Sunday, 15 January 2012 18:09

Beer Quest Series: Brewforia

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November 5th 2009 Brewforia Beer Market opened the doors of its first ever brick and mortar temporary location.  Brewforia.com had been live since December 2008. Seeing a massive groundswell of support from the community, they opened Brewforia Beer Market's first permanent location on May 5th 2010.

Rick Boyd’s goal is to expand brewforia.com to become the single biggest online retailer of specialty and craft beer in the world. Not a meager goal, but given the amount of success Brewforia has seen in a relatively short period of time, I predict the holy grail of craft beer store aspirations is not out of his beer drinking hand’s reach.

1. How old is Brewforia? Almost 5 years in planning, just under 2 years in operation.

2. What states do you delivery to? What states do you hope to start delivering to? We currently ship to 32 states but it’s an ever changing lineup with some states dropping out and other becoming available. We hope that every state recognizes the rights of the consumer to buy products that they want and we're willing to go to the Supreme Court to make that happen.

3. What was the moment (or particular style beer) you decided you wanted to do this for a living? Brewforia was born in a moment of frustration. I was the supermarket standing in front of the cooler looking at the same 20 or 30 beers that I always looked at there and just thought "why doesn't someone open a store where I can get what I want". I went home that night with that thought stuck in my head and as I made my way through a six pack of something I wasn't really excited about it came down to me so I spent the next 3 years trying to make it a reality. I guess you could say I was a reluctant but now, 5 years in it was the best decision I've ever made.

4. Where did you go to school, what did you study? I attended Michigan State U and studied Marketing and Communications but the education that has most benefited me has been my time in high school and college working in bars and restaurants. I got to see and understand the distribution system from that perspective as well as see how wholesalers interact with accounts. My learning curve would have been much bigger had I come into this without that experience.

My marketing and sales background came in handy when we were developing our social media presence. Our business has been built almost exclusively on facebook and Twitter and has allowed us to reach out to customers across the country. Without those two tools along with the boards and chatrooms we would have spent a lot more money on marketing than we have and our unique voice would have just been that of another advertiser. Social media has allowed us to have a distinct voice and create a much more personal relationship with our fans and followers. I can't say enough good things about social media so if you're a craft beer start up you definitely should invest the time and thought into having a strong presence online.

5. Where did the name, Brewforia, come from? It was the first name I came up with when I decided to pursue this as a venture. I wanted a name that reflected the feeling I hoped to convey to people when they came through the door. That sense of awe you get when standing before a wall of beer coupled with that warm, inviting feeling that you find at a neighborhood coffee shop. That was what the name Brewforia was meant to convey. I guess the easiest way to describe what Brewforia is like is Starbucks for beer.

6. What are your top 3 favorite beer sites (including blogs, breweries, organizations)? I spend a lot of time on Ratebeer and Beernews.org but beerandwhiskeybros.com is another site that I really enjoy. Because of my dedication to changing the regulatory side of beer I frequent Probrewer and craftbeer.com a lot as well as a lot of newsfeeds. From the very beginning the mission of Brewforia was to make it possible for beer lovers everywhere to get the beer they wanted no matter where they lived. Our online sales and soon our expanding network of brick and mortar stores will go a long way towards making this happen.

7.  What are your favorite beer styles? Living in the Northwest it’s hard not to be a fan of IPA's and I'm as guilty as the next guy. That said I love Saisons and Abbey ales and this time of year who can turn down an Imperial Stout or a barleywine. My conversion beers were Sierra Nevada Pale Ale and Duvel Belgian Golden Ale at a place called The Gingerman in Houston, TX. To this day I can't drink one of those beers without thinking about all the nights I spent throwing darts and drinking great beer there. If you find yourself in Houston I strongly suggest you have a pint at The Gingerman.

8.  How did you come up with the idea of a beer store? What is your background? I never thought I'd end up in retail but the need was just too great and I'm a sucker for a challenge. My background is a little varied. I started out working in restaurants in high school and tended bar all through college but since the late 90's I'd been in sales and marketing. Fortunately for me these all came together when I started Brewforia. My time in restaurants and bars helped me understand the customer service and operations side of what we do and the sales and marketing experience has helped us get our message out.

When I was doing the research for the business plan I visited a lot of beer stores around the country and there were a couple things that I definitely wanted to do differently from most of the stores I visited. The first was the environment of the stores. Most stores I visited felt more like convenience stores. They didn't have a feeling that was inviting but was either sterile or cluttered. We wanted our stores to feel very different and I think we've done a really good job of that. The other thing was customer service. More times than not when visiting a beer store service was either non-existent or was so snobbish that you'd leave with your purchase feeling like some sort of jerk. We have one rule for our employees, be a beer geek but never a beer snob. If someone comes in asking for Bud Light don't look down on them, educate them by offering a sample of something and talking to them about the characteristics of what they're drinking. This approach has won us so many fans I can't even begin to tell you.

9.  What are your guidelines in which beers you carry and why? Really the only beers we don't carry are the mass produced American lagers or beers in green bottles. This is partly due to space constraints and also those beers aren't in much demand from our customers. The beers we do carry, we turnover about every 10 days with few exceptions. Often times something you got when you came in Monday will be replaced by something else the next time you come in a week later because we chose to keep the selection fresh. This is by design since the craft consumer is a fickle creature, always looking for the latest and greatest and if a beer is always on the shelf it doesn't take long before its relegated to the list of beers taken for granted. We think that by rotating what products are on the shelf we can keep the beer geeks eyes fresh.

10. What is the most sought after beer you’ve been asked for? The one thing about craft beer culture is the desire for the beer you can't have. In a large part this was what drove me to create Brewforia in the first place. We're in Boise, ID, the most geographically remote place in the lower 48 so we get a lot of request for beers we don't have access to. What I've discovered is there are distinct experiences that influence what beer a person comes in looking for. For example, if you served time in the military overseas then you are almost always going to be looking for a German beer. We of course get lots of request for Dogfish Head, 3 Floyds, Magic Hat and other hot craft brands but we also get lots of request for beers like Yueingling and beers from Cost Rica and Vietnam. Long story short, its hard to say what the most sought after beer is because our clientele is so much more than the hardcore beer geek. That really was by design because we wanted to create a place that the beer geek could feel at home in while not alienating that person just discovering the thousands of options available to them in the world of beer.

11. What is the one beer you personally were surprised to get your hands on and carry in your store/online (and/or) what are the top beers you want to offer? Tough question. Because of our location every beer we carry requires tremendous effort. Unlike large markets where brewers are chomping at the bit to place their beers, towns like Boise, towns that are smaller and off the beaten path are lucky to get mainstream beers. Because of the beer festival we founded and the strength of our online presence we've been able to attract brewers to our market that otherwise would have gone elsewhere. A good example of this is Odell. They were planning to go to Portland and Seattle but because of our online presence we convinced them that Boise was where they should go first. Heretic is another example of our efforts. When they announced that they were going to start distribution outside the Bay Area we reached out to them to be the first place to carry their beer. After a few months of discussion we got the details worked out and today we're the exclusive place for Heretic beers online.

12. About how big is your inventory online? When we first developed the business plan we thought 1400 square feet was more space than we'd ever need. Reality has turned out to be something entirely different. Our current store is about 2700 square feet and we're busting at the seams. Our current online inventory is around 1200 beers, cider and meads but we're getting ready to launch a program that will turn Brewforia.com into the Amazon.com for beer. We have logistical issues to overcome but we're about 95% there and should have it ready to launch in the first quarter of next year. This program will take our online inventory to more than 4,000 and make us the largest online seller of craft beer in the world.

13. Which countries are represented on Brewforia.com? One of the things that I really like about our website is the ability to browse the inventory by country or state. American craft beer dominates the selection but we also have an extensive selection beers from the UK, Germany, Belgium, Eastern Europe, Russia, Asia and Australia. From time to time we even manage to get our hands on products from Africa and South America. That said, imports are a tiny fraction of our beer sales as American craft beer is such a powerhouse. Personally I'm very happy about this since drinking locally and regionally means drinking fresher. With imports its impossible to know how long that beer has been sitting in a warehouse in New Jersey plus the time it took to get there.

14. How would your regular customer describe Brewforia? As mentioned earlier I wanted Brewforia to be a place that appealed to the beer geeks but did not intimidate the non-beer geeks out there. I think our regular customers in our store would agree that we accomplished this. Our store has a comfortable, casual atmosphere that lets people hang out and enjoy a pint with friends or grab a few bottles or a growler to go. We've worked really hard to develop a interesting food menu that plays well with beer but isn't pub food. This approach has really made us a place that people want to hang out at after work or for the game but at the same time it doesn't feel like a bar.

15. You have another store, where is that and how old is it? We did have another location that we had licensed to one of our first employees because he had wanted a store of his own. I wasn't happy with that location for a number of reasons and the former employee wanted to focus more on food and offer wine which is counter to our model so we parted ways.

16. What are your favorite beers/breweries? This is always a tough question because I am lucky enough to try so many beers from so many brewers. One that really stood out for me last year and that I'm really looking forward to this year is from a tiny little brewer in Northern Washington, Skagit Valley and their Trumpeter Stout. That was one of those beers that completely caught me off guard since it was $5 bomber so I wasn't expecting much. I've since had a couple other beers from like their Gospel IPA which was also fantastic. Last fall I flew back to the East Coast and then drove from Delaware to Minnesota hitting breweries all along the way. Had some great beers on that trip but Michigan was hands down the best part of the trip. That state is one to watch as its craft beer culture is coming on strong and it could start to rival Colorado, Oregon and Washington in a few years.

17. Any plans to keep expanding? Expansion is something that we're working very hard on. We'll be opening more stores here locally in 2012 as well as kicking off our franchise program. Currently we get an average of 6 requests for franchise information a week, so getting that program up and running is pretty important.

One of the other things that's exciting about our growth and opening stores in new markets is we'll be creating a network of stores tying together beers from different regions and making them available at brewforia.com, creating an Amazon.com type site for craft beer. Of course the future of online shipping for beer is very much up in the air so having the financial clout to take on the shippers as well as state laws will be critical to protecting and expanding that segment of the industry. With stores in states and cities across the country we should be in a position to take the fight for the right to ship beer to the powers that be and win.

18. What is your overall impression of the craft beer landscape today and the trends that are emerging and how it will affect the industry? When I look around at the craft beer landscape I see nothing but exciting things in the future. We have new breweries opening in places that have been hostile to alcohol for 100 years, we have brewers doing things with beer that have never been done before and that is changing people’s minds about what beer is. We have chefs like Thomas Keller acknowledging the place of beer on the dinner table so it’s not just thought of as a drink for frat boys and the working man. Seeing the public begin to take beer more serious is fantastic but I fear we do run the risk of going from geek to snob and taking the fun out of it so I'm always cautious of that.

A few trends that I see making a big splash in 2012 are more and more places offering growlers. There's already a chain of C-Stores in NY that's putting in growler stations and Whole Foods has them in many stores now so look for them in a supermarket near you. The success of American craft brewers has influenced brewers across the globe now so I expect to see more American style beers from international brewers and more collaborations with American brewers. An interesting side effect of the sour economy will be a huge surge of nano-breweries opening up as people look to create their own opportunities and turn to something they love, beer is that opportunity. I think we'll see AB-InBev and MillerCoors continue to struggle with their mainline brands while simultaneously trying to bolster their "craft" brands through acquisition and internal development. I expect we'll see import selections really start to dwindle as more and more craft brewers begin packaging and those new brands will take the imports spot on store shelves.

Maybe the biggest thing that I think will impact craft beer in 2012 is prices. In the last three years we've seen prices for special releases go from $7 to $10 a bomber to $15 or $20. I think we're approaching the threshold that the consumer is willing to endure on some of these beers. I can't say I know where that cap is but we haven't if we're going to reach a point where there are $30 bombers out there, beer culture is going to have to change considerably.

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