In the not-too-distant past, the concept of beer mail meant a box arriving on your doorstep, usually unmarked so as not to arouse suspicion from the government postal workers and sent by a friend or online acquaintance in a predetermined sale or trade. As more and more commerce goes online, a handful of companies are looking to plant a flag now in the beer space to make it easier than ever to get beers from beyond customers’ areas right to their homes.
Of course, beer delivered by mail by a third party is nothing new. Beer of the month clubs have been going on for decades, although—at least in the beginning—the customer had little choice about what arrived. Old-timers will tell you tales of long-out-of-code IPAs or skunked lagers showing up in a box each month. Then there are services such as Rare Beer Club that work with breweries to procure hard-to-get bottles and cans before shipping them off to members.
There are also other services that have a database and website that know what’s in stock in stores in a certain geographical area and will buy from that retailer and deliver to a home or office for the cost of the beer (and a delivery fee, of course).
A New Crop
The new crop of online retailers are taking the idea of beer sales to a new level, one that is much more familiar to regular visitors to Amazon and other online retailers: Shop a selection of choices, pick what you like, click, and it ships.
“This is really empowerment for small breweries,” says Jason Sherman, the founder of TapRm, a Brooklyn, New York–based service that is working with a few dozen breweries to deliver often-hard-to-find beer direct to customers. “We’ve seen this model work for everything from razors to mattresses, and beer still has to go through some layers.” He says this is the time that all small breweries should be thinking about their future online strategies because this part of the industry has no place to go but up.
For Plan Bee Farm Brewery in Poughkeepsie, New York, Brewer and Owner Evan Watson says they use two services for two different components. They use TapRm to handle the logistics of their quarterly bottle membership club, The Hive. For sending their regular offerings, they use Tavour, which introduces a new craft beer daily and lets members order through an app.
“Using TapRm for our bottle membership club really just frees us up so we spend less time and fewer resources getting beers to people, and we can plan fun events on the farm for the members,” he says. “Tavour is great because they really take the time and care with each beer to learn about it, write about it, and find customers that are really going to be excited to try it.”
It’s not really a reworking of the established three-tier system because these sites are de facto distributors, just with a FedEx account instead of trucks. They still act as the middle tier between producers and consumers but with easy-to-navigate websites and apps and access to beers that are taproom-only or smaller batch runs that often escape the grasp of larger distributors. These companies are able to make all beer a local option.
A Taproom Extension
Seeing the opportunity with almost 7,500 breweries in the country, online retailers are staking their digital claims now in the hopes of being a bigger part of online beer sales as regulations potentially change or evolve. There are currently several on the market, from well-known services such as Tavour to upstarts such as CraftChaser. All are looking to harness the considerable power of e-commerce to drive beer sales and make breweries across the country feel like a neighborhood option for customers.
“Everyone wants maximum convenience: We get our food, our marijuana, and all kinds of other goods delivered. Beer makes sense, too,” says Jalynd Gallardo, the founder of CraftChaser, which works with breweries in Southern California for pickup and delivery of beer to consumers. He says that his company has also found success by hosting corporate events and happy hours, delivering beers to offices that in the past have either relied on local options from stores or a predetermined distributor.
The name of the game for most of these companies is speed. In many cases, the online retailers will offer same- or next-day delivery for customers near the breweries or warehouses. Others have a more rigid schedule but still offer a curated selection.
It’s not just regularly packaged beers that are offered by these services. Companies such as Craft Alley in Denver work directly with breweries for draft-only crowler deliveries to nearby customers, meaning that you can now have fresh draft beer at home that is delivered almost exactly like a pizza.
Most of the breweries that have signed up for the service say there have been upsides to partnering with the services—from getting their beer directly into the hands of interested customers who might live outside their geographical footprint to knowing that the beer arrives as intended and when intended.
“A service such as Tavour actually works for the kind of beers we make,” says Plan Bee’s Watson, noting that many of his farm beers need time to mature in the bottle. “They get to mature as they make their way across the country.”
Other farm- or spontaneous-minded brewers, such as Alesong Brewing & Blending (Eugene, Oregon) and The Ale Apothecary (Bend, Oregon), say similar things.
The online retail partners all tout their personalized service to both the breweries and the consumers, seeing themselves as an extension of a taproom, which often means careful attention to detail and white-glove service.
It’s a good bet that large brewing companies such as AB InBev, MillerCoors, and Heineken are all looking at ways to get their beers from their increasingly diverse portfolios direct to consumers, another vein to tap in the sales struggle against craft beer. All craft brewers, even the smallest of breweries in the country, should be aware of this trend and think about it for future sales strategies.
“The biggest pitfalls right now have been finding brewery partners who have a disruptive mindset,” says TapRm’s Sherman. “So many breweries are used to only having their customers in the taproom or to the traditional distribution model. As the world changes and more beer buying happens online, I hope brewers have the mindset to expand in different ways.”