Merchandise to Gain an Edge

Every brewery worth its hops is wise to invest in merchandising. Who wouldn’t want a billboard advertising your brewery by just walking down the street?

That’s why T-shirts, hats and hoodies emblazoned with brewery logos are as easy to find as IPAs, Porters and Stouts.

However, there are many opportunities — beyond the ordinary — that help get the name of a brewery out in the public’s eye.

For Lagunitas Brewing, merchandising in all five of its taprooms across the country are all about brand awareness.

“It isn’t a money-making venture for us,” said Karen Hamilton, director of communications for the brewery headquartered in Petaluma, California. “We try to find cool things in a variety of categories made out of quality materials that we would like to have and hope that our consumers feel the same way.”

MadTree Brewing in Cincinnati has a similar approach.

“I approach merchandising the same way we do with everything we produce in our brewery,” said Katlyn Moore, merchandise manager at MadTree. “The quality of the products we put out is important because it’s the same fans that are representing our brand and are purchasing and drinking our beer. They should get the same treatment for everything we do for them.”

Merchandising is all about making a connection with current and prospective customers of craft beer.

“We think of our merchandise as another vehicle to connect with our customer, promote our brand and express our lifestyle,” said Pepin Young, taproom and facilities manager at Bent Paddle Brewing in Duluth, Minnesota. “We also see it as a great way to connect with our fans on a more personal level. We don’t look at it as a key revenue driver as much as an experience enhancement.”

Online at Lagunitas’ “Schwagshop,” the brewery sells everything from tie-dyed onesies for newborn babies to dog treats and hoodies for dogs. Beer pitchers and mason-jar pint glasses with the company’s familiar dog logo also can be purchased on the website as well as IPA-scented candles and even a harmonica.

“It’s important to have diverse offerings because everybody’s a little different, and not everyone can fit into a 12-month onesie anymore, you know,” Hamilton said.

MadTree’s online store has T-shirts in just about every color with the “Ohio MadTree” logo and even the Cincinnati skyline. Colorful headbands, tap handles, gift cards, and winter caps are available, as well as growlers and assorted glassware. The brewery also caters to crafty canines with bandanas and tennis balls.

“Hopefully, we have something that people with different styles will like and think is comfortable, but also we don’t want to have too many options where people feel overwhelmed,” Moore said. “In terms of apparel, we keep it pretty basic and have a range of designs. That also goes into the children’s and baby clothes and dog accessories — there’s something there for every member of the family.”

Diversity is a priority for Bent Paddle, too, which, in addition to T-shirts and hoodies, sells bike jerseys and flannel shirts, growler carriers and glassware, and two kinds of beer soap. Customers can even sign up for brewery tours and yoga classes online.

“We absolutely love our merch, almost as much as we love our beer,” Young said. “First, we design apparel that we want to wear. We like to cover a wide range of price points and offerings, striking the balance between having an impactful selection versus being over assorted.”

When a brewery first starts out, a T-shirt or logo on a pint glass may be all it can afford, both monetarily and time-wise.

“The funny thing is, we didn’t have any merchandising in the early days,” Hamilton said about Lagunitas. “All of our efforts and resources went into making beer. We’ve only had a nice selection of items for the last five or so years.”

Young echoed Hamilton’s sentiments.

“Merchandising helped quite a bit with marketing, but that’s difficult to analyze from an imprint standpoint,” he said. “What really helped spread the word was the beer.”

Growlers allow breweries the opportunity to let their customers take their beer home, without having to have an expensive packaging line to offer packaged beer noted President and co-owner of The Growler Station, Tony Lane.

“This is great for smaller breweries that are just starting out,” he said about the vessel. “And often times, even when a brewery does have a packaging line, or they pay for a mobile canning company to come in and package some of their beers, they will often have a specialty beer for a limited release, in keg form only. So, filling Growlers allows their customer to take their beer to go to enjoy at their home.”

In a retail environment that is away from a brewery’s home base, Growlers have become popular because it allows the retailer to offer beers that they normally would not be able to, because it comes from the breweries in kegs only.

“This allows them to reach new customers by carrying a local brewery’s beer at their Growler Station location,” Lane said.

Lane added that counter pressure filling has brought growlers into this century.

“When filling growlers with a counter pressure growler filler, you extend the freshness of that growler, giving it a 30-45 day shelf life versus one to two days,” he said. “We here at the Growler Station have tested these results in several taste tests, and we have the data to show that there is definitely a different in the freshness, and the customers can tell.”

MadTree opened a new 50,000 square-foot brewing facility in February, but the merchandising hasn’t changed much, besides having more products available on site.

“Having T-shirts and other basic apparel certainly helped give us with name and visual recognition early on,” Moore said. “It was a conversation starter for those who didn’t know us and was sort of like a secret handshake for those who did know.

“Now, we are adding pieces all the time, but they are always going to remain focused as a reflection of us as a brewery. We want our fans to not only represent us as a brand when they are enjoying themselves in the taproom, but in every aspect of their lives.”

Bent Paddle, like other breweries, wants the character of its merchandise to match quality of its beer.

“As curators of craft beer, it’s always important to keep that in focus as we make decisions around all other areas of operation,” Young said. “Everything starts and ends with brewing excellent beer. Bent Paddle’s high level of attention to detail and quality spills over into all aspects of our greater business and challenges us to be at that same level.”

Besides, that loyal craft beer fan could end up being a valuable employee down the road.

“My favorite anecdote is from when I attended one of the National Homebrew Conferences in Minnesota,” Hamilton said. “I looked across the large room and saw a guy wearing one of our Lagufukinitas T-shirts. That was back in the days when we didn’t sell merchandise of any kind; we only gave them as gifts. So, it was a rare sighting.

“I walked over to him, introduced myself and asked him how he got that shirt. Turns out, he had visited our Petaluma brewery that summer with his craft beer-loving family and told his father, ‘One day, I’m going to work for this brewery.’ A month later, I hired him to help out with events, and he’s been a full-time Lagunator ever since.”

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