Badges of honour

Go to any American craft brewery – or for that matter, any American distillery, pizzeria or tiny greasy spoon diner – and you’re almost certain to be able to find branded t-shirts, hats, key rings, sunglasses and beer nuts for sale by the exit.

Go to any American craft brewery – or for that matter, any American distillery, pizzeria or tiny greasy spoon diner – and you’re almost certain to be able to find branded t-shirts, hats, key rings, chili sauce, sunglasses and beer nuts for sale by the exit. Not only do such items help spread the brand gospel, they’re also valued by drinkers as a badge of honour; a little like getting an exotic stamp in your passport.

In the UK, we’re still just paddling in this ocean of branded memorabilia, but things are changing fast according to Leeds-based Awesome Merchandise, as craft breweries take a cue from their American counterparts.

Awesome Merchandise started business 12 years ago, when founder and director Luke Hodson began making badges and stickers for local punk bands. He persuaded his girlfriend (now wife, and fellow director) to get on board and the business grew steadily. Today it has a 23,000 square foot purpose-build warehouse production facility and employs 70 people making more than 500 different products.

Awesome’s head of business development, James Lyall has some good advice for any craft brewery thinking about adding merchandise to its business. “I think the best pieces of merchandise are pretty plain and simple, with the brewery using its logo effectively,” he says. “It’s very popular to have a left chest print on a t-shirt, just using the brewery logo and maybe its motto or slogan quite small. It tends not to work to have big, brash designs with slogans; that’s a bit old school, a bit 90s.

Particularly in craft beer, people are very willing to buy into the brand, and proud to wear it, so don’t overcomplicate it.”

While the focus is still very much on the usual fare of t-shirts, baseball caps and bottle openers – which James says are often still the most popular and cost effective forms of merchandise in the UK market – it seems people are beginning to get a little more imaginative.

“Particularly with the influence of American brands in the craft beer world, a lot of ideas are starting to make their way across the Atlantic,” continues James. “So for example, everyone loves a Koozie in America [an insulated pouch for keeping your beer cool] and it’s been kind of hard to get them over here. We launched them last year with a big push and they’ve become really popular this summer. They’re the kind of thing that breweries can sell and also give out for free at events because they’re not as expensive as other items. They’re on-trend this summer and that will probably continue into next year.”

Obviously quality is important, but James advises that it really depends on what a brewery is trying to achieve. For example, a small brewery just looking to spread the word might want to consider entry-level Gildan t-shirts, whereas more established businesses who want to build a fully-fledged retail operation should look at spending more on higher quality jersey tees from brands like Bella & Canvas or Continental.

The prices breweries can charge for such items are comparable to big high street brands, if the quality is right, with brewery t-shirts selling for £15-£20. This can be a valuable source of revenue, not just in the early days when cash flow is an issue, but longer term.

James says: “I know people who pump a lot of money into their merchandise range because it can support them as a brewery. And people do start to treat it like a separate clothing company, that’s distinct from the beer side! Some of the bigger breweries do that very well, like Brooklyn, who get absolutely everything branded. That’s definitely catching on in the UK too though, and we’ve got a lot of customers here who buy all sorts of things like tea towels, colouring books and other unusual things to help them stand out.”

With higher quality, more imaginative merchandise becoming available, combined with craft beer lovers’ innate desire to demonstrate their affiliation with their favourite breweries, merchandise seems set to become an even bigger part of the UK scene. And if it helps breweries spread the word and build viable long-term businesses, we’re all for it.

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