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As a business development manager at Warc–a service devoted to helping advertising professionals create, buy and sell effective advertising*–I spend eight hours every workday talking to prospective clients about how insights (i.e. research) is the first step to building strategic ad campaigns that drive sales.

*Sorry for the elevator pitch but I couldn’t help myself!

My day job, combined with my friends Gil and Elliot’s recent interest in advertising, got me thinking about why I’m loyal to some of my own favorite brands.

*As savvy consumers, Gil and Elliot have begun to take notice of contemporary advertising platforms like product placement, native advertising and highly-paid YouTube celebrities, a.k.a. YouTubers.

And where better to start than a product I buy quite a bit of: beer.

I’d consider myself a bit of a beer snob, but I didn’t start that way. Ten years ago, then in my early 20s and always on a budget, I generally drank whatever was cheapest. My first question when I visited a bar was, “Do you have any specials?”

It wasn’t until a trip to visit my uncle Frankie in Arizona back in 2007 that I started to form a connection to one beer in particular.

When I got off the plane, happy to trade my heavy winter clothing I’d brought from New York for a t-shirt and jeans, Frankie picked me up from the airport and brought me to his favorite local sports bar, Zipps, for some wings and beers.

As I reviewed the bar’s domestic beer selection, Frankie suggested a beer I’d never heard of from a brewery in Fort Collins, Colorado. The beer was called Fat Tire.

“Do you mean Flat Tire?” I asked.

“No man, it’s Fat Tire,” Frankie replied.

I ordered the beer with the odd name, and I liked it a lot. It wasn’t too fancy, just a simple, drinkable amber ale. It had more flavor than the cheap, light beers I was used to drinking.

Frankie and I had a great weekend together. Frankie is just six years older than me, so our relationship growing up had been sibling rivalry-esque. But on my visit we had a chance to hang out for the first time as adults. I was glad for the chance to bond with my uncle and, of course, try Fat Tire.

fat-tire

I was disappointed when I returned home to New York and learned that New Belgium, the brewery that produced Fat Tire, didn’t distribute its beer in my area. I would continue to look for Fat Tire every time I visited Arizona, Las Vegas, or the West Coast. I enjoyed the thought of having a “go-to” beer when I traveled to the other side of the country. If a bar, restaurant or casino was serving Fat Tire, I ordered it.

When I got married a few years later, I was excited to learn that Fat Tire was available in Virginia, the state where my wife and I tied the knot. I made sure we were serving my favorite beer during the cocktail hour and reception.

Since that first visit to Arizona, I’ve tried many, many new beers, and have developed a fairly sophisticated palate when it comes to craft beers. Have I had better beers than New Belgium’s Fat Tire? Sure. But I still consider Fat Tire my favorite beer. It’s not because it’s the best beer I’ve ever had; it’s because I associate it with that positive memory of my visit to Arizona, the subsequent visits to see family Out West, and my wedding.

So, what does this have to do with advertising? What can an advertising professional–for example, someone at an ad agency whose job it is to figure out where and when to advertise on behalf of its client, a craft brewery–take away from my story?

Bud Light and Coors Light, which fall under the massive conglomerates Anheuser-Busch InBev and Molson Coors, have been associating themselves with the things Americans love for many years or years, particularly when it comes to sports. It’s just about impossible to consume an American sporting event–watching on TV or online, listening on the radio, or in-person–without seeing several ads for these beer brands. And whether you consciously notice it or not, you’re associating the (hopefully) positive experience of watching your team play with the brands that advertise alongside it.

Of course, an independent, employee-owned brewery like Fat Tire, or the many even smaller breweries like it, don’t have the budget to flood the airwaves with commercials to raise awareness for their beers. But when my wife and I attended a small music festival in Charlottesville, Virginia, a few years back, New Belgium was there with a sponsored tent and pouring four of its beers I’d never had before including a tasty summer brew, Snapshot. I’ve purchased Snapshot and other New Belgium beers since then, and I always associate their beers with positive memories.

As it turns out, New Belgium didn’t have to spend millions of dollars on a 30-second Super Bowl commercial to create an opportunity to earn my business.

Now, let’s be realistic: I don’t stand in the beer aisle at my local grocery store and stare blankly into the cold cases while I replay the Fat Tire-related highlights of my life every time I buy a six-pack. But on some level, I’m thinking that when I’m buying that beer, a positive feeling will come along with it.

The craft beer business these days is brutally competitive. While there are more tiny breweries making great beer than there have been in any point in American history, it also means they’re all vying for market share (from beer snobs like me) and, unfortunately, they won’t all get it. But with the limited marketing dollars they may have, I’d advise them to make their presence felt at local events. As Peter Sims suggests in his book, Little Bets, if you can cheaply and quickly test an idea, it’ll allow you to tweak a good idea until it’s great–or rule out a bad idea all together. Maybe that means hosting a beer tasting at a local food truck festival. Or sponsoring a tent and selling your best beers at a small concert. Or just pouring small cups of cold beer to sweaty volunteers on a hot day at a charity event, even a summer 5K.

Small craft breweries will never realistically compete with AB Inbev and Molson Coors. For most, the best case scenario is to gain enough national attention to get acquired by one of the “Big Beer” companies. Even the biggest American craft brewery, The Boston Beer Company (which brews Samuel Adams) isn’t close. As its founder, Jim Koch says, Budweiser pours more beer down the drain than his brewery produces in a year.

But if you can start small and local, and connect your beer brand with something positive that your prospective consumers can look back on and smile, you’re off to a pretty good start.

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If you’re a beer drinker, you know that weddings aren’t always the best place to find a quality adult beverage that suits your palate. And if you’re lucky enough to find an alternative to Bud Light, Coors Light, or Miller Lite, it’s likely to be some “exotic” brew like Heineken, which isn’t going to knock your socks off.

So when my fiancée and I began looking at venues for our own wedding we assumed that we, like so many betrothed couples before us, would be stuck serving whatever beers the venue wanted to serve, with little wiggle room for a wannabe beer snob like me to add in a few wildcard selections. But as it turns out, the venue we chose is allowing us to buy and serve any alcohol we want, which means we can customize our own beer list. Hoo-ray beer!

That said, I don’t know as much about beer as I’d like to–or should, given how much of it I’ve drunk over the years. So, I enlisted the help of beer connoisseur Henry Joseph. If you’re an avid reader of this blog (i.e. Mom), you may recognize Henry’s name from previous posts–one about New York City’s Pony Bar and another about the best holiday seasonal beers. Here’s Henry’s take on wedding beer, in his own words:

I LOVE going to weddings. Scratch that. I LOVE dressing up and drinking all day. Weddings are usually good for that, but they are RARELY good for offering you a tasty beer to drink all day. This always bothers me, and I usually stay away from beer altogether, opting instead to start with whisk(e)y and moving on to vodka sodas with maybe a Coors Light in between. Heaven forbid someone offer up an Allagash White at a wedding…

Wheat
Now if someone wanted to put some thought (and money, of course) into it, there are plenty of beers out there that would be PERFECT for a wedding. That Allagash White I mentioned is definitely one, as is any number of other wheat beers. Say, for example, Franziskaner Hefeweizen or the recent GABF Gold Medal winning Dreamweaver Wheat from Troegs.

Saisons
Saisons are another great option. They tend to be mild and approachable in flavor leaning toward the sweet side and offering pleasant fruit/spice notes. Ommegang’s Hennepin is widely available and tastes pretty good to boot.

(Now I’m not gonna do what you think I’m gonna do and recommend Saison DuPont, the Platonic Ideal of the style because it is damn near impossible to find a bottle that isn’t skunked–draft is amazing and should always be drunk. This is the dirty little secret of the beer geek community. Everyone just walks around pretending like it doesn’t happen and saying it’s the best saison there is when the truth is that two seconds in the light has an irrevocable negative effect on its flavor. Rant. Over.)

Saisons are a little harder to find but Ithaca makes a great one in the spring time called Ground Break. It’s available right now and you should go drink it.

Lagers
Of course, you can also go the lager route and offer up a nice crisp, clean alternative to your Bud-Miller-Coors. Go continental with some old German light lagers like Augustiner Edelstoff or heck, even just a simple Spaten Lager and you can have a refreshing beer to drink in large mass and your guests will hardly notice the absence of macro swill. Or you can stay closer to home and go with Victory’s Lager–it’s only one of my favorite beers ever from one of my favorite breweries ever.

In the end, though, it’s your wedding and you can serve whatever the hell you want. I’ve known some people in this industry who’ve poured some pretty cool stuff at their weddings. Some have even poured beer that they made themselves! I’ve never done this so take the following advice with a whatever, but your caterer will probably have beer distributors that they typically work with and they should be able to provide you with a product list. Or if you’re in good with your friendly neighborhood bar/beer store, they may be willing to order a keg for you. There’s no need to make people drink more shitty beer. You’re inviting your friends and family to share this special moment with you, make sure they have something special to drink, too.

As always, big thanks to Henry for schooling us all. What’s your ideal beverage at a wedding? Do you have a preferred “wedding beer”? Please share in the Comments section!

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“A company like Anheuser-Busch is a hundred times our size. They literally spill more beer … than I make all year. My passionate life’s work is their industrial waste.” –Jim Koch, founder of The Boston Beer Company, in the 2009 documentary Beer Wars

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When you think about it, tasting a really good craft beer isn’t all that different from tasting a fine wine.

The process is about the same. You want to know where it’s from and who made it. Once it’s poured into your glass, you examine the color, maybe hold it up to the light and look through it. Next, you give it a sniff to try to pick out notes of chocolate or oranges or coffee. Then it’s time to sip it, swirl it around in your mouth. What other flavors can you pick up?

There is a difference, though, between tasting beer and tasting wine. Unlike wine, beer must be swallowed to fully appreciate its taste. Let’s just say at beer tastings, a spit bucket is a lot less common.

Craft beer, by most definitions, is beer brewed by a small, independent brewery. (See here for a more in-depth explanation.) To put it another way, craft beers come from any microbrewery that strives for creativity and innovation, and have little or nothing to do with Anheuser-Busch or MillerCoors.

Henry Joseph, 30, has been bartending at The Pony Bar, a craft beer bar in Manhattan’s Hell’s Kitchen, since it opened in April 2009.

“The neighborhood was underserved for craft beers,” Henry says.

Unlike most bars, where craft beer tends to be the most expensive beer on the menu, The Pony Bar keeps it simple: all beers cost $5. To further entice its patrons to experiment with new beers, The Pony Bar’s All American program rewards anyone who tries 100 different draft beers (not necessarily in one sitting) with a Pony Bar shirt and their name on the All American plaque and on the website.

To date, 440 people have completed a 100-beer cycle.

The Pony Bar’s star attraction is the two-part menu board hanging on the wall behind the bar: a list of 20 American craft beers on tap, which rotates as often as a keg is kicked. Each line on the list has the name of the brewery, the name of the beer, and the alcohol by volume (ABV)—most beers are served in 14 oz. glasses, with higher alcohol brews served in 8 oz. glasses. For non-craft beer drinkers, The Pony Bar also serves liquor and wine, as well as Bud and Bud Light bottles.

Do you ever sell any Bud Light? I ask Henry. “A few on Saturday nights,” he says. How much do you sell them for? “Five bucks. But we’re thinking of raising it to six.”

With an obvious passion for craft beers and the knowledge to back it up, Henry is happy to help his customers select a beer from the menu board, which can be a little intimidating for a newcomer. “It’s fun to see locals come in and to watch their tastes develop and evolve over time.”

Theme nights at The Pony Bar include “Rocky Mountain High,” during which they only serve Colorado beers. They also run “Tap Takeovers,” which feature beers from one brewery all night. Previous Tap Takeovers have included Sixpoint, Lagunitas, Stone, Victory and Southern Tier.

It’s also a good place to find the latest American seasonal beers, such as pumpkin ales during October. Southern Tier’s Pumpking Imperial Pumpkin Ale has been a big hit this year. “We can’t sell enough Southern Tier pumpkin,” Henry says.

The menu board at The Pony Bar (courtesy of theponybar.com).

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It’s an exciting and pivotal time for the craft beer business. According to the Brewers Association, the craft beer industry was worth $7.6 billion in 2010. Yet craft beer’s undisputed heavyweight champion, The Boston Brewing Company (which brews Samuel Adamsmade up less than 1% of all beer sales in the U.S. in 2010.

This past March, the craft beer industry made headlines when Chicago-based Goose Island sold to Anheuser-Busch (AB) for $38.8 million. While many craft beer drinkers have mixed feelings about Goose Island’s decision to sell, the deal drew national attention to the brand and shortly after the announcement, Goose Island six-packs started appearing more frequently in the beer aisle of my local grocery store.

What’s your take on the Goose Island acquisition? I ask Henry. “[AB] can’t sell any more Bud Light,” he says. “It was a last ditch effort.” But doesn’t it make Goose Island kind of a sell out? “If the beer continues to taste good, who cares?”

The truth is the lines have been blurred for a while now. Craft Brewers Alliance, which sold its $16.3 million share of Goose Island to AB, still owns smaller outfits including Redhook Ale Brewery, Kona Brewing Company, and Widmer Brothers. This past October, Terrapin Beer Co. sold a minority share to Miller Coors in an effort to fund a $4.5 million expansion project. And Blue Moon, which makes its signature Belgian-style wheat ale as well as several seasonal variations, has been brewed by Coors since its inception in 1995.

Still, Henry points to brewers like Sam Calagione from Delaware-based Dogfish Head Craft Brewed Ales, who have stuck to their guns despite financial pressures. “[Sam] could only brew 60 Minute IPA (India Pale Ale) all day,” Dogfish’s signature and best-selling beer, Henry points out, rather than experimenting constantly with new flavors that are less profitable as he does now. Calagione explains his brewing philosophy in the Beer Wars documentary:

“Big breweries are usually public companies … Their real goal at the end of the day is maximizing shareholder value, whereas our goal is maximizing the flavor of what we’re making for our own enjoyment as the people making it.”

And for other do-it-yourselfers out there, craft beer is more accessible than ever in terms of homebrewing. Amateur brewmasters can replicate their favorite beers just as an amateur baker would follow a recipe in a Paula Dean cookbook. Or, if they’re feeling adventurous, they could put their own unique twist on an old classic.

It seems like every guy I know is brewing his own beer these days, I say to Henry. “Those kids in Brooklyn, now…you can buy one-gallon [craft beer] kits,” Henry says. “The holiday markets in Union Square are selling vanilla bean porter kits. You can put craft beer kits on your [wedding] registry!” They’re even selling craft beer kits at Bed Bath & Beyond.

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When I met up with Henry at another craft beer bar, this one on the East Side, I’d been drinking $2 mugs of light, drinkable, but unremarkable Checker Cab Blonde Ale. (I’ve had it before—it’s the bar’s Sunday football beer special.) When I was ready for my next round, I asked Henry for a recommendation. He peered at the chalkboard menu and seemed excited about a beer from Barrier Brewing Co. I take it you’ve heard of Barrier before? “Yeah, it’s two guys on Long Island, Evan and Craig, who used to work for [Brooklyn-based brewery] Sixpoint.”

You really know your stuff. “Me and [The Pony Bar owner Dan McLaughlin] are pretty dialed in … I’ll come to a bar like this and try new beers, and say, ‘Hey, we should be pouring this.’”

My own beer palate isn’t as developed as Henry’s but I’ve had enough drafts to know when the beer has gone bad, and every now and then I’ll send one back. “The state of draft beer is horrible,” says Henry. “I would not order draft beer outside of a craft beer bar.” He says the lines—those are the hoses between the kegs and the taps—should be ideally cleaned once every two weeks. The Pony Bar does this, but many places don’t clean nearly as often–if ever.

According to Henry, a lot can go wrong if a bar isn’t maintaining its equipment correctly. And he should know: Henry is a Certified Cicerone, the second of three levels of the Cicerone Certification Program, just below Master Cicerone, of which there are just three in the whole country. From Cicerone.org:

“The Cicerone Certification Program offers that independent assessment and certification so that industry professionals—as well as consumers—can be sure of the knowledge and skills possessed by current and prospective beer servers.”

Henry says one part of the certification process has candidates first taste a “control beer” and then several off-tasting iterations of it to determine what went wrong, such as having been served from a dirty tap, or containing too much diacetyl, which at low levels adds a “slipperiness” to the beer but at high levels can give it an unwanted buttery flavor. Was it like the milk tasting competition in Napoleon Dynamite? I ask. “Yes. Exactly.”

When he’s not tending bar, Henry is the director of events and tastings at Civilization of Beer, a company founded by Sam Merritt whose mission is “to promote, through education and appreciation, the responsible enjoyment of high quality, craft beer in the context of our rapidly changing culinary landscape.”

Before The Pony Bar, Henry had gotten his start in the summer of 2005 in Allston, Mass., working at the Sunset Grill and Tap under owner Marc Kadish. It’s there, he says, where “I truly fell in love with the wide world of beer.”

He went on to work for Craft Brewers Guild outside of Boston. Working as a sales rep, he learned the “business of beer,” and met many people in the industry who shared his passion for craft beer.

Henry describes the craft beer community as “a tight knit group—not cutthroat,” and says, “We’re at a point in history where there are more breweries than ever—more than before Prohibition. More people are passionate about making and drinking beer.”

He credits local bar owners Jimmy Carbone (Jimmy’s #43), Dave Broderick (Blind Tiger), and the late Ray Dieter (d.b.a.) for growing the craft beer business in New York City when no one else wanted to sell the stuff. Without these guys, Henry says, “I wouldn’t have a job.” (On a personal note, I’m indebted to Broderick, too: my girlfriend and I shared pumpkin beers at Blind Tiger on our first date.)

“Craft beer isn’t a fad,” Henry says, attributing an old quote to Brooklyn Brewery co-founder Garrett Oliver. “It’s a return to normalcy.”

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