Firestone Walker Launches Bottle Club, But Why?
While the bottle/membership club has been a mainstay in the wine world for a long time, it has been a part of the beer world for a little over a decade. For those not familiar, some breweries have offered a membership to typically 300 – 1000 of their most loyal fans which has historically entitled members to an allotment of exclusive beers, access rights to additional beers, a set discount on beer and goods as well as a commemorative piece of merchandise. The Bruery and Lost Abbey were early adopters to bottle club memberships, and since then a mile-long list of breweries have joined in the fray. Breweries get money up-front for a year worth of beers, and the loyal fans of said brewery get access to the breweries’ finest offerings and gain a sense of community between themselves, other like-minded fans and the breweries they love.
Over the past decade or so, I’ve been a member of The Bruery Reserve Society, The Bruery Preservation Society, Cigar City El Catador Club, The Rare Barrel Ambassadors of Sour and am currently a member of Highland Park Bottle Friends, Sante Adairius SARA Cellar and Private Press Brewing’s Membership. For the most part, the clubs I have participated in have all lived up to their expectation and have been well worth it for all the things they usually offer.
While some of the clubs I’ve mentioned are a labor of love, bringing the brewery superfan closer to the brewery and subsequent exclusive goodies, some breweries launch these to appease their lending obligations. If you take a peek behind the curtain of your favorite brewery, whether it be the small business parkway unit or the small-medium sized brewery with multiple locations and regional distributions, they likely owe investors or financial institutions. Being able to tell your investors you are able to sign up 1,000 of your most diehard fans to a $350.00 a year for 20 beers and a sweatshirt with a good chance they will each drop a few thousand more while being members is music to their ears. It’s not a new business model; the wine industry has been doing this for a long time. Whether it’s a labor of love or a way to appease lenders, there is a risk the breweries are taking. Does it feel like a cash grab? Are the members going to get 20 whack beers that haven’t been carefully planned out? Is the brewery in trouble and in need of this cash up front?
At the end of 2020, world class, world renowned Russian River blew up social media with an abrupt announcement they would be starting a bottle club. While there was a lot of criticism from myself and other California beer enthusiasts, at the end of the day, there was the rationale that A) it’s Russian River and B) no matter how many people scoffed at their execution or pricing, there would be enough people who would join the club at a blink of an eye. Still, it sparked the question: Why would a mature brewery that has had a firm grip on their street cred need to start a bottle club this late in the game? For the most part, bottle clubs are so abundant now that the target audience is going to ask why, as the value and intentions are almost intertwined.
Not long after the Russian River announcement, we learned that Firestone Walker Brewing, a brewery going on year 25 was going to jump into the fray with a beer club membership. I was able to talk to some of the folks involved in the planning and execution of the club. I told them point blank, there is always a bit of skepticism when a brewery decides to get into the beer club membership many years. Are hard-up for cash? Ha. Are they in need of a 500 – 1,000 fanbase they might not already have? Wouldn’t seem like it. So here we are, today Firestone Walker announces they will join the dozens and dozens of other breweries in offering a beer club membership, but why?
In a funny story told to me by the team at Firestone Walker, Mr. Walker strolled by in the tasting room and casually asked, why don’t we have a beer club? A lot of lightbulbs went off. From there, the staff presented Brewmaster Matt Brynildson with the idea and from there, the Brewmaster’s Reserve was born. Matt shared with us that this is something he has wanted to do for years, with “The Lion’s blessing” he wanted to give this concept the best possible effort. In a nutshell, this gives Matt the ability to take a side step away from making sure the zillion gallons of 805 and Mind Haze are perfect and create some small-batch barrel aged beers that he’s not usually afforded the time to make or that doesn’t fit into the grander plans of being a large regional brewery. For those of you who have followed Firestone for a while know that while their bread and butter has been their flagship offerings, they have been rewarding beer geeks for a long while now, beginning with Firestone 10 back in 2006, the bottled Parabola and Abacus/Sucaba a few years after that, the launch of Barrelworks barrel aged wild ale program in 2013 and the Proprietor’s series that is still rocking to this day. With it being harder to enjoy some of these specialty beers on tap at special beer events and festivals, having these treats sent to you without much hassle at all.
As skeptical as I am, much like in the situation of Russian River, we know at the very least you will receive high-quality beers in return for your money. We know this isn’t a cash grab as this club is not the focal point of the brewery’s operations and doesn’t make up even 1% of their sales. Like many other successful clubs, this will have club-exclusive beers, access to purchase additional exclusives, access to library beers (vintage spiritdriven strong ales and barrel aged wild ales). While there will be the obligatory merch and discounts, the value add will be access to hangout virtually with Brewmaster Matt Brynildson. This is something that probably would have never been thought of outside of a global pandemic, and is something I hope to see more of with other clubs. The Full Pint will be keeping close tabs on how this club unfolds, for now, check out the details just shared with us by Firestone Walker, click here https://www.firestonebeer.com/brewmasters-reserve/