WHAT MAKES A GOOD BREWERY WEBSITE?

There are surprisingly few interesting images out there when you perform a Google search of "beer," "websites" and "computers."

First things first: Let’s all remember what era we’re living in. The year is 2011. The internet is civilization. Craft beer is on a roll like it never has been before. We should all be able to agree then, that in this era, in the world of brewery and beer marketing, there should be one incontravertible truth:

A brewery’s website and internet presence is its single most important public feature. Likewise, it is the primary source of knowledge to beer fans out there looking to learn more about a business.

This is increasingly true the larger the brewery gets. Sure, a small, local brewpub probably doesn’t need a great website, but it sure as hell helps. If you’re distributing beer across your state and beyond, however, well…you’d better at least have a listing somewhere of the beers you make. Consider it common courtesy. Provide me with the most basic information that any normal person would want to know, such as what products you produce. That’s valuable information.

Some breweries are doing this well in 2011. Some are doing it terribly, but I’m saving those offenders for a follow-up post. Before I rail on breweries that are squandering the unlimited marketing opportunities the internet offers, I should talk about breweries that are doing it right, and determine what factors make a great brewery website.

Unfortunately, it’s difficult to actually pick out individual brewery websites and say simply “here is what they should all look like.” Unlike the websites that are clear pieces of garbage, most “good” sites should be fairly unremarkable–their main purpose is as a vessel to display and communicate information. The main thing that you should be able to say in its favor is “I immediately found everything I wanted to find.” Still, some sites do go above and beyond when it comes to the addition of other useful information and bonus features, and this does make them stand out. One realizes when examining them, however, how profoundly different they all are from each other. What we learn is that there’s many different ways to effectively offer information, just as there are a myriad of ways to have yourself a shitty website.

I believe it is possible, though, to put together what amounts to a rough checklist of what features make a brewery website “good,” a kind of “wish list” of the things one might find on an attractive, modern site that will be serving as the main conduit to public perception of your business. So without further ado, here are a few of the basics I was able to put together. I’ll then give some sample brewery websites making use of these basic tenants.*

*Please note: I’m not a web designer. I’m speaking as a consumer and as a regular internet user who spends a lot of time on these sites. I speak as a member of the core demographic these breweries are attempting to reach.

— Tell me the beers you make

This is the single most basic commandment I can think of. You might be saying to yourself that this goes without saying, but if you’re saying that to yourself, you haven’t seen some of the websites I’ll be featuring in the follow-up installment to this post. In short: You’ve got to have a listing somewhere of everything you make. If it’s seasonally available, list which season it’s available in. Dates are a plus. All details, in fact, are plusses, from malt bill and hop varieties to gravity readings, tasting notes, backstories on the beer, we want it all.

Even nationally acclaimed breweries sometimes fail at this. Until a couple of years ago, critical darlings Three Floyds had one of the very worst websites in the business. It was truly abhorent. They didn’t even have a section listing the beers they made, much less an up-to-date one. These days they’re much better, but they still don’t offer much real information. They also don’t tell you about all the one-off and special release brews they make anywhere on the site. Of course, given that they can’t possibly make enough beer to keep up with demand already, they can afford to be a little lax. Still, when the initial list of beers has been completed, the next step is that you’d like to see things…

— Kept up to date

This is a personal pet peeve of mine, because it can easily invalidate the first commandment. Oh, your site has a list of the beers you make? Great! But wait—it includes the “current seasonal” as last year’s summer brew? Oh. I guess I have no idea how much of the rest of this is accurate, huh?

In order for the actual “beers” page to be kept up to date, breweries need an actual human being whose job it is to update the website. Unfortunately, this is not a luxury a lot of them have, but I would be glad to see more breweries make the effort. It’s worth it. Up-to-dateness is also greatly helped by…

— A good brewer’s blog

This can be an immense help. It’s a place to announce all that is new, and all that’s going on at the brewery. New beer to announce? Brewer posts about it. New equipment in the brewery you want to geek out over? Snap a photo, put it on the brewer’s blog. Special event coming up? Get the word out on the brewer’s blog. For a long time in Chicago, Half Acre Brewing was an example of a place with a bad website that was salvaged by a good brewer’s blog. The website was out of date, but the blog was at least tended to and contained all the most up-to-date information. Luckily, the folks at Half Acre eventually came to realize this, and combined the blog with a new website to create something both functional and fun.

Maybe even more important than the information that can be offered through the brewer’s blog is that it actually gives the writer (presumably the brewer) a chance to connect with his drinking audience, including people who can’t actually make it out to the brewery proper. They get a sense of what kind of guy it is making their beer. Does he have a sense of humor? This is one place on your website where you can elevate the actual identity of your company beyond the beers you make. Want to be known as one of the good guys of the beer world? Connect with the fans on the website. That word gets around. It’s better than any advertising you can buy. Just look at the crowd on the “beerit” sub-reddit. These are the kind of folks who are all too happy to report and spread their personal experiences with brewery representatives who go beyond just doing the bare minimum.

Of course, none of this matters if your brewery website isn’t…

— Easy to navigate

This is another potential killer of a decent website. It doesn’t matter how good your information is if people can’t find anything due to a crazy layout. It shouldn’t take too many clicks to get where you’re going—that means go easy on all the tabs. Most often, though, the offenders here are those brewery websites that are just so flash-heavy, animated and design-forward that they end up just being confusing. Magic Hat is the classic example here, although theirs is quite a bit better than it once was. The idea of trying to use the main splash page of Bridgeport’s site gives me a headache as well. My initial reaction to the site shouldn’t be “Where the hell is everything?”

— Miscellania

The rest I’ll just roll into this catch-all category. Obviously, it’s nice for a website to be visually appealing, but that’s honestly one of the last things I care about, always favoring information first. What can I say? I’m a utilitarian.

There are all sorts of other features though, that can be offered, such as recipes that can be made with the beer or paired with the brewery’s beers, video profiles for each brew or brewer’s video interviews, live feeds to the taphouse beer list and more. Let’s move on, however, to some examples of breweries that combine these basics into an overall good package.

————————————————————————————————-

Sixpoint

I’ve only ever had a couple of brews from this Brooklyn, NY brewer, but their website is a great example of everything that can be done, crammed into a small, easily accessible space. I’ll bullet for simplicity.

A great aesthetic to start off, with the old-timey newspaper feel, which is kept up through the entire site no matter where you go.

The blog is built right in on the right side, and at a glance you can see it’s offering news, recipes, festival information, and all you have to do is scroll your mouse wheel.

Each beer on the beer page has a great, personalized description, and better yet, you don’t need to load a new page for each one or hit the “back” button. That saves a lot of time when you’re trying to read descriptions of 15 Sixpoint beers.

The “Laboratory” page offers what amounts to an entire descriptive tour of the business, in absurd detail. It’s seriously a ton of words. I can’t believe somebody bothered to write all that.

Unibroue

I suspect that this choice may be somewhat polarizing to some, and that some might not like the actual aesthetic of Unibroue’s website, but in terms of information offered, there’s an absolute wealth of the stuff.

— First off, I just think it’s classy looking, okay?

— Right from the main splash page, you get a good sampling of the kinds of features that the website offers, especially the videos (more about those in a minute).

— Clicking over the the beer page, it’s very simple. A big ‘ole list of everything they make, divided into classics and specialties.

— Clicking onto one of those beer pages, there’s a crazy amount of information. Almost every beer has a video with the sommelier explaining the legend behind the brew, a separate video discussing the beer itself, and information about pairing the beer with food, aging the beer and a list of medals the beer has won. There’s also a tab containing every recipe in their database that uses this beer for cooking.  Seriously, think of the work that went into this!

— The actual recipe page itself is awesome, with over 50 chef-created recipes to make using their beer, AND a tab with around 20 beer cocktails as well.

————————————————————————————————

Hopefully, these examples give you a good idea of where I’m coming from. As I said before, particularly good websites are often rather subjective, and are subject to our priorities. Mine of course is access to big ‘ole globs of information.

The websites that are bad, on the other hand, are rather more indefensible. In my next post, I’ll tackle 10 of the worst I can find. Please use the comments area to suggest any that you’d like me to take a look at, although I have quite a few in mind already and will probably have difficulty trimming it down to only 10.

Likewise, let me know in the comments what your favorite brewery website is. Which ones do you think have great designs? Which offer great information? And are there any standards by which they should be judged that I haven’t already listed?

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16 comments

  1. I’ve been busting Matt’s balls for years over it his site so my vote for website that needs upgraded is VooDoo Brewing – http://www.voodoobrewery.com/

    I like DFH and Stone’s sites but locally I’m very happy to see that Erie Brewing updated their site ( http://eriebrewingco.com/ ) but it doesn’t update enough. I think they’re going more for interaction on Facebook/Twitter but there should be something to tie everything together.

  2. Voodoo is indeed one of the ones on my list, heh.

  3. Ninkasi is my favorite, by far. Good content and beautiful design. LOVE their iconography…

  4. I don’t recommend you visit the Ninkasi website right now, it appears to have been hacked; it’s virus-ridden.

  5. I read your post and immediately thought of Lazy Magnolia’s website. (www.lazymagnolia.com) It’s not the most incredible web experience I’ve ever seen, but it’s straightforward, has a lot of information, and has some real gems if you’re reading through it.

    This isn’t a beer site, but Cathead Vodka (www.catheadvodka.com), a local distillery, has great design, and probably one of the best age-verification splash pages on the internet. Perfect example of everything you mentioned in your post.

  6. A pet peeve with me is that with the rise and ease of use of Facebook, a lot of breweries seem to just use their FB page as the brewery website. It’s fine to use social media tools in conjunction, but don’t ignore your website. As Kid notes, it’s their most valuable public-facing resource. Use a CMS that is easy to update and learn to do it- don’t be held hostage by your web designer to add new content.

  7. That’s true Slouch, and I’m going to hit on that in the next post. Some breweries have really bad websites but use their Facebook profiles effectively, but it ultimately keeps them from makign the time and effort to rebuild the website.

  8. Kid – any love for Deschutes here (Full disclosure, I’m biased…)? They provide homebrew clone recipes on their website for about 20 of their beers. I think that sort of thing engenders a lot of good will in the community, especially given how rabid homebrewer fans can be. I’m not aware of many, or for that matter any, other breweries that do that, but as a homebrewer I think it’s really cool.

  9. I know you are looking for larger breweries, not brew pubs but nearby Desthil’s website is lacking and Bloomington’s Illinois Brewing Company’s website is nonexistent. All they have us an outdated MySpace page (kinda redundant).

  10. Argh, don’t remind me, C.

  11. Russian River’s website isn’t much to look at, but one thing they do that I love (and that I’ve never seen anywhere else) is that they have a “bottle log” which lists all their beers, and then all the details about each and every batch they’ve made (seriously – they list the brew date, the bottling date, the primary yeast and conditioning yeast, as well as various notes about the beers). It’s always fun to grab your bottle and look up the specific details of your beer (and how it differed from previous/future batches)

  12. It’s like you have access to my notes, Mark.

    Russian River was a contender for the “bad websites” list, because it is ugly and boring as sin, but the bottle log is the one big redeeming feature. And you’re right; I’ve never really seen another brewery that does the same thing. Just goes to show you that if you can do one special thing, people will remember you for it.

  13. john@yinzerbeernut.com · · Reply

    I normally don’t comment, just take in the “surroundings” that make up the internet but upon reading this post I felt drawn to pound out a few words…

    I got lost in the beginning?… “in the world of brewery and beer marketing, there should be one incontravertible truth: A brewery’s website and internet presence is its single most important public feature. Likewise, it is the primary source of knowledge to beer fans out there looking to learn more about a business.”

    Single Most Important – Huh?
    Primary Source of Knowledge – Really?

    I yield that the internet is a very powerful vehicle in the eyes of ‘marketing genii’. I would hope that for most, with above average intellect, the marketing machine does not sway the decision tree when making their beer purchase. Just because we stand up and shout by rooftop proclaiming triple hopped doesn’t make it so…

    I drink craft beer because it is just that – craft. Brewing is an art and in appreciating that art, I want to know what went into getting from the blank canvas to the framed masterpiece. Beauty is in the dance (process) not just the consumption. This industry allows me to rub elbows with the very masters (Dale Katechis, Garret Oliver, Sam Calagione, and others) who’ve concocted such delectable treasures for my enjoyment. This first person interaction allows one to immerse themselves into ‘the dance’.

    Life experience dictates that the final product/experience has evolved through a process of decisions. This beer tastes this way because… This website looks this way because… Neither good nor bad but JUST IS…

    Single most important public feature…hardly. Primary source of knowledge…keep reading online…I’ll take a first person Dale, Garret, or Sam everyday. Secondary source of knowledge…not even close…I’ll take my local beer guru’s next. Gee, I’ll take my own palate as a source of reference before I take into consideration a ‘marketing genius’. Bells and whistles make noise…you can look like you have a million or you can have a million!

    I prefer my beer with a plentiful side of taste and a little less gemmelsmerch. My guess is great beer moves people and the industry…great websites move kilobytes…Many of these craft breweries are burning candles at every end to keep up with demand and the smaller things are just that, smaller things…

    Cheers to keeping the beer flowing and favorable. Update yinz site when you’re not brewing new killer brews, growing at 35%, trying to build new facilities, securing more capital, and meeting me at the local pub this evening to tell me all about these adventures!

    The Nutz – Out

    PS. I’m still waiting for a particular “Triple Hopped” CEO to get back to me on their process/”dance”. I’m sure it’s a wonderful story…

  14. I had a little bit of trouble deciphering the sea of metaphors, odd plurals and pseudo-German psych terminology in your reply, but what I got was this.

    1. You find that your primary sources of knowledge of breweries are brewmasters like Katechis, Oliver and Calagione? That must be nice for you and all, but most people do not actually know these men, or have the chance to speak with them—or ANY brewery representatives, for that matter. As such, I don’t know any of the brewery employees at West Coast breweries like Stone, Port, Russian River, Alesmith, whatever. Where am I expected to get information on the beers they make? The obvious answer is “from their websites,” where all the pertinent, factual and statistical information can be listed.

    2. From what I read in your reply though, I presume you would then say “But I get my information not from a cold, unfeeling website, but from the fellow beer geeks, bartenders, beer store managers, etc.” And that’s nice. I think we all do that. But this is about research. Do you seriously never find yourself seeking information about beer that the people on the stool next to you don’t have? Does your bartender know everything about every beer that every brewery makes, including the ones that don’t distribute to your area?

    Consider also what it’s like for people who live somewhere like where I live, in a small central Illinois city with zero breweries and zero real craft beer stores. There isn’t even anyone here in town I could ASK such questions to. For most respects, I’m the pinaccle of geekdom here. And so, I’m left to search the web to gain access to informed people who have the information I’m after. It’s really my primary and only reasonable option.

    ———————————————————————–

    I’m not trying to make beer any more complicated. All I want is for things to be LESS complicated, and for information to be readily available. To be honest, I don’t think you can argue this point with me too much. When someone on the East Coast wants to find out all the information on a random west coast brewer, let’s say—North Coast—that person’s primary mode of finding out information isn’t going to be the brewmaster or a brewery representative, and although asking local friends might yield something of value, you’re not going to be able to learn EVERYTHING. That’s why a good website is important, and that’s why it’s a brewery’s most important public face.

    If you’re a business that distributes a product across the country, most of the people who consume it aren’t going to have a personal connection with your brand beyond “I like the way this beer tastes.” They might not even know where your brewery is. How else are these breweries expected to reach customers to make a deeper connection (the kind you apparently have with some well-known brewmasters) if not by offering all this information up on their websites? By dispatching nation-wide teams of dedicated conversation-starting people to talk to beer fans at bars?

  15. […] I covered in the preceding post on what makes a “good” brewery website, I personally believe an ale factory’s web presence is its single most important public […]

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