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There's a sneaky little secret that beer industry insiders will share with you, often off the record: Beware beer clubs, craft or otherwise. They can seem like a great way to try different brews you'd be unlikely to discover otherwise and are a tantalizing gift idea for the beer lover in your life. But they also can be a way for brewers to offload big bundles of product that may be expiring or distressed and satisfy a club buyer seeking a lot of product at a cheaper price.
Post-craft-beer boom, these clubs also are facing increasing competition as local craft brewers get more creative and efficient in delivering their own new beers, often offering memberships themselves. At the same time, individuals can also visit a major retailer such as BevMo!, Total Wine or Green’s Beverages and uncover 15 craft IPAs they haven’t heard of before. But according to some of those same insiders who will warn you about the uglier side of the niche, there are clubs that represent what makes the concept click.
Guillermo Woolfolk is the founder of Mashing In, a website that covers beer and spirits news nationwide and conducts regular brew reviews. He has been tracking beer clubs for a decade. “I believe beer clubs have their place, but it’s best to do a little research before subscribing to ensure that the chosen club meets your needs and expectations,”he says.
Reading reviews on the clubs is key, as is verifying whether the club provides details on featured beers from past shipments. “Do not go in blind,” he says. “Remember that you are paying a premium for convenience and to be wowed each month, so it is best to take a moment to confirm that is what you end up with when the boxes turn up at your door.”
Certified beer cicerone and seasoned beverage reporter Ethan Fixell also counsels caution and encourages consumers to cross-reference beers online with handy guides like Beer Advocate, RateBeer and Untappd.
“If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is,” says Fixell. “If a place is promising hundreds of local beers that are incredibly crafty and the deal seems impossibly good, what they’re likely selling is beer they need to get rid of.”
Both pros endorse Boulder’s Beer Month Club, one of the oldest and largest clubs in the country, albeit for different reasons. The club’s recipe for longevity presents a window into what makes a modern club survive and even thrive.
1. Nerd Out on Tasting
Head taster Kris Calef has been steering Beer Month Club’s beer selection panel since the early ’90s, when craft IPA pioneers including Adam Avery were brewing out of their garages. He employs up to eight tasters per panel. “We’ve never gone away from our product selection process,” he says. “If you’re not doing [selection], you probably aren’t going to last long—and shouldn’t.”
Given competition and the stakes, he adds, it’s too risky anyway, “If you don’t have your customer’s best interest in mind,” says Calef, “thanks to social media, that’s going to come back in a negative way very quickly.”
2. Customize Like Crazy
BMC operates as an umbrella of sorts for five beer clubs in total (plus fancy cheese, cigars and chocolate to boot), including the IPA-centric Hop Heads Beer Club and the International Beer Club, with a range of mix-and-match options. “The thing that impresses me most about Beer Month Club is its dedication to provide a service that appeals to [different] levels of beer lovers,” says Woolfolk of Mashing In. “Those who are new to craft beer can explore new-to-them beers from the U.S. with The U.S. Microbrewed Beer Club. … More discerning beer enthusiasts can enjoy the well-curated selections in the Rare Beer Club.”
The rare element is the differentiating factor for Fixell. “I think of [Rare Beer Club] as the crown jewel of that brand,” he says. “It offers you beers that, as a geeky beer nerd, I genuinely want to drink, a real opportunity to test what collectors would trade for. It gets me excited about beer again. If I’m going to pay all that money to have it shipped and curated, I want it to be the best of the best.”
3. Offer Exclusives
Calef and company end up partnering with small brewers for beers that are frequently available only to their members; other times, members are invited to pitch beer names or propose experimental styles. Ann Arbor, Mich., cult hit Jolly Pumpkin Artisan Ales is a regular at the top of national beer ratings and among the small-batch collaborators for BMC. Jester King, Garden Path Fermentation and The Lost Abbey are also award-winning brewers who do one-offs for club members.
Tomme Arthur is the co-founder and chief operating owner of The Lost Abbey. He says partnering with the club has allowed his team to experiment with beers they hadn’t previously attempted, including a 2019 release called A Creator’s Calling that went on to win gold at the Great American Beer Festival. “Lost Abbey bottles are great when they ship and get better over time,” says Arthur. “That’s a win for me if I’m in a club.”
4. Deliver a Little Above and Beyond
For hard-core suds lovers like Woolfolk, the educational material that accompanies the beer— detailed intel on style, brewery backstory, tasting notes and food pairings—are a big part of the appeal. “Each monthly newsletter is expertly compiled and clearly takes quite a bit of time to create,” he says. “Beer Month Club's attention to detail in this area proves to me that they want you to walk away a more knowledgeable beer drinker.”
A related and yet unannounced note there will enthuse longtime BMC subscribers: Adored newsletter columnist Murl the dog, who fielded club members’ questions with a clever but cutting wit, will be honored posthumously with a tribute beer exclusively done in partnership with Jolly Pumpkin. Because Murl was a red merle Australian shepherd, Calef is thinking about an oaked imperial red ale of some sort.
“Murl was well-loved and lived well past the average lifespan of a big Aussie,” says Calef. “I want to say he was 15 when he headed off for the big ol’ Milk-Bone in the sky.”
In other words, like Beer Month Club, he enjoyed atypical longevity in his field.