Differentiating Your Brewery: Standing Out in a Crowded Market

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By Jack Curtin

This article was originally published in the September/October 2018 issue of The New Brewer®

Let’s face it: it’s a brave new world for craft breweries. Just making good beer isn’t always enough these days. In an industry with more than 6,700 breweries and more opening every day, many craft breweries must also focus on the experience they are providing to their visitors. What makes them unique and sets them apart from the brewery down the street?

“Most breweries today are service businesses as much they are manufacturing businesses, and what gets people through the door is as much about the experiences they have as it is the beer itself,” said Bart Watson, chief economist for the Brewers Association. “Obviously, the beer needs to be great, but smart brewers are now focusing on showing customers that what happens in their brewpubs and tasting rooms is just as much of a reason to spend some time there.”

“Diversity is key,” said Watson. “The immediate neighborhood is the first place you have to stand out.”

Most breweries find that bonding with other local businesses, hiring local musicians, benefitting local organizations, and using local products are key to establishing themselves as an integral part of the community. Many, like Switchyard Brewing in Bloomington, Ind., are taking it a step further.

Diversity is key. The immediate neighborhood is the first place you have to stand out.

Switchyard offers a “co-working facility” akin to a miniature conference center—with beer and coffee. According to the brewery’s website, “We set out to redefine the brewery experience by producing handcrafted, flavorful beers alongside a functional co-working environment that encourages other entrepreneurs to create great things.” It’s one of the many new ways that breweries are finding to differentiate themselves—with experiences, alternative beverages, unique locations, a sense of history, and community-based services—in a rapidly changing environment.

A Community Resource

Switchyard Brewing, which opened in May, sets itself apart in a couple of different ways: an early morning opening, and by establishing itself as a valuable public resource. The brewery, founded by a pair of former paramedics, caters to night shift workers, students at Indiana University Bloomington, and a varied audience of other users during the day.

“We are your ‘favorite coffee shop meets brewery’ every morning,” said co-founder Kurtis Cummings. “We open at 8 a.m. and offer a bottomless cup of a coffee blend that we do with a local roaster.”

When Cummings and his business partner, Jeff Hall, worked nights on an ambulance crew, they became part of the night shift crowd that was always looking for an early morning breakfast and maybe even a beer. “We saw a chance to do the same thing here and also attract a broader audience as a co-working facility for the entire community,” said Cummings.

In addition to “super-fast” internet, Switchyard’s Brewhouse Boardroom, available for free use for two hours during non-peak times, features a large LCD TV and white boards painted on the walls, with seating for up to 25 attendees. “We host nonprofit board meetings and business staff meetings, and use the facilities ourselves for staff education,” said Cummings. “And we get a lot of people on their own. One guy comes in every day and sits at his computer and writes code for six hours a day; another guy who is a photographer comes in and does his editing here. We see ourselves as both a community resource and an entertainment destination.”

Heritage and History

Rusty Rail Brewing in Mifflinburg, Pa., represents itself as the city’s hometown brewery in every way.

“Our entire team, from sales and marketing to brewing and operations, is always out in the market, working tap takeovers or doing beer tastings, beer dinners, and other events,” said co-founder and general manager Rich Schrader. “We have spent a lot of time thinking about our identity in the community, and we have a unique story to tell that can’t be duplicated because of the history of the building we call home.”

The almost 120-year-old building originally housed the Mifflinburg Body and Gear Company, which made carriage bodies, gears, axles, and automobile bodies. Eventually it built the wooden truck bodies for the original Model T Ford pickups. After Henry Ford introduced the world’s first moving assembly line in 1913, the Mifflinburg plant was phased out. It later housed manufacturers of products ranging from bowling alleys to military vehicles to kitchen cabinets over the years that followed.

“We’ve embraced the history of the Model T and have several on display in our building as well as a chronology of history that represents the blue-collar work ethic that has made this facility the centerpiece of the community for over 100 years,” said Schrader. “Over the years it became many different things, but at every point it was a centerpiece. Everybody in town worked in this building at one time or another.”

In 2005, the building became vacant. “I prided myself in repurposing all the materials within the building and on the site to create a one-of-a-kind experience and celebrate its heritage and history,” said Schrader.

Rusty Rail’s pub, which opened in September 2015, features a bar top milled from the original beams. An ancient assembly line chain is now a handrail, and a train rail serves as a footrest. Model T trucks made in the original plant are displayed in different parts of the restaurant. The 15-barrel brewhouse located in the basement serves a two-floor pub with 36 taps split evenly between them. The brewery began selling on-premise in January 2015 before the pub and restaurant were open.

“We get 2,000 to 3,000 guests a week through the pub,” said Schrader, “And have the capacity to host 2,500 people for company events and the like.”

Rusty Rail has further embedded itself into the community by hosting weddings. The facility has an on-site chapel and even a third-floor studio apartment for the bride and groom. “It’s one-stop shopping, with beer,” said Schrader.

As Florida’s first certified organic brewery, Orlando Brewing prides itself on blending historic standards and modern advances to capture the public’s attention. The brewery also adheres to the Reinheitsgebot, the German beer purity law, for most of its beers. (Those that don’t adhere are released as part of the Violator Series.)

When Orlando Brewing first opened in the early 2000s, it was the only brewery in Central Florida. Now there are more than 25 breweries in the area.

“When we first opened, breweries were required by state law to be in an industrial area and were also required to do tours to promote tourism,” said brewery president John Cheek. “We still do a free tour every day except for Sunday, and on special occasions when a lot of new people will be here. Those tours bring in a lot of people who are not beer drinkers, but they usually stay and have a couple of beers afterwards.”

The tours have earned the brewery a spot on the official list of free things to do in Orlando.

Along with a usual slate of events such as live music, nonprofit fundraisers, yoga, and food and beer pairings, Orlando Brewing also has a full schedule designed to appeal to broader audiences. Wellness Wednesdays are a popular attraction, featuring various talks related to a healthy lifestyle. During Beer 30, which occurs on the 30th of every month, customers get $2 off a pint. And the first Saturday of every month brings in the Central Florida Drum Circle to perform around a bonfire. The brewery also encourages local artists to bring in their wares to be displayed on the brewery’s walls.

California’s Dust Bowl Brewing, which has drawn more than one million guests to its two locations in Turlock, Calif., also strives to offer off-the-beaten path activities.

During the brewery’s popular Sign Night, an instructor leads customers in designing a custom lettered wooden sign created by a local vendor. Held every other month, the event also includes an exclusive dinner and a standard beer or house wine.

The Brewery Taproom has semi-private spaces for groups ranging from 30 to 100 people, with bocce courts available for rent. The site also has a Kid Zone, a large grass area with rubber building blocks, cornhole boards, and a special menu.

“We are very family friendly and have a special place for kids,” said marketing and PR manager Michelle Peterson. “Their parents can relax at the bar while the younger members visit our Kid Zone.”

Branching Out

Cantara Cellars, a winery in Camarillo, Calif., expanded its portfolio to include beer after California passed new legislation earlier this year permitting a licensed craft distiller, licensed winegrower, and licensed beer manufacturer to share a common licensed area. Flat Fish Brewing came online in May, and Cantara Distilling is being developed as well.

Winemaker Mike Brown was already a dedicated homebrewer, and the combination seemed like a sure bet to bring in new customers. “We felt being able to serve craft beer and wine together would be a significant business advantage,” said Brown. “We have seven taps for the beer and sell the wine by the glass or bottle.”

The brewery area of the site can seat 90 and produces a few items out of its own kitchen, but works for the most part with food trucks to provide a more extensive menu.

“We serve a local market predominantly as a winery and we expect the addition of beer to be even more locally focused” said Brown. “We’re discovering that wine customers really like the traditional ales. A lot of our existing customers who were wine-centric are now drinking beer and hauling growlers out the door.”

The dual facility is a way to stand out in a market that is becoming increasingly complex, Brown believes. “Coming from the wine industry, we’ve gone through all the phases that breweries are doing now,” he said. “We’ve watched wineries hold yoga events in the cellar, have a paint night and Cabernet night…we’ve seen all that stuff. It’s like a wave—it goes through the industry and it turns out to not be sustainable. Trivia nights and all those things can’t be what you depend on over the long haul. When anybody can do them, there is no differentiation.”

About the author: Jack Curtin discovered craft beer in the mid-1990s and immediately began writing about it for various publications. He has never stopped…except for an occasional pint. He is based in suburban Philadelphia.