Small Town Brewery brings gruit beers to masses
Not Your Father’s Root Beer packages 10.7 ABV variety for limited time
Well known by locals for Bangs Lake, a natural glacial lake, Wauconda, Ill., is a small Chicagoland community with a population of just more than 13,000, based on the 2010 U.S. Census. However, this boating and fishing community now is known for much more: the birthplace of Not Your Father’s Root Beer (NYFRB).
The flagship product of Small Town Brewery, NYFRB is the creation of Tim Kovac, founder and brewmaster of the Wauconda, Ill.-based company. Kovac, who started homebrewing in 1988, actually can trace homebrewing back even further in his family’s history.
“My great, great grandfather was a ship captain who brewed ales in the 1600s; my grandfather was a homebrewer as well,” he says. “I enjoyed homebrewing for years and then grew passionate about it and wanted to honor my family’s beer-making tradition by creating specialty beers with unique, all-American flavors using botanical ingredients.”
With an interest in gruit-inspired beers (gruit is German for herbs), Kovac founded Small Town in 2010. “A year later, my son Jake joined me in experimenting with beer, and we came up with a ‘root beer beer’ together,” he says.
Brewed with a secret recipe of herbs, spices, honey, vanilla and other botanicals, NYFRB features a rich, authentic root beer flavor, Kovac notes.
“It took us two years and hundreds of batches to find the perfect recipe that people tell us ‘tastes exactly like root beer,’” he says.
At first, the beers were just brewed for family and friends, but eventually the flavored craft beers, which some market analysts have termed hard sodas, caught the attention of local on-premise locations.
“I started scaling up my production and eventually needed more and more capacity, so I expanded my facility and opened a micro-brewery,” Kovac notes.
However, scaling up the brewery’s production took considerable patience and dedication. “This sort of endeavor takes time, focus and perseverance,” he explains. “Some days feel incredibly tough, but in the end, seeing people enjoy the brands makes it worth every minute of hard work. I love talking with folks in the tasting room. It’s very gratifying to me.”
Scaling up production was not just about fueling Kovac’s passion, it also had to do with an evolution of consumers’ tastes, he says.
Macro shifts within the beverage alcohol market have had an impact on the beer market. These shifts helped Small Town and NYFRB fulfill a need state for which consumers were looking.
“Over the last 15 years, the beer industry has consistently lost share to wine and spirit brands that have done a better job of listening to what consumers want and correspondingly providing them with quality products to meet their desires,” Kovac says. “It would seem to make sense that the beer industry as a whole should really listen to what consumers are telling us and deliver products that they want to drink — whether that product is a craft beer, an import or a cider.”
Kovac adds that this has given rise to a beer renaissance within the United States as consumers seek out new styles/varieties, and craft beer is helping to give beer consumers that “something different” they want.
“People want variety in their beer just as they do with foods, and bringing back some of our older recipes to make them work for a modern palate seems to really resonate with a lot of customers,” he notes.
Kovac adds that he didn’t set out to create a new beer segment. It was all about listening to what consumers wanted.
“Not Your Father’s Root Beer was new to the market when we began,” he explains. “It was a beer that no one else was doing. We offered something that was so different and so surprising to folks that the moment they tried the root beer, the response was explosive. That was the start of many things to come.
“We were really fortunate to be part of this phenomenon; to be at the right time at the right place, as part of the current beer renaissance in the USA with a vibrant culture and with bloggers getting really excited about the root beer,” he continues. “You saw both long-time beer lovers and beer novices coming out and talking excitedly about Not Your Father’s Root Beer.”
This drive for new, innovative beers serves Small Town and its portfolio well. “Small Town is a craft brewer that specializes in flavored craft beer and gruit-inspired brews with classic American flavors by using roots, herbs, spices and berries throughout the brewing process,” Kovac says. “Small Town has been able to attract a considerable number of consumers that previously were unable to find these innovative brew styles.”
What also influences the popularity of these innovative beers are nostalgia and a desire for products and flavors that harken back to that sentimentality, but with an adult twist.
“People tell us the minute they smell or taste our flavor, they are brought back to the best memories of childhood,” Kovac says.
Touting an alcohol by volume (ABV) content of 5.9 percent in a 12-ounce bottle, NYFRB immediately resonated with a wide range of consumers. Kovac notes that the brand appeals to both men and women with ages ranging from 21 to 80.
“Our craft brews appeal to a wide range of drinkers, including non-traditional beer drinkers,” he notes. “We also see a lot of interest from people who tend to drink wine, craft beers and spirits. They’re all looking for something different and are what we call variety seekers. They would pick up a six-pack of our beer and say that they had fallen in love with the product.”
This popularity across a broad group of consumers led to a need to increase production and encourage creative selling procedures by retailers.
“The explosive growth in popularity required us to scale up production dramatically to meet demand,” Kovac explains. “A lot of areas in the country were sharing this challenge, with retailers limiting customers to only one six-pack. Other areas had waiting lists that people would get on so they could obtain a six-pack. If you failed to show up to pick it up within an hour of being called, they would call the next person on the list.
“It was amazing how much excitement there was both in purchasing the root beer and what we experienced on social media,” he continues. “It was truly a scavenger hunt for some. We were delighted at what we saw online with consumers finally finding the product and sharing their experience on Facebook or Instagram. Based on the extremely high demand, we replicated the brewing process and scaled up production, [but the] recipes, ingredients and production processes stayed consistent.”
Small Town also developed a 10.7 percent ABV variety of NYFRB on draft in Illinois. Through a contract packaging partnership with Wisconsin Brewing Co., Verona, Wis., NYFRB 10.7 now will be available on draft in restaurants and bars across the United States.
Carl Nolen, co-founder and chief executive officer of Wisconsin Brewing, says that the company is thrilled to be packaging and kegging NYFRB and takes that responsibility very seriously.
“We’re honored that they could have picked a production partner anywhere in America and they picked us, and I take that very seriously and I’m very, very proud of it for our company,” he says. “That’s why we want to work so hard to over-deliver.”
For example, the craft brewery conducted a tasting survey for NYFRB 10.7. Of 301 completed surveys, the product had a 97 percent favorability rating, with the ones who didn’t rate it favorably stating they don’t like root beer in general. It had 87 percent of respondents indicate they would look for the product and buy it after tasting it.
Wisconsin Brewing also is handling the limited-edition packaging of the 22-ounce bomber bottles of NYFRB 10.7.
“Limited-edition 22-ounce bombers will be released to key off-premise accounts three times per year,” Kovac says. “The rollout [began] in Illinois in May with national rollout expanding to additional states over the summer season. The brew should be available in 45 states by fall 2016. Maine, Mississippi, New Hampshire and Tennessee will be excluded due to state regulations limiting ABV content in beer.”
Small Town’s portfolio also includes Not Your Father’s Ginger Ale (NYFGA), which also is packaged in 12-ounce bottles and has a 5.9 percent ABV.
“With the growing popularity of ginger-infused products, and with numerous requests from our consumers demanding that we brew a ginger-flavored beer, I began experimenting and brewed an ale with ginger,” Kovac says. “Our Ginger Ale is a high-intensity ale brewed with ginger and lemon, a tinge of black currant and [has a] light sweetened flavor with woody attributes.”
But the craft brewer continues to innovate. This summer it released Not Your Father’s Vanilla Cream Ale (NYFVCA). At 4.1 percent ABV, NYFVCA is a lighter brew but still has a strong flavor profile that is consistent with the company’s portfolio of nostalgia-inspired products featuring authentic tastes and classic flavors, Kovac says.
“Not Your Father’s Vanilla Cream Ale [is] a creamy botanical craft beer brewed with Madagascar vanilla, combining a lightly sweet savor with a smooth finish to create a refreshing beer,” he adds.
Available in six-packs of 12-ounce bottles, NYFVCA also will be included in the company’s first variety pack, which is scheduled to launch nationwide in stores next month.
“We like to think of it as good things come in threes,” Kovac says. “By offering a variety pack, everyone can enjoy their favorite Small Town beers together.”
Although these are Small Town’s only packaged beers, its taproom features many more. In addition to the packaged varieties on draft, the Wauconda taproom has 13 other varieties, including Strawberry Rhubarb, Blondie, Bourbon Pecan and Hazmat.
Hazmat actually was born from a snafu in which another beer was being shipped on a plane; however, the transportation security authority officials were unsure what the liquid was and labeled the container holding the beer as hazmat.
This happenstance influenced Kovac to develop a beer with fiery, peppery notes and subsequently name the brew Hazmat, he explains.
Uniting for growth
With a high demand for its products, distribution became a focus for Small Town. To maximize its distribution efforts, the craft brewer partnered with Los Angeles-based Pabst Brewing Co.
Pabst began distributing NYFRB in March 2015 and has since rolled out the brand and its portfolio nationwide.
“Pabst has an exclusive distribution agreement with Small Town Brewery through which they are helping Small Town distribute its products, like Not Your Father’s Root Beer and Ginger Ale, on a national scale,” Kovac says.
This national partnership is not the only distribution agreement that Small Town has in place.
“Small Town Brewery’s Not Your Father’s Root Beer is set to go on sale outside of the U.S. for the first time to the United Kingdom, Ireland and Canada,” Kovac says. “The U.K. and Ireland distribution will be handled in partnership with C&C Group, which will distribute in Ireland, Northern Ireland and Scotland, while Charles Wells will distribute in England and Wales. The Canada release will be done in partnership with the Carlsberg Group.”
These partnerships remain vital to Small Town’s international growth. “C&C Group, Charles Wells and the Carlsberg Group each have stellar track records in their respective home countries, so we’re confident that their experience in these markets will be invaluable to our ongoing success and expansion,” Kovac adds.
True to its message
Although sampling programs are the cornerstone of NYFRB’s marketing efforts, the brand is finding other ways to get in front of consumers.
“The first weekend in June, we were the lead sponsor at The Race of Gentlemen, an amazing event that truly represents our brand and our consumer,” Kovac says. “The Race of Gentlemen is an automotive carnival that celebrates American racing heritage. A true homage to automobile and motorcycle history, hosted by the Oilers Club, spectators and racers alike [experienced] a simpler time of when guys were gentlemen and cars were king. Commonly referred to as TROG for short, the carefully curated event [gave] you a history lesson and an unforgettable weekend all rolled into one.”
Kovac adds that the company focuses on programs that are like NYFRB by staying “true to the brand” and execute customer appreciation.
“Small Town Brewery will continue to delight our consumers with programs ranging from vintage sports platforms to more traditional holidays, which will encourage them to pick up our products to enjoy as they were designed to — with a sense of nostalgia and fondness for their favorite craft brews.”
Beyond its marketing initiatives, Small Town and its portfolio of gruit-inspired beers have much more to share with consumers.
“Our product development is influenced heavily by customers and visitors to our brewery/brewpub, who often provide feedback and inspiration,” Kovac says. “As we work to reinterpret more traditional gruit-beer recipes, there’s nothing we enjoy more than sitting with customers at our brewpub or speaking with them at fairs and festivals [and] hearing how much they enjoy the product. Our customers will help determine what’s next on the horizon.” BI