While overall U.S. beer volume sales have been trending slightly downward, the Brewers Association shows that craft brewer sales continue to grow, reaching over 12 percent of the total beer market by volume and 23 percent of total sales in 2017.
A good portion of craft brewery sales come from special releases of limited brews, which each brewery handles differently. Following an announcement or social media push, beer enthusiasts may have to buy tickets in advance or stand in line for hours for a chance to grab a bottle. Sometimes, it’s just first come, first serve.
Unfortunately, these methods can lead to many loyal customers missing out on anticipated bottle releases.
“As a consumer, I was trying to find a way to get exposed to new and exciting beer releases. And if you really want the freshest, unique beers, you’ve got to get them directly from the brewery,” Eric Thelen tells Hypepotamus.
Thelen saw the opportunity for a pre-sale solution when his home state of Georgia passed SB85 in 2017. The bill allows direct-to-consumer sales within the brewery’s taproom, increasing foot traffic and generating more revenue for the brewery.
“The profitability that they make on the beer sold out of the taproom is just astronomically higher than what they would sell in distribution,” says Thelen. “I realized there was an opportunity for us to help craft breweries connect with consumers on a one-to-one basis through technology and help them facilitate that direct consumer transaction.”
Thelen launched direct-to-consumer beer platform CraftCellr in 2018 to provide customers with a reservation and payment option for upcoming special release brews, allowing them to skip the lines and pick up their order when convenient.
The platform uses Stripe’s API to process payments from customers, 80 percent of whom are buying limited-release beers in pre-sales. The brewery partners receive their cut via bank deposit on a daily basis.
Loyal fans of a specific brewery can also set up SMS alerts to get notified of new releases and remember to pre-order. The alerts can also expose users to new breweries in their area.
“Our technology helps breweries create a call-to-action to remind those consumers to purchase it now and pick it up on their time,” Thelen says, explaining that beer releases are often at inconvenient times for a typical 9-to-5er, such as Friday afternoon.
The pre-order feature also helps breweries forecast demand before they go into production.
The startup launched last summer with Atlanta-based Monday Night Brewing as their first customer and has grown to 30 breweries across Alabama, Colorado, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, and Virginia. While their main focus is breweries, they also have a few cideries, bottle shops, and distilleries on the client roster.
CraftCellr generates revenue on a subscription model from their brewery partners, along with a small transaction fee from the user when they purchase through the platform.
Each brewery gets their own customized sub-domain with customizable options, such as only allowing one bottle per person or modifying available pickup times. They can use the URL to drive sales and encourage their fans to subscribe to SMS alerts for new releases.
“We want to accentuate what they’re already doing. For example, when a craft beer enthusiast sees an Instagram story from Creature Comforts, they could swipe up on the link and the customer could purchase right within Instagram. It’s not going to require them to download anything,” Thelen says.
The app also has a general local offers page, where users can see all of the new releases in their area.
The startup has very strict standards around confirming age eligibility: first, there’s an age pop-up that confirms that you’re 21 (similar to most alcohol-focused websites); second, during the payment process, you’re asked to confirm once again that you’re of appropriate age; and third, the brewery is required to check the ID of the person that made the purchase upon pickup.
A surprising side effect, says Thelen, has been the increase in revenue for smaller breweries not near a major city. CraftCellr allows users to pay for and reserve their beer via the platform, and then drive up on the weekend when it’s more convenient. “They try out a new brewery that they might not have otherwise considered,” he says.
Thelen and the CraftCellr team aim to continue scaling the startup across the Southeast, remaining bootstrapped through 2019 before seeking venture capital. They are currently working on ways to introduce technology into the actual taps, a major revenue point for breweries.
Thelen plans to release CraftCellr’s iOS and Android apps in the next few months.