So You Think You Want To Start a Beer Society Club?
About 7 years ago, The Lost Abbey caught the attention of the nation’s most hard core beer enthusiasts with the Sinners and Saints club. Those lucky enough to purchase a membership would receive a schedule of special beers sent to them. The club began to crumble due to lack of infrastructure, and was quickly dissolved. Shortly after, the fairly new The Bruery in Orange County California picked up where Lost Abbey left off and began The Reserve Society, in order to cater to their most hard core, spendy customers. After The Bruery Reserve Society became a proven success and steady flow of upfront revenue, many other small brewers of premium craft beer have dipped their toe into the “Membership Beer Society” realm.
From a far, the formula looks like this: If you are a brewer who makes sour ales, barrel aged beers and other fancy styles in rather small quantities, you will have a high demand from educated, employed beer enthusiasts with disposable income. This has been the case for Night Shift Brewing, Upland Brewing, Russian River Brewing, Lost Abbey, The Rare Barrel, Cigar City, Cellarmaker, Hill Farmstead and more.
Once you become one of these trade board darlings, you too will get the itch to start a membership only beer society. If you are a new brewery looking into this model, or a veteran brewery looking to open up another stream of revenue and keep up with the cool kids, please consider the following items before being the next one on the block to take someones hard cold $300.00.
The biggest problem The Lost Abbey had with their membership based beer club was lack of resources, more specifically, no customer service department. Questions about orders, pick ups, deliveries, returns need to be fielded, and fielded in a prompt professional manner. In reading countless threads on the big message boards, you’ll find that customers of these clubs have extremely high expectations of customer service, and feel entitled to it based on the amount of money they are dropping. Make sure you have a department or at least a staff member or two dedicated to your members. The headache you’ll have by not doing it is simply not worth it.
Return on Investment
This seems like a given, but we’ve seen that some breweries have over looked this simple math. If you are going to charge X amount of dollars, you need to provide X amount of dollars worth of beer and merchandise in return. There is definitely a percentage of said educated, employed folks with disposable income that would pay a $300 membership fee for the right to purchase bottles, many will not, and those that do will eventually smarten up.
So you’ve built this society/club, and your members feel they are part of something special and exclusive. Don’t be greedy and take a beer you claimed was “society” only and offer it to the public a few weeks later. Those diehards who signed up want to show off at the bottle share, they want to land that big trade, and by taking away the sense scarcity, you’ve burnt your core audience.
Many of these beer societies offer some commemorative schwag. The Bruery comes to mind in this case, where they have offered growler bags, sweaters, t-shirts and such. If you don’t have plans to deliver on something cool like that, you shouldn’t bother with it.
You have a very special audience in your members. You have folks that have paid you up front for beers that they may or may not have tried. The ‘may nots’ are usually because the beers haven’t been made yet. Your reputation to deliver well executed beers is likely what got you these super loyal customers. While the realm of barrel aged beers and wild ale are difficult to execute perfectly 100% of the time, please don’t get too crazy or lazy with your experimental offerings. A Cream Cheese and Lox Saison might have sounded great to you, but you can expect your members to scroll past that, and you’ll be stuck with some unwanted inventory. If your hard-core members don’t want it, it will be hard to expect the public to drop cash on it.
All of the above considerations will help make your customers feel special. They will feel good about spending thousands of dollars on your product yearly, and will help ensure repeat business. If resources allow it, following these guidelines will help you see growth in your club and business.