Connecting to the Artistan


I love moderating beer discussion groups.  One particularly interesting discussion was with women working in various capacities in craft beer.  This happened back in 2008, when women were more widely finding their stride in the world of craft beer.  Thankfully, this trend has only continued!

We had representatives from trade publications, associations, distributors, brewery marketing and a brewer.  The brewer offered an amazing perspective that helped form my thinking on craft beer marketing strategy.  She observed that, up until a few generations ago, we have lived among artisans.  Most of our ancestors were artisans themselves.

She went on to suggest we’ve lost touch with artisans and their art.  Few things in our lives are hand crafted by anyone anymore.  We don’t know who makes the products we encounter in everyday life.  The result is those chances we do have to touch art, to see it being made, and to connect with the artisan, stand out for us.  And they are precious.  We are connected at a much more personal level when we can experience the art being made and know the artisan.

She concluded that her interest in beer was driven at least in part because beer is an art form that allows for intimate connections between the admirer (the drinker) and both the art itself and artisan.  Beer is art we can touch from artists we can meet.

Long after that session, I couldn’t stop thinking about the brewer’s insights on artisans.  I thought about my grandparents, who lived in the Italian neighborhood in a small upstate New York town built by immigrants during the early 1900’s.  Their home’s frame was constructed by old world carpenters with hand saws, hand drills and hammers.  Skilled plasterers from Italy covered the lathe on walls and ceilings with hand-mixed plaster – no gypsum board and sprayed-on popcorn finish!  They carefully finished each surface with brushes to form subtle, artful swirls and geometric forms.  My grandmother walked to a bakery for bread, a butcher for meat, and a general store for other essentials.  She knew the proprietors by name.  There were no big box stores for food or other essentials.

We used to be directly connected to the artisans that provided us with the goods and services of our daily living. Not so much anymore.  And as a result, there is something visceral missing from our mass-produced, big-box, delivered-in-two-days-from-an-online-vendor life.

It was later on this same project I talked with groups of craft drinkers around a long table in a taproom (a focus group in a bar if you will).  I moderated the discussion while the clients sat quietly in chairs just outside the circle of craft drinkers so they could hear the conversation.  I told the craft drinkers the other people where my friends, and I would introduce them at the end.  And we went on with our discussion, ignoring my clients, drinking a few beers and having fun talking about craft brands.

At the end of the discussion, I began introducing my “friends” to the group:  an area sales manager, a distributor manager, a couple of people from the agency, and the brewery’s marketing manager.  All were received warmly by our guests.  And then I introduced my final “friend” – a brewer.  The table erupted.  The craft drinkers were elated to meet a brewer.  Many professed their admiration, spontaneously peppered the brewer with questions, and otherwise worshiped this young man who was a bit overwhelmed by all the adulation.  We had trouble clearing the room for the next group, and had to ask the brewer to take the discussions to another section of the bar.  He was a rock star!

Connect drinkers to the art, and to the artisan.

It’s no coincidence many of the more successful craft breweries were founded by gregarious brewer/owners who had a knack for connecting with and forming tribes of like-minded drinkers.  Their stories are now legends.  They each worked their unique magic via their unique personas:  the salesman, the mad scientist, the joker, the contrarian, the blue-collar brewer, the hipster, the friendly home brewer gone big time.  While each one was and is still quite unique, the successful personalities have in common their ability to remain true to character and resonate genuine authenticity.  And, they are all artists.

If your brewers are at all comfortable chatting up your beer with strangers, by all means make that a key part of their job.  With tight production schedules and labor costs it may seem like brewers don’t really have time for meeting the public.  But everyone who meets a brewer will be exponentially more likely to connect deeply with your brewery, buy more loyally and recommend you to their friends.  The opportunity cost may seem high, but the payoff is high as well.

It’s tapping into the same excitement we feel when the chef visits our table at a nice restaurant, or when we have a genuine conversation with our coffee barista (not just the perfunctory “grande soy two pump vanilla latte” shouted around the side of a massive espresso machine and repeated by someone with whom we cannot make eye contact).  Note to indie coffee shops:  the dynamic of connection to the artisan applies to you as well!

A word of caution:  if your current brewers are surly or committed introverts who won’t mingle well with the general public, by all means keep them under wraps!  But make hiring a gregarious brewer to fill your next vacant slot a priority.

Short of brewers with personality?  Make home brewing a minimum requirement for those who encounter the public in your tap rooms.  Feature staff-brewed batches your non-brewing staff helps brew.  There is nothing like meeting the person who brewed your beer, or at least brews there.  And for your staff, nothing like serving and talking up a beer you made.

How do we connect with the artisan if the artisan is not available?  Not that hard.  If your patrons can’t meet the artisan, let them peak into the artisan’s workshop.  Most good craft breweries I know already celebrate their brewing space with clear sight lines to brew kettles and fermenters from their tap room.  Show them the copper, stainless steel and wood!  And, by all means, keep the area clean!

Act big behind the curtain, look small on stage.  If you’re a bigger brewer, what you show should be carefully considered as you grow.  You may be proud of your new high-speed bottling line or other production equipment for which you’ve mortgaged your future.  Fine for your ego!  But if you’re looking more and more like a factory, keep the factory behind the curtain.  Show instead the pilot brewery, or the hand-canning station, or other aspects of your operation that suggest you’re still artisans handcrafting beer and not factory automatons.

These principles above for connecting drinkers to brewers in your taproom apply to your general marketing as well.  Print ads, point of sale, banners and especially social media should give the target the sense they are connecting with your art and your artisans on a personal basis.

In social media, especially for bigger brewers, skip the shot of the beer buzzing down the new can line at warp speed.  Instead, celebrate the your beer in a way that suggests the brewer just hand-sealed the bottles or cans personally.  People want to believe in your legend and your magic.  Don’t explain or show away your magic by putting the factory aspects of your brewery on display!  But do put your people front and center.

Whatever your artistic muse, stay true to it.  Find ways to connect your current and potential drinkers to your art, and more deeply, the artisans behind your art.

What are you doing to bring your craft community, your art, and your artisans together?


John Mann (@beermktguy)

John (13)

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