Sales & Digital: E-Commerce for All

When COVID-19 shuttered taprooms and bars, the cofounders of a Maryland brewery whipped up a direct-to-consumer beer-sales platform, called Biermi, in record time. Then they gave it away for free.

Kate Bernot Aug 26, 2020 - 13 min read

Sales & Digital: E-Commerce for All Primary Image

Maryland recorded its first known case of COVID-19 on March 5. Reading the news reports coming from Europe and Asia, the team at Derwood, Maryland’s True Respite Brewing knew that massive economic disruptions lay ahead. So, the brewery’s cofounders—Bailey and Brendan O’Leary and Brian O’Connor—put their heads together to brainstorm potential solutions. As a brewery that depended on its taproom for half its revenue, True Respite knew it had to find a way to keep those direct-to-consumer sales flowing.

On March 13, the brewery began offering its beers for curbside pickup, repurposing its Square Web store to handle orders. But O’Connor, with a background in software engineering, believed that he could build a better platform that enabled online ordering, created pick sheets, optimized home-delivery routes, automated customer communication, and facilitated online payments. The next day at 9 a.m., he started coding—and he didn’t stop. His wife delivered food to his desk while he sat in front of a screen for 19 straight hours.

By the afternoon of March 16—when Governor Larry Hogan ordered Maryland bars, restaurants, and breweries to close—the platform that O’Connor had been building was live. He named it Biermi.

Soon after, the True Respite team began offering Biermi to other breweries, wineries, and even coffee roasters for free. Biermi is not a retailer or a wholesaler; it’s a platform for businesses to display their products, make sales directly to consumers, and organize fulfillment of those orders. As of early May, Biermi had 117 businesses participating across 30 states and Washington, D.C., generating about $50,000 in daily sales. And it remains free.

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“As we were recognizing the power of Biermi and the problems it could solve, it felt wrong to keep it to ourselves,” says Brendan O’Leary. “It felt like it was our duty to give back to our neighbors in their time of need when we had the means to help.”

Though they believed in the power of the platform, the three cofounders didn’t anticipate the overwhelming response to its launch. When True Respite posted about Biermi in the Craft Beer Professionals group on Facebook, more than 100 breweries emailed the team that very day, asking to create accounts. O’Connor began manually adding breweries’ accounts, but he couldn’t keep up with the demand.

“That’s when we knew that we’d done the right thing and that this would definitely make a difference,” says Brendan O’Leary.

In less than two months, Biermi had processed more than $1.4 million in transactions.

The speed with which the platform went from concept to reality speaks to the bizarre reality of the past few months. Under normal circumstances, O’Connor says a project of this size would have taken a team of two to three people maybe four months to execute. With businesses on the line, though, the goal was just to crank out what he refers to in tech parlance as a “minimum viable product”—the most basic features needed to support the first user on a platform.

“First and foremost was saving businesses and savings jobs,” says Brendan O’Leary.

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Here and there, local and state governments loosened alcohol sales regulations as a response to COVID-19, and that also allowed Biermi’s reach to spread. Maryland began permitting breweries to home deliver on March 19; states across the country did the same in response to on-premise closures. According to estimates from the Brewers Association, on-premise sales account for roughly 40 percent of the national craft-beer market—a huge chunk of revenue that dried up overnight. Quickly, nearly every American brewery realized it needed to at least investigate the process of setting up some kind of online, direct-to-consumer sales.

Options did already exist, but none—not e-commerce systems such as Square or marketplaces such as Drizly or Minibar—function quite like Biermi. Square isn’t designed to sell alcohol, while platforms such as Drizly require breweries to have distribution and sell through existing retailers. Biermi allows a customer to type in an address and see which breweries can sell beer there via takeout or delivery, then order directly from each of those individual breweries through the platform. All of the revenue, tips, and delivery fees go directly to the brewery making the sale, minus a small fee collected by a third-party payment processor.

“It’s like a flea market or a beer festival. Each brewery has their own tent, and the customer can walk from tent to tent,” Brendan O’Leary says. “To our knowledge, there is no other multi-brewery, brewery-direct sales platform.”

As with a flea market, the more vendors there are, the more that customers are drawn to the market. Breweries really aren’t competing with each other on Biermi, its founders say, because each brings in new customers that may then order from other local breweries, too. The ability to get beer in front of new customers matters now more than ever, when drinkers can’t discover new breweries at bars, bottle shops, or events.

“We see people logging on and saying, ‘Hey, I’ve never even heard of this brewery, but I see they deliver to me,’” Bailey O’Leary says.

Steve Capelli, co-owner of Neshaminy Creek Brewing in Croydon, Pennsylvania, says he’s sold more beer through Biermi than he expected—more than 100 cases of The Shape of Hops to Come DIPA alone. Between Biermi and off-premise sales through its distributors, the brewery has even begun to sell out of certain SKUs. An added bonus is the platform’s ease of use for both breweries and consumers. After frustrations with third-party delivery apps and Square, Capelli says he was relieved by how straightforward Biermi’s interface was. His dad, who is not computer savvy, was even able to order beer through it.

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“It’s the easiest app [for breweries] to deal with when it comes to home delivery,” Capelli says. “It maps everything out for you. You can put in starting and finishing addresses and it’ll route your deliveries.”

Even breweries that don’t use Biermi’s delivery capabilities say it makes to-go orders much simpler to track and execute. Katy Pizza, managing partner of Chicago’s ERIS Brewery & Cider House, says she’s added not just house-brewed beer and cider but also home cocktail kits and guest producers’ wines and spirits to their Biermi page.

“Our to-go order spreadsheets were becoming something with so, so many lines to go through. Here, you check a box and don’t have to look at it again,” Pizza says. “It gives you a clear-as-day report of what’s been ordered and what’s been fulfilled.”

Capelli says that Biermi’s Brian O’Connor has also been unusually responsive to his feedback about the platform. O’Connor agrees that he’s eager to hear suggestions for tweaks or upgrades or ways in which the website could function more smoothly. Usually, he tries to update those within a day or two.

Since its launch, Biermi has added several new capabilities, including the option for customers to leave a tip that will go directly to the brewery’s staff. It’s also added a presale function that allows certain beer sales to go live at a set date and time; customers see a countdown clock that opens sales at the designated time.

Most recently, Biermi added a “virtual beer festival” feature. The idea is to help local brewers’ guilds make up some money they’ve missed out on by not being able to host in-person events this spring and summer. A guild can set up the virtual beer festival, and customers can buy “tickets” via Biermi. Those “tickets” are actually Biermi discount codes to order from breweries in that guild’s state or locale. O’Connor calls it a win-win-win. Guilds make money off the tickets, breweries sell beer, and customers get a discount in exchange for their donation to the guild’s “festival.”

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Despite these new features and the time it takes to develop them, Biermi’s team plans to keep the platform free for breweries to use until the economic outlook improves. The largest expense of running the site by far is the fee that Biermi pays to Google for the address search function, which allows customers to search for breweries in their delivery area. Beyond that, the team is giving up time and sleep to keep the site running. They recently identified a sponsor who will help to offset some of the costs associated with the infrastructure, and there’s talk of monetizing the site sometime down the road. That might include taking a small percentage of each transaction or charging for “premium features” such as delivery-route optimization. All of that, though, can wait.

“We want to help people through this pandemic, that’s number one,” Brendan O’Leary says. “The more businesses and jobs we can save, those will be our customers and advocates in the future.”

You Down with DTC?

The COVID-19 pandemic pushed many types of retail online, including beer sales. Here are a few of the leading direct-to-consumer platforms available to breweries.

Beer Drop

This beer subscription service distinguishes itself by allowing customers to specify the flavor profiles that make up their monthly box: all hoppy, for example, or two hoppy beers and three lagers, etc. (Drinkers can also choose “top picks” for a staff-curated box, and higher-tier subscribers can swap out certain beers from their boxes in the preview stage.) The Colorado-based service recently expanded to include out-of-state beers in its selections; participating breweries must be currently distributing in Colorado or be interested in doing so.

Craft Cellr

This online marketplace is designed to help breweries sell limited-release presale beers, bottle-club memberships, and tickets to exclusive events. The brainchild of founders who formerly worked in mobile ticketing technology, Craft Cellr manages the logistics and communications of high-demand releases, society memberships, and proxy pickups for beer sales. It also promotes client breweries to its 3,000 daily app users and via social media, push notifications, and a newsletter.

Taprm

Launched one year ago, this platform is a dual retailer and distributorship in New York state, handling e-commerce both for brands it distributes as well as those it doesn’t. Taprm offers tiered services, from standard e-commerce sales to digital marketing to data sharing to full-service distribution. (The COVID-19 pandemic saw Taprm quadruple its manpower on the e-commerce side.) The company works with breweries of all sizes, selling anywhere from a pallet every two months for small, specialty brands, to moving 40 pallets a week for a hard iced-tea company.

Tavour

This app allows customers to build custom delivery boxes of beer from multiple breweries, or to sign up for a curated subscription service. Currently shipping to 25 states, Tavour works with more than 500 breweries, including Holy Mountain, Jester King, Toppling Goliath, and Side Project. The company buys all the beer—whether 10 cases or 200 cases—from the brewery, then sells it directly to drinkers. Participating breweries must have a ship-to-retailer-license in the state of Washington.

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