Emma Lewis is short on the theatrics.
Boyfriend Colin Meidl frames her from a high angle in the couple’s Bloomington, MN, kitchen.
She stares blankly from across a yellow formica countertop and pours a can of Revolution Brewing Anti-Hero IPA into a shaker pint. She takes an unenthusiastic whiff. “Kind of smells like a wooden pencil that’s been dipped in lemon juice,” she declares. She takes a sip and grimaces. “This makes my tongue itch,” she says. “One out of ten.”
Almost half a million people have watched Lewis try that beer on TikTok. Less than six months after starting her satirical TikTok account I Hate IPAs, Lewis has amassed over 200,000 likes and nearly 20,000 followers, numbers that even the biggest breweries in the United States can’t match. Despite her disgust, breweries like New Belgium Brewing, Dogfish Head Brewing, and even Revolution are shipping her beers for the honor of getting roasted on her account.
“When we started this account we thought nobody was gonna watch,” Lewis says. “I didn’t realize how many people were so invested in IPAs.”
Lewis’s success, like so many things on TikTok, may seem spontaneous. Mystical, even. But as TikTok has matured from being an obscure, Chinese-owned app for dancing children into an ultra-fast-growing platform, reaching over a billion users at a rate quicker than both Facebook and Twitter and posting $14.15 billion in 2022 revenue, the craft beer world has come along for the ride. Even with talks of a federal ban on the app, TikTok’s impact on growing, diversifying, and popularizing craft beer cannot be denied.
“I definitely have a TikTok addiction,” Lewis says. “It’s really fun trying all these IPAs, even though I don’t like them. The whole goal is for me to find one that I like, and this is giving [Colin and I] the opportunity to try new drinks.”
EMBRACING THE CHAOS
Kristen Marshall and Natalie Holderbaum make TikToks when their boss isn’t looking.
It started at Urban South Brewing’s fifth anniversary party. The two marketers started by interviewing staff and taking product shots. But the posts were not taking hold the same way they did on Instagram and Twitter. The audience wasn’t responding, so Marshall and Holerbaum started loosening the tie between their TikTok account and the New Orleans brewery’s actual beer. They posted more personality-driven content, using more memes and trending sounds, rather than simply documenting life at the brewery.
“The younger brains had a better idea of what it was supposed to look like,” Marshall says. “We realized it wasn’t being monitored as much as Instagram by the CEO, so we got a little quirky about it.”
Throughout TikTok’s rapid ascent, very few brands have reached the heights of individual content creators. The platform’s success has been an inversion of what made Instagram popular. The production value of TikTok videos is often raw. Memes are the currency of the app—rather than original content, posters are rewarded for their best take on popular trends. And then there’s the algorithm. No popular app places a lower value on following an account than TikTok. Instead, your diet of videos is driven by a mix of habits and happenstance.
These factors combined have created a confounding environment for brands looking to court a following. Though TikTok has recently rolled out more options for in-app sales and marketing, the user base has already rejected traditional, clean cut, product-focused posts that pervade other apps. The app’s promise was always to deliver a younger, more diverse audience, but that audience is naturally averse to advertising. TikTok users crave personality. And chaos.
“We realized it has to be kind of unedited,” Marshall says. “If we looked like we were having fun and just being silly, goofy, then the world would laugh with us.”
“It’s a different audience with different expectations,” says Michael Oxton, co-founder of Night Shift Brewing. “That was like the biggest thing, trying to understand what is gonna do well on this platform and what’s gonna make people interested and want to follow us and talk to us. We really prioritize our fan experience.”
The Maturation of TikTok
TikTok’s audience skews young, which has been reason enough for breweries to dismiss the platform. Beyond that, the app’s community guidelines also restrict how alcohol-related content can be promoted. But the audience is maturing, and TikTok is moving from its growth stage into its maturation stage. Part of that maturation is an increased focus on growing advertising revenue.
Night Shift has seen moderate success on TikTok, with nearly 40,000 likes and minimal time invested. Oxton says the Massachusetts brewery has invested some money into influencer marketing, but mostly they’re on TikTok to showcase their “fun personality and innovative spirit,” whether or not that translates directly to sales.
“A single post isn’t going to influence a lot of people,” Oxton says. “But repetition and consistency and talking about a product a lot in a fun way, that might.”
With over 260,000 likes, Urban South is one of the more successful breweries on TikTok, and it’s thanks to Marshall and Holdenbaum’s nothing-sacred approach to video content. They do prominently feature Urban South’s beers, but it’s about incorporating those beers into a lifestyle rather than just buying and drinking.
Urban South’s brand is inherently more feminine than most other breweries, something that Marshall and Holdenbaum emphasize consistently in their posts. They lean heavily on the New Orleans brewery’s fruited sours, establishing them as bastions of “pink beer girlie” culture. They’ve been rewarded for going further afield.
“TikTok has a growing number of young people that are getting older, and they are being introduced to beer styles that they might like,” Marshall adds. “It’s going to kind of introduce beer and craft brewing to people who are just getting started on their beer journey.”
SELLING BEER WITHOUT SELLING BEER
You’d be forgiven for not knowing that Jaron and Maggie Clayton even own a brewery. The St. Helens, Ore., couple post under the mononym @theblondbrewer, despite the fact that beer is rarely, if ever, featured in their content.
TheBlondeBrewer is an immensely popular account on TikTok. With 5.4 million followers and almost 155 million likes, they are in a stratosphere of creators that exceeds all of the top brewery accounts combined. Looking at the couple’s purplish humor now, you would never have guessed it started with the two Running Dogs Brewery owners making a bet.
“We were in New Mexico, and we met an Instagram influencer in the pool and she was taking pictures of herself, and she said, ‘Oh my gosh, you guys should do this, it’s too easy,’” Jaron says. “We’re both very creative people and entrepreneurs at heart. Back home, we decided to make a little competition to see who could get 10,000 followers.”
The competition started in in November of 2020, and then by December, Maggie had already won, and her handle lives on as the vestigial link to the passion that brought the two together. The two used to run a beer and liquor distributor before Jaron bought a one-barrel system and started homebrewing seriously. He taught Maggie how to brew and write recipes, and in late 2017, they opened Running Dogs together.
But their flight of fancy with social media stardom would eventually outlive the brewery. Running Dogs closed in February 2023 after years of tireless promotion didn’t return the sales the Claytons were looking for. But Running Dogs is not a dead dream. Though Jaron says he and Maggie are spread too thin to resume everyday operations, the Claytons have purchased a two-acre lot that’s divided between the couple’s new home and a 5,000 square foot production facility. The goal is to start shipping beer under the Running Dogs label in the next 18 months.
Though TheBlondBrewer was only ever tacitly connected to Running Dogs, Jaron senses that their following will sustain them through the next phase. Their focus will be on shipping and distributing beer to those millions, and even if TikTok is surreptitiously banned by the American government, they’ve gained enough of celebrity through its boom period to sustain make their beer thrive in the off-premise.
The Claytons’ story is a case study that should be closely followed by anyone in the beer industry trying to wrap their heads around viral success in 2023. Often, it’s not what you’re selling or how you’re selling that differentiates you in your market. It’s who is doing the pitch.
“We have great beer that we produce, obviously, but there’s a lot of great beer out there,” Jaron says. “People are interested in our product because of us and because of our comedy. It’s relatable.”
This article was made possible by Revolution Brewing, which believes in a free and independent press. Through its sponsorship of All About Beer, the brewery ensured that the creators behind this content were compensated for their work. Great beer needs great journalism and brewers and supporters like Revolution Brewing make that possible. Learn more about how you can help journalism in the beer space and All About Beer here.