This site functions as an archive of Conner's Blog, which was a blog from 2006-2014 located at Images and links are likely to be broken.

An Open Letter to Surly Brewing

Hi Omar, Todd, and the rest of the crew:

I'm writing this letter because I'm a huge fan of your beers. From Coffee Bender to Cynic, they are all delicious. I've introduced a few friends to Furious, a couple to Bender, and one or two to Cynic and I intend to continue this. You have a rabid fan base, and a growing market share. I know there is a big waiting list for liquor stores that want to carry your beer. I'm happy for you, you're local, a good company, and very much not mainstream. All of which make you awesome.

But you have a problem. Your public relations or lack of PR is hurting you. You may not notice it, and you may not notice it for years to come, but it will come back to bite you if you want to grow. In the last few months, I've had three experiences that would have possibly kept me from continuing my patronage of your beer if you weren't local and didn't brew such good beer. Now neither of these directly affects the quality of the product, but it does impact the perception of your company. In a few years, if you want to continue to grow, this may be important.

The first happened a few months ago, around the time you released Hell for the second time. First, at the time I, a new Surly drinker, thought this was your first release of this beer. I headed off to Moto-i, excited to try out this new brew. Well my friend and I walked into the bar, and it was apparent from the start that no one quite knew what was going on. Only one bartender really knew what the plan was, the signage was minimal, and things just didn't seem organized. Things went smoothly overall, thanks to some great staff at Moto-i, but I was disappointed in the event, I expected a bigger deal to be made of the beer, maybe some giveaways, or at least some effort to make it a party. Again, maybe I should not have had these expectations, but when an event is billed as a "Release Party”, the party aspect seems like a legitimate expectation.

The second thing that happened followed this very closely. I'll admit I was disappointed in Hell. I wrote about it on my blog, and then commented on a post written over at The Captain's Chair. I stated that though I liked Hell, I was disappointed because I had expected something crazy and instead got a light, though tasty, beer. During a back and forth on the Captain's Chair's post though, we continued to get defensive responses that seemed to complain about the perception we all had and that it's not fair to you for us to have this perception. Those of us commenting really wanted to give you advice to help and instead we got defensive answers. Of course, the readers of Captain's Chair are going to be big fans so I doubt you lost any drinkers, but an exchange like that with less enthusiastic fans might lose you a few customers.

Finally, Monday night I went to the Darkness Release Party at Hell's Kitchen. From the moment I walked in the door, it was obvious that at yet another release party, no one really knew what was going on. Our bartender only knew he was selling Darkness, from what my companions said when the Surly reps came in the door you seemed confused and didn't know how the bar was laid out. Other than a band in the restaurant side, you wouldn't have known anything was going on. Also, like at Moto-i, no one from your brewery stopped by to say hi, even though I was at a table of six people all enjoying Darkness.

So, here is what I recommend. Hire someone who knows a thing or two about public relations and event planning. Your events should be exciting. When you bill something as a release party it should feel like a party. Giveaways are not necessary, but at least make those who set aside a Monday night to enjoy a glass of your beer feel like they are not just there to buy your product. You also need to work on your public responses. It is great that you do your own PR and you want to keep you voice as inline with your company culture as possible. Just try and do this without sounding defensive.

I also think you need to look at your marketing. As I mentioned when I wrote about Hell, I had a misperception due to the name that caused me to be unimpressed with Hell. This would have been easy to avoid had you either named it something differently, or just spent a little time promoting what you were trying to do with the beer. You are a company that has built itself into a box by brewing big beers. You can get out of that box, just make sure your customers know when you step outside of that box so we aren’t surprised.

I am no expert so my advice may be complete crap, but I hope it’s not. Keep up the good work and keep making great beers, just pair it with some better events and public relations.

Warmest Regards,

Conner McCall