Beer Subscription Clubs Are Keeping Craft Breweries Afloat
They also happen to make excellent holiday gifts.
While it might appear to be the dream job, launching your own craft brewery has never been an easy—or cheap—endeavor. And with 2020 throwing a Godzilla-sized wrench into small business plans, even established breweries are having a hard time staying afloat with traditional money-making means. That’s why a growing number of craft producers are proudly flipping the script by becoming community-supported breweries, or CSBs.
An innovative take on the standard business model, CSBs are hyper-local by nature. They work essentially like a CSA, or community-supported agriculture, a set-up that allows small farms to sell produce directly to consumers through membership shares. Exact structures vary, but the basic concept starts with folks buying into the CSB for a flat fee in exchange for a certain amount of freshly brewed beer per week, month, or quarter—either picked up at the taproom or delivered to their homes. (Think a wine club but with a more personal, participatory approach.) And, if properly implemented, a CSB can serve as a lifeline for fledgling craft brewers.
“It’s been our rock,” says Sketchbook Brewing co-founder Alice George. Inspired by Chicago-based CSB pioneer Begyle Brewing, the six-year-old Evanstan, Illinois outfit chose to integrate its own membership program straight out the gate. “I’ve run the numbers several times over the years and the CSB program brings in at least a third of our retail business. We’re about 550 members right now and, since the beginning, we’ve had 1,800 people come through.”
Sketchbook devotees can sign up for memberships four times a year, giving them access to one or two prepaid growler fills each month for a discounted rate. Of course, it’s not just the beer that keeps them coming back. It turns out that the community aspect is just as, if not more, compelling, especially this year.
“It really does create a sense of ownership and investment that’s different,” George says, noting that the company hasn’t had to lay a single worker off since the COVID-19 shutdown. “All through the pandemic, people keep choosing to order and pick up their beer from us rather than going somewhere else, and that’s really something. COVID’s been such a test of brand loyalty and it’s so gratifying to see how the CSB has really fed that and kept us going.”
George’s point is a crucial one. While the CSB concept has been around for nearly a decade, it’s recently re-emerged as the perfect answer to an unprecedentedly tumultuous year for the service industry—even for folks just now stepping into the ring.
Opening a new brewery in the middle of a global pandemic might not sound like the smartest move, but Elsewhere Brewing’s Sam and Sara Kazmer didn’t have much of a choice. Having gotten keys to their Grant Park, Atlanta space back in May 2019, the first time brewery owners’ buildout was in full swing by the time COVID-19 tore through the country. Instead of hanging up their mash paddles, the Kazmers decided to double down on their bubbly dream by inviting local beer-lovers to quite literally invest in their company’s future.
“We were, like many other places, struggling,” Sara recalls. “We were trying to figure out additional ways to raise money without just asking people for it. So we announced this Community Supported Brewing program, which I’ve only seen in Chicago and maybe Seattle. It was totally new to Georgia.” Before they even poured their first pint, the pair actively promoted the CSB on their popular social media channels and, in just a few weeks, they sold all 100 memberships.
Elsewhere officially launched on October 23 to rave reviews and a built-in fan base courtesy of its thriving CSB. It helped that the area is known for being, as Kazmer puts it, “pretty crunchy.” Already familiar with farmer’s market-style CSAs, Grant Park residents jumped at the chance to extend a similar level of faith in their new neighbor in exchange for a tasty product. “People were committing to $300 worth of beer for the next year without knowing if our beer was any good,” Kazmer marvels. “We were blown away with the reception—everyone ran to our aid without even knowing us, just really rolled the dice.”
“People were committing to $300 worth of beer for the next year without knowing if our beer was any good.”
Like Sketchbook, beer is not the club’s be-all-end-all. The Kazmers hope to play up the community aspect of the program by hosting member-only events and other activities as soon as it’s safe to gather. “Times like this, it’s really hard to socialize and even just being an adult, it’s harder to make friends,” Sara says. “So in addition to beer and discounts, we’re going to offer dinners and beer-related excursions like hiking trips and mushroom foraging.”
Similarly, a beloved Chicago brewpub has begun putting its own spin on the CSB concept by throwing loaves of house-baked bread into the mix. Middle Brow Beer co-owner Pete Ternes always aspired to work a CSB into his brewery’s game plan but between starting out as a nomadic brewer on borrowed equipment and later graduating to a perpetually slammed brick-and-mortar bakery and pizza joint, it never seemed feasible. Then came the pandemic, and Ternes saw a chance to pivot.
“When I started hearing about COVID, I thought, ‘This thing is going to be trouble,’” he says. “So I started writing these contingency plans. One of them was truly apocalyptic, some were way less apocalyptic, and we landed somewhere in the middle with a subscription model.”
Dubbed community-supported fermentation, the group’s perks include award-winning four packs alongside original pizzas and fresh bread. “We launched it about a week before everything shut down with one beer, one loaf, and one subscriber-only pizza a week,” he explains. The idea was a smash hit, accruing upwards of 400 members the week it was announced. (The pizzas have since been nixed due to staffing demands.)
And in true CSB style, Middle Brow added yet another layer of goodness to the mix months later by instituting its “community loaf” program. “Five bucks of every subscription goes to help us pay for bread donations we make around the city,” notes Ternes. “We started the subscriptions back up about a month after the murder of George Floyd and we immediately wanted to help, that’s always been our M.O. It just all came together at the right time and very quickly we started donating 300, 400 loaves a week to various food pantries and other groups doing food distribution and anti-racist work.”
So, put your money where your mouth is this month and sign yourself or a lucky loved one up for a CSB program in your area. Check out the list below to get started. In the wise words of Sketchbook’s Alice George, “It’s the gift that keeps on giving.”
A CSB share at this ATL newcomer gets you either six or 12 months of fresh, boozy goodness with upfront pricing ranging from $72-250. Pick between one or two growlers or can packs each month and ride out the year with additional discounts, quarterly tastings and other fun gatherings, early access to new releases, and other perks.
Part neighborhood coffee shop, part ambitious young brewery, this friendly New England outpost sells local six- to 12-month memberships for weekly sippers starting at $250, as well as a limited number of Founders Community memberships guaranteeing lifetime discounts for the beer faithful. Pricing and conditions vary, so email firstname.lastname@example.org for more info.
This OG CSB operation rolls out the red carpet for new members four times each year, offering area supporters a choice between one or two monthly growler fills for six or 12 months. Prepaid costs run $75-270, which represents a hefty discount considering normal growlers start at $13 a pop, and folks can get their fill at either the Skokie or Evanston taprooms.
Expertly crafted four-packs from this DC brewhouse come in three different classifications—Hop Forward, Fruit Forward, or Brewer Select—and run subscribers just $36 for two and $54 for three each month. The brewery will even ship it to you via UPS if you can’t make it down to the taproom. Now that’s service.
Four different membership levels set the terms at this midwestern upstart’s CSB, with yearly costs ranging from just $35 for 365 days worth of swag discounts and pre-release access all the way up to $550 for weekly growler fills and so much more. Everybody also gets a t-shirt, so that’s fun.
Brooklyn, New York
These uber-creative mad beer scientists were among New York’s first CSB ambassadors when they opened back in 2014 and the urban farmhouse’s killer program is still going strong. Memberships come in six month allocations, run $185 each, and provide thirsty supporters with a variety of monthly bottles or cans plus glasses, a t-shirt, a ball cap, and 13% off everything else whenever you want.
Community Supported Fermentation comes in several different, ultra-flexible forms at this Logan Square charmer. Sign up for weekly $23 bounties of beer and sourdough bread chosen by the experts behind the scenes or keep it simple with beer-only ($16/week) or bread-only ($12/week) options. You tell them when you want to swing by and grab it, they'll do the rest. And no matter your style, $5 goes directly toward feeding the community.
$180 hard earned bucks translates into monthly drops of three six packs and six large-format bottles over half the year at this Bellingham original. Tasting notes, surprise merch, and beer garden discounts act as a bonus, and the guys will even deliver your box to your doorstep if you live within 45 miles.
True to its roots, this farm-centric brewery operates a plentiful CSB out of a pastoral taproom and production facility. For $120 per quarter, members get tons of discounts on beer and food as well as wine and cider, two crowlers or one four-pack each month, free in-person tasters of new beers, a spot in the CSB-only line on busy days, coupon codes for friends, and more.
Dubbed the Hermit Club, this New England crowd-pleaser’s subscription service brings a full case (that’s 24 tall boys, y’all) of delicious wild ales right to your door starting at $99 a month. The kicker is that you have to live in Vermont to join, but the deal is probably worth the move.
Greenville, South Carolina
More of a fan club than a traditional CSB, membership in this lauded Greenville establishment’s Saison Club grants farmhouse devotees a year of benefits like early access to exclusive releases, extensive discounts, and other rewards like free birthday draft pours, weekly meet-ups with fellow “Funk Ambassadors,” and, most importantly, a extra special bottle or can pack each month for a one-time payment of $175.
A trailblazer in all things CSB, this Malt Row bad boy is still at it with six and 12 month membership deals spanning one or two growlers, two or four crowlers, or a sixtel of beer each month (yes, that’s your very own baby keg) for $90 to $360 plus tax. As expected, private events, discounts, and other incentives abound.
PDX’s first Kosher brewery comes correct offering both full and half share memberships over 12 week periods. Take it easy with 12 crowlers for $90 or go in deep with 24 for $180 and soak up other sweet deals like free spent grains for all your at-home baking needs, taproom vouchers, and 10% off kegs, merch, and additional beer.