We live in magical times. Not only is the United States, once known in beer circles for little beyond watery adjunct lager, now leading the international craft movement, it is also the birthplace of a wide range of pioneering services that will satisfy a thirsty beer drinker's wildest dreams with just a few clicks. More and more mail order beer websites (and the rare, delicious goods they peddle) are making their way into our homes each year — and the revolution has only just begun.
Founded in 1994, The Microbrewed Beer of the Month Club is one of the two oldest mail order beer companies around, and currently the largest. While the industry has evolved tremendously over the past 20 years, the company's goal has remained the same: to introduce curious craft-beer lovers to unknown delights. But with more breweries than ever before, a consumer can now walk into any local bodega, supermarket, or liquor store and find a half-dozen IPAs of which he or she has never heard. With self-guided experimentation on the rise, it's no wonder that Beer of the Month Club's (BOTMC) membership has flipped from 80 percent personal subscriptions / 20 percent gifts to just the opposite in the last 15 years.
Still, as beer selection broadens — as does communication between beer geeks — many craft beer fans are unable to get their hands on many of the cool, limited-distribution brews they read about online. And thus, a new wave of mail order beer retail sites is bucking the "monthly club" model to more directly offer hard-to-find beers. "We love to say that we're not a beer-of-the-month club, because there is no commitment when you sign up," says Megan Birch, Community Manager of the most well known of the bunch, Seattle's Tavour. Tavour sends members two emails each day about one or two new arrivals, and there's no minimum or maximum for purchasing — consumers pay a flat shipping fee of $14 (especially low when buying in bulk).
Like BOTMC, Tavour focuses only on independent breweries, offering added distribution for those that might not otherwise be able to reach certain consumers. And like the founders of BOTMC, Tavour's staff builds relationships with these breweries in person. "We travel all over [the country] to find new beer, and really listen to our customers," Birch explains. "When they have suggestions for us… we get them that beer that they're looking for."
BOTMC has similarly found a way to cater to a growing number of beer geeks with the funky, sour, and barrel-aged beers in its Rare Beer Club, which offers exclusive or limited edition products from breweries such as Jolly Pumpkin, The Bruery, Cigar City, and Upright Brewing. But so many consumers are demanding customized packages that BOTMC now also offers a Design Your Own Club Program. Customers can skip shipments, double down, or even mix and match.
Of course, all of this customization adds an incredible amount of extra work for a brand built for uniform monthly shipments. "That was definitely one of the factoring points of launching a club that would supersede that with what [customers] want in the end anyway," explains Kris Calef, BOTMC founder. What many customers want, Calef says, are IPAs, resulting in the introduction of The Hop-heads Club just under two months ago. In that short amount of time, the club already makes up about 20 percent of the brand's new business.
What both Tavour and BOTMC ultimately offer is a form of curation: by hand-selecting beers, the companies make it easier for buyers to make decisions. More-informed beer fans are excited by the selections, and novices can trust that their money will be well spent. "We really do take the product selection piece of this business pretty seriously," Calef says. "We sit down every couple of weeks [with] three or four different beer judges and local brewers in the area, and we do a blind tasting to rate the beers…. That's a big part of what we do."
Whereas in a brick-and-mortar store consumers can grab the attention of someone on the floor, online retailers must pay special attention to customer service. "At the end of the day, we bend over backwards to make it a good experience for our customers," Calef assures. But the greatest benefit to online mail order beer is the sheer convenience. Consumers don't need to leave their homes to enjoy fresh beer — and each package's arrival is something special. "You kind of forget about it, and all of a sudden, a box of beer shows up. It's kind of like Christmas every month," Calef says.
But no matter the business model, all mail order beer websites face shipping challenges that cause headaches for retailers and consumers alike. Many sites only ship to their own states, and even the most successful ones have a limited reach. Tavour, for example, is currently only in 13 states, and waiting for others to pass laws that would permit the importation of beer. Such businesses require a number of logistics partners across multiple states, and carriers like UPS and FedEx tend to raise their prices habitually — the cost of which is all passed on to consumers.
Further complicating shipping is the fact that consumers must sign for alcohol deliveries, posing a problem for those who can't stay home all day. "We definitely encourage you to ship to your work," Birch says. "Our boxes don't say 'beer' on them, and there's always someone at reception who can grab them." Though she also admits that some employees (such as those at schools, for example) might still be hesitant to do so.
As the online landscape continues to evolve, BOTMC has had to keep up with shifting standards for e-commerce (thanks to the consumer experience Amazon has now standardized), and the increase of mobile sales means that 40 percent of its website traffic now comes from phones and tablets. Google's SEO algorithms are also constantly in flux, making it difficult for the brand to maintain its top position for specific keywords. "At the end of the day, you have to have a website that people are interested in, and will stick around [for] a bit," Calef concludes.
Below are a few other such "sticky" sites that offer different types of experiences: something for everyone in the mail order beer world.
Craft Beer Kings
If you can't browse through the aisles of Plaza Market, the highly renowned bottle shop in El Monte, California, their website, CraftBeerKings.com is the next best thing. Consumers outside of California pay no sales tax, and everyone enjoys free shipping for cases of 24 bottles or 12 bombers priced over $225. Because of this structure, the site is ideal for those open to making bulk purchases of harder-to-find beers — and it has one of the best shipping programs of any, excluding only about a half a dozen states (more specifically: Texas, New Hampshire, South Dakota, Pennsylvania, Utah, and Massachusetts).
With over 1,800 beers to choose from, Craft Shack has the widest selection of beers available to the greatest number of states, making it ideal for nabbing mainstream staples that might not happen to distribute in a specific area. For example, it's perfect for a west-coaster who's never been able to try Allagash White, or an east-coaster who has never tasted Deschutes Black Butte Porter. There is, indeed, a minimum for shipping, though, and quite a few states aren't covered. But the single greatest feature of this site is its "GABF Winners" section, featuring award-winning selections from this year's Great American Beer Fest.
The Beer Connect
The Beer Connect bases its business model on direct shipments from breweries, which lowers cost and promotes freshness. (So long, stale beer sitting in a warehouse for months on end!) The only problem with choosing from more than 1,900 beers from multiple breweries, of course, is that products will come in multiple shipments. And the site can be painfully slow. Flat shipping appears to be available for orders greater than six bottles, but shipping policies vary by location (and some states, like Pennsylvania, for example, have an incredibly limited selection).
Of all the services, Noble Brewer is undoubtedly the most original: Award-winning homebrewers apply with recipes, and if selected, partner with a brewery to commercially reproduce their creations. Subscribers get to try the four best new beers every quarter, with the option to reorder individual winners until the products have sold out. It's a bit more of a crapshoot than other sites, but the mystery and surprise is half the fun. Interestingly, the site has recently also begun offering commercial samplers that include beers from around the world, including Mikkeller (Denmark), Hanssens (Belgium), or Panil (Italy) — but hey, we're not complaining!
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