Like donning a football scarf or band t-shirt, choosing to wear a brewery or bar's beanie or hoodie is an easy way of giving people an insight to your personality and passions. Whether it was picked up from your local boozer as a way of supporting them through lockdown or on a tour of the States, that branded shirt or hat is making a statement.
“Nothing screams five-star review without having to say a word like wearing someone’s beer brand,” is how Beer Fans founder Joe Cook puts it.
“Merch is designed to complement selling beer but, as a brewery, you can connect with your consumer the first thing in the morning when they’re choosing what to wear.”
The power of merch and a love for the drinks industry led Joe to launch Beer Fans a couple of years ago. It was the latest move in a career in the world of booze and startups that started when Joe became Kegstar’s first employee. Since then, he's co-founded Riot Wine Co in 2016, which focused on selling wine in cans and kegs, and was later sold to CUB.
“Starting things is my favourite hobby,” Joe says. “As soon as it gets easy, I tend to get fidgety and start thinking about what other problems I might be able to solve.”
This eagerness to identify issues then come up with fixes saw him approach breweries on a fact-finding mission.
“I interviewed breweries and asked where some pain points were and started scratching the surface around merch,” he says.
“Everyone found it as a big hassle; the pricing was inconsistent, there are so many suppliers out there, you always want new merch yesterday, the cost of goods is really challenging, and so is inventory management.”
Ultimately, Beer Fans was his solution: the core of the business is an online marketplace that stocks more than a thousand unique items of beer merch from around 100 beer businesses in one place. Joe says it's the first of its kind in Australia – a means of putting a brewery's gear in front of eager eyeballs in much the same way a fridge full of different beers might lead someone to grab something they love as well as something they've never tried before.
Joe sees Beer Fans' mission as helping breweries grow. For small businesses in the craft beer world, in particular, they often have great stories to tell but the need to focus on brewing, selling and marketing beer can leave little time for anything else.
“I think the brands that these breweries are creating are powerful and so strong and there's so much opportunity,” Joe says. “Everyone's wearing a lot of hats and merch is generally someone’s seventh priority.
“But I think ten percent more effort in this space will result in a significant improvement. Whether that’s customer experience at the bar, online, or even just in design."
As for beer drinkers' eagerness to wear what they drink on their sleeves, he believes it speaks in part to the way beer lovers naturally align themselves with their beer of choice. It’s not unique to craft beer either, with VB drinkers as connected to green stubbies as they are sports teams.
“People care about what they're spending money on, what they're putting in their body, what the brands are supporting do with their cash,” he says.
While he has published a set of rules on how to sell more merch, Joes says craft brewers need to consider where they fit in the market.
“It makes no sense to be selling really premium beer and have a t-shirt that loses its size, shape or print the first time you wash it,” he says.
Beyond selling merch, Beer Fans is also working as a group buyer to help the beer industry leverage economies of scale when buying merch and apparel; they’re also distributing to the Endeavour Group’s BWS and Dan Murphy’s stores. This move into bricks and mortar – initially into between 20 and 30 stores – follows Beer Fans running the merch stands at festivals including GABS, Adelaide Beer & BBQ and Froth Town.
Joe says Endeavour Group had been eager to include brewery merch in their stores but the size of the business made dealing with a lot of breweries – not to mention shirts in different sizes and styles – a challenge.
“They were very excited that there was someone that could aggregate this for them and it’s something they've looked at for a long time.”
Whether it's through the Beer Fans website, at a beer festival or in one of the country's biggest booze retailer's stores, Joe hopes his latest business helps people discover new breweries and, in due course, try their beer too.
"Beer Fans wins you a new customer that didn't know your brand," he says. "Because if they did, they'd go straight to your taproom or your website.”
View other articles in The Collaborators series here.