[Above: John LaPolla (third from the right) and shop patrons in front of Bitter & Esters in Brooklyn, New York.]
By John LaPolla, co-owner of Bitter & Esters (Brooklyn, NY)
I raise a pint to everyone in the homebrew industry. If you are in business, then you are doing something right! It can be a struggle, but I believe that what we do is of great value for all homebrewers. Every shop is different and what may work for one may not work for another. I’d like to share with you some of the things we do to foster community at Bitter & Esters.
Building a Community
Our job in the homebrew shop is to get people to start brewing beer, keep them brewing and accommodate their needs as homebrewers. Besides being a well-stocked shop, building a strong community is key.
Humans are naturally communal. Pubs and bars have been meeting places for as long as we’ve been around. It makes sense that clubs and groups would form out of homebrewing.
By owning a brick and mortar shop you already have a competitive advantage. Your store can build and cultivate community to differentiate you from other retailers, especially online retailers. Immediate information, immediate sales, a place to feel comfortable. All of this creates brand loyalty and a sense of community.
Create a Welcoming & Educational Environment
It’s very important to have a knowledgeable friendly staff that can answer questions and give advice. Make sure they introduce themselves and ask customers names. It’s amazing how much this matters. We’ve been told on many occasions that this one thing has kept people coming back. Make your store interesting and inviting. Have store copies of homebrew books, American Homebrewers Asocciation (AHA) handouts, posters with hop and yeast varieties, etc. We have three loose-leaf binders of our own step-by-step recipe sheets that the customer can take. Your store should be a vital source of information.
[GET LISTED in Zymurgy magazine and on HomebrewersAssociation.org as an AHA Member Shop.]
Offer Beginner/Intro Classes
But how can we get people to start brewing beer? A great way is to offer beginning homebrew classes. A class can help the new brewer to overcome the intimidation they may feel and is a great opportunity to create new customers. So many people tell me they go to YouTube for instruction, but find that the hands on class experience is what gets them started. There is no substitute for human interaction. The class doesn’t have to be expensive, but it shouldn’t be free. We offer a discount coupon at the end of the class for one of our beginner kits.
Host Homebrew Events
One of the things we do to keep brewers coming back is host a monthly homebrew share. Depending on local laws, you may not be able to host something like this in your store, but try to find a place (a brewery, a bar, etc.) that may let you host one. This monthly event allows beginners and advanced brewers a chance to meet and share what they have worked so hard on and it gives us a chance to hang out and get to know our most loyal customers. This monthly beer swap has been so successful in creating a community, a homebrew club started out of it and a couple met and got engaged at one! Plus sales on that first Wednesday are always great.
There are other events you can hold at your store as well. Kegging demos, brew in a bag demo, cider making, mead making, Big Brew day, Homebrew day, local authors that sort of thing. You can tie them in with discounts or promotions. We usually do these events for free, it’s a great way to get people into the store.
Get to Know Your Local Pro Brewers
Forge relationships with your local craft breweries. Most local breweries have been started by homebrewers and will be happy to work with you. Homebrewers are craft beer drinkers. If your business is represented at an event at a brewery, you have a chance to expose the hobby to interested people.
We do seasonal collaborations with breweries that we then turn into a brewery bike ride on the beer’s release date. We also get local breweries to contribute recipes for our recipe book, the customers love this because they can have insight into their favorite brewery and try to replicate them.
Support Local Homebrew Clubs
Always support your local homebrew clubs. If there aren’t any nearby, encourage the local homebrewers to start one and give a discount to dues paying members. It doesn’t have to be a lot, 5% off ingredients is fine. Club members can be your best customers and this incentive will help keep them loyal to your store. Participate in their events, help market them through social media, donate prizes etc. A great raffle prize is two seats to your beginning class. Many of my customers have started brewing by winning that prize.
Be Visible Online
Make sure you have an online presence. Both an online store and social media. There is no escaping this. People shop and communicate online more now than ever before. A good portion of our customers buy from us online out of convenience, but they also use the online store to see what we carry and have in stock so they are prepared when they come in.
Keeping a strong social media presence keeps your name in front of your customers and makes them feel part of something bigger. Repost events, both homebrewers and breweries. Post pictures of your customers and their beers (with their permission of course). Post interesting homebrew tips and facts, repost articles from the AHA, anything that you think your customers will be interested in as long as it pertains to beer or homebrewing, but keep posting. We mainly use Instagram and Facebook, they have both worked well for getting the word out.
Get people to sign your mailing list. We send a weekly email newsletter with events, specials, new items. On top of all that, we just started a bi weekly podcast called “See What You Can Brew” that features interviews with local homebrewers and breweries. If this all sounds like a lot, it is, but it’s been worth it.
Be available to answer questions at all times. People message us through Facebook but I also give out my business card with my email and personal cell number on it. I know this sounds crazy, but people are respectful and aren’t constantly contacting me.It gives the customer a sense of comfort that we are always here to help.
[MAKE MONEY selling AHA Memberships in your shop.]
Support the American Homebrewers Association
Encourage your customers to join the American Homebrewers Association. It brings them into the national homebrew community and gives them Zymurgy magazine, Homebrew Con, presale Great American Beer Festival tickets, and a ton of great information. It’s a great value for the customer and you can sell the memberships at your store. Offer an AHA Member Deal discount to members, this will get you on the Brew Guru app! Remind brewers to enter their beers into BJCP-sanctioned competitions and even become certified judges.
The AHA is a great resource for homebrew shops. We have worked closely with them for the past eight years, and in 2019 were voted AHA Homebrew Shop of the Year by AHA members.
Network with Fellow Shop Owners
One last thing, homebrewshop owners have their own community on Facebook called Homebrew shop owners connection. It was created for the Homebrew shop owners to communicate with each other on all topics relating to owning a homebrew shop. It’s a great source of information and camaraderie. You have to be invited to join but if you’re interested send me an email and I’ll gladly invite you.
Cheers to you homebrew shop owner. We are all in this together. Hopefully you can gleen some info from this and help build and strengthen your community. If you have any questions feel free to email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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About Bitter & Esters
John LaPolla and Douglas Amport, motivated by their knowledge and passion for brewing, founded Bitter & Esters in July of 2011. Fueled by their desire to inspire, educate and nurture the growing homebrew community in a friendly space, they conceived of Bitter & Esters as a brew on premises location, homebrew supply shop, and classroom space. With access to resources, supplies and expertise, it is a creative hub for sharing brew tips and techniques. It was with great pride that Bitter & Esters received the 2019 Homebrew Shop of the Year award from the American Homebrewers Association at Homebrewcon, Rhode Island.