it’s selling an identity. This trend has been growing within craft beer since at least the late 1980s. Dogfish Head Craft Brewery was launched as “off-centered ales for off-centered people,” and its irreverent, charismatic owner has convinced thousands that drinking an IPA is a deliciously transgressive act. Rogue Ales uses visual cues from socialist realism to strike a similar note. Sid Vicious used to spit on his audience, and Stone Brewing Co. declared to potential customers, “you’re not worthy.”
But those were oblique branding strategies; Saint Archer’s is overt. The website is designed more like a lifestyle magazine than a company page. You are introduced to “ambassadors” (and part-owners), who are famous in other, enviable realms: boarding (surf-, skate-, and snow-), filmmaking, photography. You are told that “Saint Archer Brewing Company was founded on a unique strain of creative talent: World-class brewers. Artists and musicians. Surfers, skateboarders, and snowboarders…” You are offered further videos like this one:
All of this reflects a strain of consumerism known as “lifestyle branding.” The notion is this: “When a consumer makes a purchase of certain brands, the behavior and choices define the expression of a certain taste—of a personal identity. It makes the statement, ‘This is who and what I am.’” It is what’s known as “aspirational marketing.” It asks customers to align themselves with products that express an image they’d like to associate with, like hardcore athletes, intrepid world travelers or mountain-climbing adventurers. Forbes explained how lifestyle branding helped elevate Nike, Apple, and Virgin by “convincing more people that adopting them would amplify their personal ethos or identity.” Successful brands tap into customers’ emotions and provides a kind of wish-fulfillment.
It sounds very much like the description Saint Archer CEO Josh Landon gave San Diego Magazine. “People love brands that they connect to. Like Michael Jordan’s brand. You connect with Quicksilver athletes, but you know they pay them.” Associating glamorous ambassadors with the brand gives it a similar aura.”[I]f I’m at Saint Archer and Taylor Knox pours me a beer and says, ‘Hey, thanks for drinking this. I own it’—well, just as a fan I’d say, ‘Holy shit, Taylor Knox owns a beer? I’ll never drink anything else.’”
This is an inevitable development in a country that has more than 3,000 breweries. A lot of breweries are making good beer. What convinces a customer to choose Brand X over Brand Y? Those are complex, many times unconscious decisions we make—and despite what we may believe about the purity of our motivation, it’s rarely just about the beer. Brands do matter, and it’s why strong companies like Brooklyn’s Sixpoint Brewery and Oregon’s Ninkasi Brewing Co. have grown so fast in recent years.
This is not to say beer is an unimportant factor. People still make their buying decisions primarily based on flavor. Saint Archer hired two accomplished brewers, Yiga Miyashiro (formerly of Pizza Port) and Kim Lutz (formerly at Maui Brewing), and is putting out a very respectable line of beer. The basic lineup is basic—a pale, a kölsch, an IPA, and a witbier. But it’s also a notch or three above average. The brewery sent me those four, and I was especially impressed with the toasty kölsch and saturated pale. The Great American Beer Festival was more impressed with the White Ale, though, and awarded it a gold medal this year. The brewery also does specialty beers, though nothing especially exotic. Saint Archer is not appealing to the uber beer geek; it’s trying to make high quality beers in recognizable styles. The brewery is shooting to capture a piece of the mainstream craft market that is receptive to lifestyle branding.
The brewery had barely turned a year old before expanding to 30,000-barrel capacity (with plans to double that in the future). Recently, Saint Archer announced that Alaska Airlines would be serving its White Ale on certain flights. There will be further synergy as the brewery sends its ambassadors out on trips on the airline. “The result,” they said in the press release, “will be a series of short films telling their unique stories as they travel along Alaska’s adventurous route map.” It’s a brewery built to grow—and grow quickly.
In a sense, craft brewing itself is a “lifestyle” product. There have been mini-revolts for decades by people worried about a loss of authenticity. We see it now when bearded men in flannel and hipster hats bring a satire-trolling ethos to the pub. Some people are unsettled by the ultra-slick gloss placed on top of a product that they associate with the bearded men in rubber boots hauling kegs and spraying caustic. (I’m one of them.) The rise of lifestyle brewing—less a new thing than the end state of a very old trend—is yet the latest development in that constant tension between hype and authenticity. Saint Archer is an interesting test case, and a brewery I’ll be keeping an eye on.