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For Craft Brewers, Branding Is Becoming Crucial Ingredient

All this week in Bend, beer lovers and local businesses have been taking part in Central Oregon Beer Week. Now in its second year, the festival aims to bolster Bend’s reputation as an emerging beer destination. 

It’s also a showcase for the region’s nearly two dozen breweries.  But with so many new beers coming on line and in such rapid succession, craft brewers are being forced to adopt new skills to help them stand out from the pack.

It has been just under a year since Crux Fermentation Project brewed its first batch of beer in this former AAMCO transmission shop.   It’s bottling day here, and Brewmaster Larry Sidor is checking and double-checking each step in the process to make sure the beer that goes into these bottles comes out tasting as intended.

“You can really mess up beer in a real hurry.  And you know all the pain and suffering and attention to detail the brewers given to it can be ruined in an instant in packaging,” Sidor says.

Sidor isn’t being flip when he says “pain and suffering.” Just a minute later, he’s forced to take a timeout after he hits his head on one of the brewery’s metal conditioning tanks.  Holding his hand to his head, Sidor inadvertently reveals another workplace mishap, a bruised finger that left a small purple mark under his fingernail.

“Yeah, that’s moving drums around, I got it.  Very physical, brewing.  You know, so it’s a lot different than my previous chair jobs,” he explained.

Before opening Crux, Sidor had climbed about as high as you can in the brewing world.  For eight years, he was head brewmaster at Deschutes Brewery where he garnered international acclaim and won awards in a broad range of beer styles. 

When it came to aligning himself with new business partners, Sidor approached the task as a brewer would.  He gave himself time for preparation and carefully chose his ingredients.

Paul Evers, one of Sidor’s partners at Crux, says “I think Larry is arguably one of the five top brewmasters in the country.”

Evers has a background in marketing and branding.  He and his agency TBD have created branding campaigns for craft breweries such as Deschutes and O’Dell and 21st Amendment.  He says the idea that craft beer — really good craft beer — speaks for itself is only half right.

“How is a beer supposed to speak for itself when it’s in a bottle on a shelf?  You know you can do amazing things, but unless you’re building that  bridge or connection to the consumer, they’re not going to find out about it.”

Evers says creating a brand involves more than just slapping a label on the outside of a bottle or convincing a bar owner to hang up a neon sign with the name of your beer.  He says when it’s done right, branding expresses what the product is about and what’s important to the people making it.

“And it’s not just advertising.  It’s not just packaging.  It’s everything that that company does.  It’s their employment policies, the trade policies that they adopt, what does the president say in a press release.  All of those things inform an impression that somebody has around a brand.”

Crux isn’t the only brewery in Bend focusing on forging connections with consumers.

Worthy Brewing opened in February with big aspirations.  Its 22,000 square-foot facility makes it Bend’s second largest brewery in terms of space. 

Chris Hodge is the company’s CEO.  Hodge has spent nearly three decades in the beer and wine distribution business.  Before he joined Worthy, he was sales, marketing and brand manager for Washington-based Columbia Distributing - one of the largest beer wholesalers in the U.S.

“You know we talked a lot about the Worthy brand and we feel that we have a commitment to live up to being ‘worthy.’”

Hodge says everything has to begin with the beer.  But he says living up to that commitment includes a dedication to sustainability. 

More than a hundred solar panels sit on the roof of the brew pub to offset the power consumption of Worthy’s brewing operations.  Spent grain — a byproduct from the beer —  is used to feed local hogs.  Hodge says the animals will eventually find their way onto the dinner plates along with other locally-sourced foods in Worthy’s brewpub.

“We do a myriad of things internally here that will hopefully enamour the average Northwest consumer, or any consumer for that matter, that really understands that we care about our land, we care about the environment and we don’t have to sacrifice quality because of that.”

But branding doesn’t always have to be deliberative to resonate with people. Take Boneyard Brewing as an example. 

Boneyard draws its name from its origins.  Its first batch was brewed in a cobbled-together assemblage of equipment discarded by other breweries.  Then there’s Boneyard’s trademark: a skull and crossbones — in the colors black, white and red.

Co-founder and head brewer Tony Lawrence says when it came to developing the brand, he and his friends just did what they thought was cool.

“We’re definitely flying a different flag.  If you look at almost every other brand and they’re playing the same card which is a label with a river and a backdrop of a mountain and a tree and all the beers are named after that and all these things.  We just flipped that upside down and people like that.”

Boneyard has more than doubled its sales over the last year,  even though it doesn’t have its own bottling or canning lines.  And according to the most recent data available from the Oregon Liquor Control Commission, among Oregon breweries, Boneyard ranked 8th in the state for in-state sales for the month of March.

How much of that is the result of strong branding?  Lawrence says probably not that much.  For one thing, nearly all of Boneyard’s beer is sold in bars and restaurants, which means many customers have never even seen its label. 

Even so, he says for the first time this year, Boneyard is setting aside money in its budget for marketing and branding.

“I don’t think at our volume people are buying the brand.  They’re buying a quality product, we hope.  But let’s look out five or ten years from now. I think that the brand is going to be almost as important as the product itself.”

Growth in the craft segment is showing little signs of slowing down.  According to the Brewers Association — a trade group for the brewing industry — more than 400 new breweries opened in the U.S. last year. 

Julia Herz is the craft beer program director at the Brewers Association.  She says many grocery stores and retailers have reconfigured their shelves to try to accommodate for the influx of new offerings.   But she says because many of the large breweries still exert control over U.S. distribution networks, getting a new beer on delivery truck can be just as challenging as getting it in the bottle.

“The point is that you can’t just be a world class brewer.  You have to be a world class business person and marketer and ready to work 80, 90 hour weeks.  It’s hard.  But the business side is just as important nowadays depending on how big you want to get.”

Many believe the craft industry itself has plenty of room for growth.  Craft brewers sold more than 13 million barrels of beer in the U.S. last year.   In terms of total volume, that’s still just 6.5 percent of all the beer sold.

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