Friday, March 22, 2013

[EID Feature] Have Beer, Will Travel: Falling Down Beer Company Opens March 29

All photos by Nicole Rupersburg.

One of the things that has particularly impressed me about Falling Down Beer Company is not their beer. I haven't even had any of it yet. In fact, hardly anyone has, save for a few mug club members and friends and family of the owners. What has impressed me is the strong following they've been able to build – over 3,700 followers on Facebook alone – before they even opened their doors.

There is a lot of talk in the media about the power of social media for small businesses. Some of it is pat; puerile even. As one media friend of mine has noted, careers in social media are the new pyramid scheme: one social media expert teaches others who want to teach others how to be social media experts and then you just Tweet social media tips to people who then re-tweet them to their followers, and so on. It's a silly reality of our nĂ¼ economy and one that has yet to be fully vetted for its long-term reliability as both marketing tool and career plan, as there has yet to be a social media platform that has proven itself to be long-term sustainable. Will people flee Facebook the way they mass-exited MySpace when things just got too Blingee? Only time will tell.

But in the here and now of 2013, Facebook is arguably the best way to build and reach an audience. And Falling Down Beer Co. has been able to do that exceedingly well, considering they're not even open yet.

When I sat down to talk with co-owner Mark Larson about how exactly he was able to amass such a strong following in advance of opening their doors, I found out that Larson actually has a marketing degree, though he currently works in IT (in addition to now owning a brewery). "I'm the sole marketer [of Falling Down]. I'm actually using the degree I've never used!" he jokes.

His strategy was pretty intuitive: get friends and family to like the page first. Then he spent $100 on Facebook ads targeted to over-21 craft beer drinkers in Warren and surrounding areas. He started liking and interacting with other brewery pages, reached out to the journalists and beer bloggers, posted to fan pages like the Detroit Red Wings and 97.1 to increase visibility to other potential fans (and Warren is definitely a Red Wings/97.1 kind of town). The rest has all been keeping their Facebook community constantly updated with photos of the bar in progress, the brewing process, the building permit, photos and regular updates to engage their audience. All in all they spent $100 (from which they got about 500 new fans) and are already a known name in the southeastern Michigan craft beer community without even tapping their first public keg.

Another innovative strategy they implemented prior to opening was selling mug club "founding members" memberships in advance of opening. Founding memberships weren't cheap ($125) but the 82 people who bought one received a lot of incentives other mug club programs don't offer, including six growler fills, T-shirts, and invitations to private events. (The mug clubbers, most of which live in or near Warren, have already tried the Ninja Chicken and Beaver beers.) And there was also an Indiegogo campaign early last summer, too.

Mark Larson (left) and George Lang, owners of Falling Down Beer Co.
Mark and his founding partner George Lang (who also works a day job in IT) started out as homebrewers. Their home-brewed beers gained a following amongst their friends and family and they started getting requests for kegs, so it made sense to start a brewery. "IT started as a hobby, so now I'm working two hobbies!" says Mark. As the saying goes, do what you love and you'll never work a day in your life. (It also helps that Mark and George are both telecommuters, which is an ideal situation for anyone trying to juggle multiple careers at once – take it from someone who does exactly that.)

During their due diligence phase, they reached out to several cities. Warren happened to offer the best location, an old ice cream shop and diner (that looks like it was probably a Big Boy's before that) located right by the Hazel Park racetrack. It's not glamorous, because nothing in Warren is, but there is an established base of beer geek culture here that cannot be denied – Kuhnhenn Brewing Company and Dragonmead Microbrewery, both also located in Warren, have a devout following, and despite the fact that neither of them produce enough beer for any level of significant distribution, both are known names in craft beer throughout the Midwest region and are multi-time national award winning breweries.

In fact, when Mark started doing his research, he actually found the location to be quite ideal. "I used Short's in Bellaire and Witch's Hat in South Lyon as case studies," he says. "Look at Witch's Hat: they're in South Lyon and hard to get to, but they had a line out the door for the first three months. It was crazy. I knew so many people who ran out there and made the trip [just to check it out]. And there's Dark Horse in Marshall, in the middle of nowhere, and it's always packed."

Agreed. Beeries have most certainly established "Have beer, will travel" as a code of ethics.

"We also liked this spot because it's right off the freeway, it's a straight shot to Ferndale, and Chrysler and GM are nearby." Warren is also metro Detroit's largest suburb and the third largest city (by population) in Michigan. Bottom line: there's plenty of thirsty people out there.

Falling Down Beer Company opens to the public on Friday, March 29. In next week's issue of Real Detroit Weekly I'll have more information for you about the beer they'll be serving (like the Ninja Chicken and Beaver beers noted above), the origin of their name, their long-term plans for distribution and their commitment to all things Michigan-made, but I do so very much hate to repeat myself so you'll just have to keep your peepers peeled for that.

Want to see more? View the Flickr set here.