March 1, 2016 |

Building a Beer Club: Cheers!

By Daniel P. Smith

Five rules for building and maintaining a viable beer club

beer club binder

Admittedly, Josh Fernands had selfish aims.

The executive beverage director at Washington, D.C.-based Pizzeria Paradiso and self-described beer geek longed to connect with other craft beer aficionados in the nation’s capital, excited to share and discuss the rising number of novel brews available in bottles and cans and on taps.

So Fernands started small. He hosted an industry night in the basement bar of Pizzeria Paradiso’s Georgetown location on a Monday night in the fall of 2013. The energy of that event, one attended by some 40 people, inspired Fernands to create a more regular gathering.

More than two years later, Pizzeria Paradiso’s Monday Night Beer Club has emerged a spirited event on the pizzeria’s monthly calendar and helped the 23-year-old pizzeria establish its craft beer cred among D.C.’s beer-savoring cognoscenti. On the first Monday of each month, craft beer fans fill the restaurant’s downstairs bar space to enjoy rare beers, tap takeover events and guided beer tastings.

“It’s all grown organically,” Fernands says, “and every month it gets bigger.”

For pizzerias, particularly those with an ambitious craft beer component, a beer club –– programs that take on a diverse range of forms –– can engage customers and spur a pizzeria’s marketplace standing.

Beer club benefits — In metropolitan Denver, one of the nation’s foremost craft beer playgrounds, Parry’s Pizzeria & Bar’s three-year-old Ale Yeah Club drives repeat business and revenue. The free-to-join club boasts nearly 10,000 opt-in members, providing exclusive, advance news of special events like pizza and beer pairings, monthly beers on tap, happy hour discounts and opportunities to win dynamic perks like VIP brewery tours.

“We look for any way to further engage customers with our brand, and our beer club is a key way we accomplish that,” Parry’s Director of Marketing Keniey Sonley says.

At the Village Inn Pizzeria in Skokie, Illinois, a suburb on Chicago’s northern edge, General Manager Diana Rumsley began using in early 2015 to publicize her eatery’s upstart beer club. One year later, more than 200 members receive news of special events, such as free beer tastings and tap takeover events, which have succeeded in spotlighting the pizzeria’s ambitious, evolving beer menu and heightened its cachet with local beer enthusiasts.

“Now, more than ever, people know they can come to us for a wide range of options,” Rumsley says, adding that the club’s special tasting events even inform Village Inn’s purchasing decisions, especially regarding more avant-garde concoctions.

Hops_BeerSimilarly, Fernands cites the Monday Night Beer Club at Pizzeria Paradiso for driving the restaurant’s influence in D.C.’s beer scene.

“Our beer club has gotten people passionate about beer in touch with what we’re doing at Pizzeria Paradiso, and these people have become our ambassadors in the community,” Fernands says.

And perhaps best of all, the Monday Night Beer Club turns Pizzeria Paradiso’s typically shuttered downstairs bar into a revenue generator.

“That certainly can’t be overlooked,” Fernands acknowledges.

Hosting a great beer club, however, is about more than serving cold beers. It requires planning, purpose and partnerships.

Rule No. 1: Throw an event that’s worth throwing.

Fernands says it’s critically important operators build beer club events around compelling themes.

“A generic beer special just doesn’t resonate,” he says.

Pizzeria Paradiso’s December’s club event, for instance, featured ugly holiday sweaters, a spirited selection of holiday brews and tips donated to a local nonprofit.

“Do it right and create an event that’s worth your customers time as well as yours,” says Fernands, who overstaffs events to help ensure smooth operations.

Rule No. 2: Develop relationships with breweries and distributors.

Sonley’s earnest relations with breweries and distributors have helped Parry’s present unique events and share one-of-a-kind offerings.

On Black Friday 2015, for example, Parry’s hosted an event with Goose

Island highlighted by the Chicago-based brewery’s famed Bourbon County Rare. Ale Yeah Club members received exclusive admittance starting at 10 a.m., one hour before the general public, to trial the revered barrel-aged stout.

“And we had about 35 people lined up at 9:30 a.m. on Black Friday all because we were able to offer something unique and different,” Sonley says.

Rule No. 3: Insist a brewery representative attends.

At Village Inn, Rumsley insists someone from the brewery, preferably the brewmaster, attends any special event. Having an in-the-know individual present, Rumsley says, allows guests to gain intimate, first-hand knowledge.

“If you can get people from the frontlines, they know better than anyone how the beer was brewed, pairing options and so forth, and people love hearing about that,” she says.

Rule No. 4: Leverage the reach of breweries.

With craft beer’s continued marketplace surge, a number of producers enjoy significant hype and cult followings; whenever possible, Rumsley leverages that to boost the profile of Village Inn.

For example, when Village Inn hosted an event featuring Founders Brewing, the Michigan-based brewery publicized the gathering throughout its network, which increased attendance. A similar story played out with both Revolution Brewing and Half Acre, Rumsley says.

Rule No. 5: Promote the club.

To capture the advantageous benefits of a beer club, promotion is necessary.

Each Parry’s restaurant has targets to hit each month for new Ale Yeah Club sign-ups, a move to grow its tribe, Sonley calls it. Meanwhile, Fernands and Pizzeria Paradiso staff champion their Monday Night Beer Club to any obvious beer-loving customers.

“People are excited about light-hearted gatherings with like-minded people, so why not have it be at your place?” Fernands says.

Craft beer consumption continues to climb

While some industry insiders expect the ballooning craft beer bubble to burst — and sooner rather than later, according to some prognosticators — craft beer sales continue to surge.

In the first half of 2015, American craft beer production volume increased 16 percent, according to the Brewers Association, with 12.2 million barrels of American craft beer sold January to June.

In 2016, U.S. brewers guild leaders expect a few craft beer trends to accelerate and further propel craft beer’s popularity, including: sour beers; consistently fresh beer, a reality that sometimes plagues small brewers; and hyper-local brews, particularly those concocted using local ingredients, such as grains and fruits sourced from nearby purveyors.

Chicago-based writer Daniel P. Smith  has covered business issues and best practices for a variety of trade publications, newspapers, and magazines.