Let’s look on the bright side: The pandemic has made us all a lot techier. Craft brewing is a good example. With our new COVID economy, small breweries have been forced to revamp the classic on-premise business model with new digital tools — easy app POS systems, online DTC sales, contactless tablet ordering, virtual events, almost an entire rethink of the traditional indie brewery experience. On the sales and distribution side, enormous moves are still being made to capitalize on online alcohol retail and delivery as regulatory restrictions are laxing (depending on your state). Consider Uber just bought America’s biggest alcohol delivery service Drizly for $1.1 billion in early February. Why?
“There was 10 years of e-commerce adoption in the first eight weeks at the beginning of COVID,” said Trace Smith, CEO of Next Glass.
Doesn’t ring a bell? It should. Next Glass is the umbrella company that netted three whales in the digital beer and beverage alcohol space last year — BeerAdvocate, Hop Culture and Oznr (formerly CraftCellr). To complement that trio, Next Glass already owned Untappd and Untappd for Business. Combined, it’s an impressive network of online communities, media outlets, event services, marketing offerings, sales systems and alcohol software solutions.
As the American craft beer community adopted digital solutions last year, Next Glass built a one-stop shop to serve them. In 2021, it wants to change the way craft breweries do business.
“Next Glass was founded in 2013 to really modernize the software experience between the three tiers and the consumer,” explained Smith. “We looked at a lot of the industries that had been disrupted, changed and modernized in the 2010s, so companies like Airbnb or Uber that had gone into industries with arcane regulatory fetters and really helped modernize them. We looked around and surveyed the landscape and felt like beverage alcohol was really a pretty fragmented experience for the constituents — whether they be producers, wholesalers, retailers or consumers.”
Changing the online experience
Next Glass is in build mode, or maybe it’s in built mode. The Wilmington, N.C.-based beer software company has assembled an impressive set of digital enterprises, and they look set to interact with each other. Let’s start with Untappd, beer’s most famous geosocial networking app. While drinking copious amounts of brews, users share locations, earn badges, give ratings and soak up beer culture via smartphones. You already know it, but do you know about Untappd for Business, which helps breweries, bars and drinkeries market to Untappd’s 9 million users in a variety of ways: sharing beer menus; maximizing visibility through in-app and social promotions; analytics services; and a one-stop publishing portal to the likes of Untappd, Facebook and beyond.
During the pandemic, Untappd for Business has cleverly been pushing venues to use its QR code contactless menu services.
“[Untappd for Business] serves bars, restaurants, brewers and other venues that are looking to streamline publication of their menus and reach the world’s largest audience of beer drinkers,” said Trace. “That was really our first foray into the space of software that found success. We were able to grow that from a dead standstill when we launched it in February 2016 to about 20,000 customers in 75 countries around the world. From there, we obviously looked to continue on that path of modernizing the software between the three tiers and consumers.”
Taking Next Glass to the next level, it teamed up with Providence Strategic Growth, which targets investments in technology-enabled service companies. The private equity firm made an undisclosed investment in Next Glass Inc. last year. Since then, Next Glass has been in acquisition mode.
In February 2020, Next Glass announced it had acquired certain assets of BeerAdvocate, famous for its website, beer discussion forums, beer fests and beer trading community. In October 2020, Next Glass released Oznr. Formerly known as CraftCellr, Oznr is a direct-to-consumer software system aimed at helping craft beverage producers and retailers manage the day-to-day operations of DTC sales and to-go orders with a special focus on memberships, can and bottle releases, pre-sales and random draws for high demand releases. Unlike Drizly, which partners with retailers, or Tavour, which buys inventory and sells direct to the consumer…
“In the case of Oznr, we are partnering with the brewer, with the producer, to make items more readily available to consumers,” explained Trace. “In particular, they found success prior to acquisition with the software they built managing these high demand special releases or high demand membership clubs, where you might have 20,000 people that want access to 100 bottles. Well, how do you manage that manually? That’s very difficult, right? You can have lines queued up that create issues operationally. There’s different gating where you want to make certain items are available just for members, but you may not have enough for your entire membership group, so how do you handle that?”
Just ask Oznr. With more than 6,000 weekly active users, Oznr has become a great discovery tool for new releases, and we have seen many craft breweries embracing rotation, releasing a lot of new and unique brands since the pandemic began to keep customers engaged. Here’s a fun number: Oznr notes its average transaction is $72.
Speaking of transacting, these Next Glass businesses will also interact and integrate. Untappd for Business serves nearly 4,000 breweries globally with menu publishing software. Virtually every U.S. brewery and nearly 12,500 international breweries maintain their Untappd brewery pages. With integrations between Oznr and the Untappd and BeerAdvocate platforms, brewers (as an example) will be able to connect directly with consumers to share special bottle releases and attract new enthusiasts to their membership programs. These integrations are a key component of the Next Glass mission to advance the alcohol beverage industry through technology.
Audience, online events and DTC sales
Next Glass has put a big focus on audience development for these products. Untappd has millions of users. BeerAdvocate attracts seven million monthly pageviews. To further enhance that audience, Next Glass acquired Hop Culture, a consumer-facing online beer publication that maintains one of the largest craft beer Instagram accounts in the world. Hop Culture has also thrown 30 plus beer festivals.
“We’re looking at some virtual events for Hop Culture and Untappd in the spring,” said Trace. “Candidly, there is kind of this question: When is it going to be safe to do an in-person event? I’m hopeful and optimistic it’s this summer, but it’s tough. As you know, planning an event requires many months of preparation to get the right brewers on board, to deal with the venue, logistics, tickets, safety protocols, etc, etc. For one, it’s going to be different for every state, right? So, we’re just going to have to keep our finger on the pulse of the states that we want to go in into with live events.”
What advice would Trace give to breweries currently embracing online events?
“Rehearse,” he said. “I think we learned that on our first rehearsal for our first virtual festival, which was pretty rough. And you’re talking about new technology whether it’s streaming technology or things as simple as a chat or allowing people behind a gated experience. You can’t sell a ticket and then have the thing up on YouTube for the public to consume. You’ve gotta gate that somehow, and there’s different rules on each of these streaming platforms around ticket sales and how you can or can’t do those things. So, it’s not as easy as just get the camera and let it rip.”
The craft beer revolution certainly didn’t start at online festivals, but it’s adapting. For much of America, the craft beer experience has centered around the physical experience of the taproom or brewpub. With so many challenges in the on-premise model right now, breweries need to be similarly inventive with how they embrace the sales and marketing side of the beer business.
Your next read? Maybe our Sober Up series of investigative reports. Check this out. “Sober Up: The nascent Michigan hop industry won’t survive without your help.”
“You need to be ready to meet your consumers where they want to meet you,” said Trace. “Consumers are not going to stop drinking beer because they’re locked down. In fact, you know, they may drink more. They’re just not doing it on-premise. So, the early advice was really just let your customers know how they can transact with you. I think content is really important as well. You know, the internet by definition is an aggregation layer … Now you’ve got a situation where on-premise consumption is not an option in many cases. And so, you know, they’re going online and surveying a landscape that looks very different, right? There’s new options that they may never have considered before, so I think content is really important with how you tell your story.”
The Next Glass story is continuing to evolve. The company seems poised for more companies and new digital beer solutions and experiences. We’ll keep you updated on its next chapter.