We've been doing a lot of research around here. I suppose for me, this is one of the more fun parts of starting a business. Research is basically what my BS is in. I'm not bad at it. History must be researched with hindsight and professional objectivity (or not, depending on who you ask it may or may not matter) and politics must be researched in the context of current trends and where those trends may end up. It's a little Getting out in the field and doing research. It's a little bit of both with beer and brewing, and of course it takes its many forms.
Books are a huge resource. The Brewer's Associations publishing arm has put out an incredible breadth of literature covering everything from beer history to practical brewing techniques, and that's just one publisher of dozens that are putting out phenomenal beer information. Currently, I only read one beer periodical which is BeerAdvocate; I find it presents a balanced and wide reaching view of the current state of beer around the country. Beyond print, the internet is omnipresent in the current discussion of all things beer. Brewbound, Craft Brewing Business , and The Brewer's Association , just to name a few, feature up to date happenings in the craft beer community. Beer is also covered by the more mainstream media as well from Bloomberg to USA Today. At the opposite end of the "mainstream" spectrum, countless bloggers, message boards and even reddit are great sources of information. It all comes together as a powerful tool that is easily accessed and contains all of information necessary to start a brewery. But that's not what this is about.
All the reading in the world is no comparison for practical research. Now, this can be as simple as strolling to your nearest beer bar and trying out a few brews, or purchasing a 6 pack for home consumption. The key is not to drink beer so much as it is to taste beer. Solid sensory analysis. Sensory analysis is great, but we need more than that. We know what kind of beer we like, we know the beer we want to brew, so the research we focus on when we aren't reading or tasting is more destination based.
Researching breweries and brewpubs can be either deliberate or opportunistic. It seems that I have been traveling more than usual lately. For the most part, these are social trips to see friends or family. But if I find myself in an area where there are breweries I haven't seen before, I make it a point to at least make an appearance. This is opportunistic research. I guess this could be considered pleasure with a little bit of business. Other times, I may travel with the express purpose of seeing what other breweries in a given locale are up to. This is the closest we come to a "Business Trip" in this early phase. The intent is of course to learn as much as we can, but due to the nature of this industry, these events are invariably enjoyable. It's about more than consumption. Sure, beers are had (perhaps more than the recommended dosage at times), but you have to go about this in a certain way in order to gain anything meaningful out of it. In order to glean new ideas from those breweries that came before us.
Like many patrons who enter a brewpub or a taproom, I start the journey by glancing at the draft list. I'm terrible at this, I give it a cursory look at best. I take in what styles they have and usually order an IPA to start. Jumpstart the palate. I might lack initial attention to detail in regard to what is on draft, but I am taking a detailed look at everything else. Layout; decor; their graphic design scheme; how many draft handles there are vs how many are pouring beer; the neighborhood this place is in; where the brewhouse is in relation to the taproom; where the coldbox is in relation to the draft faucets; do they have a kitchen? What's the bathroom like? Is food available otherwise through a third party food truck or platform? Is there merchandise readily available? Growlers or crowlers? Packaged beer? It's 2 in the afternoon, what is the guest traffic like through here? Do the bartenders and servers know their product? This is a mere sampling of everything that is going through my head as I'm judging the shit out of my colleagues. Most importantly, do these factors I'm analyzing add up to success, or at least a perception of success. How did they achieve this? I'm halfway through my first beer now and I give the menu a more detailed look. Order my second beer, probably a double IPA or some off-the-wall sour.
And now the breaking point. Is the beer good? The atmosphere, the location, the food, the everything else might be perfect, but ultimately the beer has to be outstanding. 4,000 breweries and counting. The beer has unquestionably awesome. Fortunately, it seems like most others in this industry have done their research as well. There is a lot of great beer out there. Sure, this market research is about finding great beer, but it is even more about finding the ideal way to present great beer. While the right look won't save a crappy brew, the best beer won't be successful without the right look. It's no secret that part of Blue Tape's success will be the brand that it builds before you ever taste our first commercial beer. As much as we are developing and perfecting our beers, our market research is about the best possible way to present them. That's something I can't fully understand by reading a book.
Photo: The research team with Kevin Lemp, Founder of 4 Hands Brewery in St. Louis