Take a look at the photo above. The crowd of assembled, bearded brewers (and a few ladies) belongs to Atlanta-area brewers Scofflaw Brewing Co. You may have noticed that they all have their middle fingers raised in salute—I assure you that this will become relevant soon enough. But first, a little bit of background.
Scofflaw is one of the young stars of Atlanta’s beer scene, having gathered a huge amount of hype for a company that hasn’t yet celebrated its one-year anniversary. Given that Paste is based in Atlanta, we’ve been able to watch their rise first-hand, and I’ve visited the brewery on multiple occasions, despite it being a fairly long hike from my home east of the city. In short, Scofflaw’s beer has justified the trips—their hype is genuine, and well earned. Along with Athens’ Creature Comforts, Scofflaw is responsible for bringing a new wave of IPA enthusiasm to Atlanta, producing the kind of intensely juicy and tropical modern IPAs that have come into the vogue everywhere else in recent years. On some level, they took advantage of ATL being behind the curve in terms of adoption on these juicy (and often hazy, NE-IPA) beers to immediately make a big splash when they opened. In only a few months, they gained the kind of name recognition in the ATL marketplace that often takes other breweries years to achieve.
But there’s always a flip side to such stories, and according to many Scofflaw drinkers, the pressing issue is consistency and replicability of the company’s flagship beers such as Basement IPA. This is nothing surprising for a young brewery to deal with, as it’s almost to be expected that there will be growing pains and difficulty putting out consistent product in a young operation, especially when demand is high. Craft beer geeks know this, and by and large accept it as one of the non-ideal realities of this field we’ve chosen to obsess over. But still, it’s not uncommon for fans of a brewery to offer a little constructive criticism, and perhaps voice a hope for greater consistency, or share an unsatisfactory experience.
What is uncommon is a brewery reacting to those types of concerns with combative words and upturned middle fingers. That’s what Scofflaw did via Facebook yesterday, firing off a post that has lit up the Atlanta craft beer scene and ignited debate on both sides. It reads, in full:
This is a small batch brewery. The amount of time a beer spends in a tank, sometimes due to limited human resources, variances in ingredients, and other shit like this affects the beer. We do not have hops contracts this year. We are small so we get the shittiest pick of hops. Grain does not all come from the same field. We tinker with all inputs to work to improve the beer. This is part of what makes small batch brewing and craft brewing what it is. I know there are a lot of experts out there, so to you, if you want to get schooled on this, drop by and speak to Travis or one of our other biologist. On the other hand, if you want more consistency, you can find plenty brands that never try to improve. Brands that have the money and access to gigantic tanks that they can blend into to make more consistent beer. We will gladly give you some recommendations.
BTW, other craft breweries have these issues. Exploding cans, srm/color variances, haze variances…give them a break. Don’t think this is professional, well that’s good cause I am not a professional, I am a fucking scofflaw. #webrewbeerforgeorgia
Immediately, local beer geeks began posting in the comments section, with some of them praising Scofflaw’s iconoclastic attitude and others criticizing what appears to be some thin skin from brewery owners who are angry at the idea of drinkers wanting some degree of consistency in the product. As the comments from both sides built up into a mini-firestorm, and drinkers took to posting Scofflaw memes and photos of the inconsistencies in beer appearance from can to can, the Scofflaw ownership waded back into the fray to repeatedly bandy words and criticism with the customers. Things got a little, shall we say, chippy.
It was an unusual thing to see, as a craft beer fan myself, and it got me to thinking about the role of social media in brewery PR. For many young breweries, a Twitter or Facebook account has become far more important (and more effective) a tool than a traditional website, when it comes to educating and connecting with new customers. A website (and for the love of god, please update your website’s beer list regularly) is still a necessity for breweries, but it’s increasingly common for high-volume, hyped young breweries to eschew the task of updating an HTML website on a regular basis and instead focus entirely on social media when it comes to announcements about their day-to-day operations. Just look at practically any brewery doing hyped can releases, such as Trillium or Tree House—their primary tool for telling consumers what is available and what is sold out is now Twitter.
In doing so, these breweries are engaging with their audience in ways that are more direct and immediate. No one is proofreading many of these tweets or Facebook posts, as the basic grammatical errors would often imply. They’re coming from brands that in many cases don’t have “social media people” or even PR professionals focused on making sure all announcements come off as “professional,” or at least courteous and well-considered. In cases such as Scofflaw’s statement, it’s easy to see when ownership is simply “shooting from the hip,” as it were. And that can be problematic, at least for some of the customer base. Just look at an interaction like this one:
The customer here begins his post by acknowledging the points that Scofflaw made in its original post, recognizing that when you’re working with what the brewery colorfully called “the shittiest pick of hops,” things may at times go awry. But he then asks the brewery to stand behind those beers, if individual cans within a six pack are wildly different from one another—something that multiple Scofflaw customers cite as happening to them within the same post. The brewery’s response is curt and dismissive: “Buy something else.” They might as well be saying “If you’re not going to compliment us, then we don’t want to hear anything you have to say.” It seems entirely too touchy coming from a business rather than a personal user’s account, and many of the commenters on Facebook (and on reddit, where another thread bubbled about the post) agreed. After all, Scofflaw’s initial post specifically acknowledges their own difficulties in consistency. So why are they angry when a customer cites the problem they just acknowledged exists? Is this what invariably happens when demand is high enough that selling out of everything you produce does not constitute a challenge? At that point, is it easier to just dismiss a customer with “don’t buy our beer” and accept their reply of “Got it, will do” with a smile on your face, knowing that a different customer will queue up and take their place?
The thing is, the majority of commenters asking for consistency in the brewery’s products aren’t trying to be offensive or bait a negative reaction. These aren’t trolls; they’re just drinkers who are hoping to get the correct beer that they paid for. To quote one reddit comment from the thread linked above:
Yeeeeah that’s a bad look. No one is trying to tear down Scofflaw by bringing up these issues. If anything the local beer community has been a little too willing to overlook the issues they’ve had. Inconsistency due to hop/grain variations is one thing, but basically canning two different beers from batch to batch and even within the same batch is inexcusable. I get the feeling from their defensiveness they know they have real issues outside of expected batch variation but can’t figure out how to fix it. Posts like that are only alienating the people who know better, and who have been some of their biggest supporters.
That’s what it boils down to—the people posting on the brewery’s Facebook, or following the reaction on reddit, constitute the company’s most ardent supporters, and this is true of just about any brewery. The “average drinkers” are simply those people who may see the beer in a grocery store and pick it up now and then—they’ll never be aware (or care) about snippy online conversation. It’s the die-hards who are participating in online beer discussion in multiple venues, and it’s those people who are looking at a sea of middle fingers from what most people would acknowledge is one of the best young breweries in the area. Those customers are coming to realize that their favorite local brewery just might have a rather massive chip on its shoulder, which leads to interactions like the one below:
What could the initial commenter possibly have done to be any more blandly inoffensive? They preface it with “I love your beer.” They make an appeal to rationality. And it doesn’t work. I can’t claim to really understand the Scofflaw response; who the “big guys” they’re talking about are, but it’s clear that the writer feels persecuted. “We aren’t going to be bullied,” it proclaims in conclusion. You would think that they were facing down a sea of people telling them their beer was terrible, but instead it’s a small contingent telling them what they already know: Their beer is often excellent, but it’s not always as good as the brand’s customers know it can be. Is that “bullying” to point out? Or is it the kind of feedback and information that most breweries’ Quality Control personnel would welcome?
I don’t own a brewery, so it’s not like I can pretend to answer those questions from personal experience. But as someone who lives on social media both on and off the clock, I can say with little doubt that this isn’t the kind of thing you want your customers posting on your Facebook wall—particularly when the content of said meme is your own words.
“Not a good look” indeed.
I’m sure that in the end, the Scofflaw crew will work things out and continue to go on making beer that justifies the still-growing hype around Atlanta’s hottest IPA makers. But that will likely be as a result of the beer quality, rather than an innate skill in online tactfulness and dealing with the customer base. Other craft breweries, especially ones without a groundswell of hype to replace any lost customers, would do well to look upon such cases as Exhibit A in how social media interaction has become massively influential to how a brewery is perceived in its community.
Tread professionally, or tread lightly, when it comes to Facebook and Twitter. Most breweries won’t be able to afford taking the “frankly, it’s a market we can do without” approach.