Over a Pint with Whole Foods Market’s Michael Bepko

By Ashley Routson

Dedicated to engaging with craft breweries and educating its fans about craft beer, Whole Foods Market (@WholeFoods) has positioned itself as a major evangelist for craft beer in the social mediasphere. With a comprehensive online network of over five million followers, fans and friends, Whole Foods Market boasts double the social footprint of all the craft breweries in the U.S. combined—making it, arguably, the most influential retail advocate of craft beer in the world.

The talented and passionated wizard behind the curtain of Whole Food Market’s successful social media presence is Michael Bepko, also known amongst his friends, fans and colleagues as @Bepkoboy. As the Global Online Community Manager for Whole Foods Market, Michael Bepko is giving craft beer a powerful voice in the constantly changing world of social media. Through his virtual craft beer tastings on Twitter and regular engagements and conversations with craft breweries and craft beer lovers, Michael is helping to connect his consumers with the craft beer industry.

As both his friend and partner in crime, it is with great honor that I introduce Michael to the friends and fans of craft beer!

Ashely Routson’s Interview with Michael Bepko

Ashley Routson (AR): Under your leadership, Whole Foods has easily emerged as the biggest (retail) advocate of American craft beer on social media. How and when did you start getting involved in the craft beer community?

Michael Bepko (MB): It began back in 2008 when I created my personal Twitter account. My approach was simple: follow people that live in Austin as well as people (and brands) in the food, beer and wine industries. I quickly became familiar with many of the folks within the digital beer space. After becoming the voice behind the National Whole Foods Market social channels, it was extremely easy to communicate with key influencers on a routine basis. After a few weeks of fun back-and-forth banter, I was approached by Ashley Routson (@TheBeerWench) about partnering on a series of online craft beer tastings. Whole Foods had participated in several online tastings for wine and cheese, and even healthy eating, but I had not seen it done with craft beers before. It sounded new and fun and above all else relevant, as well as a fantastic way to connect with people around a shared love for these beautiful artisan products.

AR: In your opinion, why is American craft beer such a good fit for the Whole Foods Market brand.

MB: We’re super passionate about great tasting food (and drink) and the pleasure of sharing it with others. This is essentially the craft beer community in a nut shell.

Whole Foods Craft Beer Impact

AR: Compared to other topics, what level of engagement do you get with your followers on Twitter when posting about American craft beer?

MB: There’s always a high level of engagement around the topic. And though the community may not be the largest in size, it’s vocal, extremely passionate and has an intimate connectivity that’s not often found among other online communities. I find that when the subject comes up, the usual suspects always join the conversation… and when you routinely have dialogue with someone on Twitter, you feel more connected. This to me is the best kind of engagement.

AR: What value do you think the live beer tastings on Twitter provide to your followers?

MB: First and foremost it allows folks who love craft beer to connect in the digital space with others who share the interest. There’s nothing better than knowing you’ve got a whole community that loves to talk about the same stuff you’re passionate about. And it should go without saying that quite often online friendships move offline… which is truly the real beauty of social media, right? But there’s also a powerful education element. I mean, where else do you have instant access to craft beer experts, bloggers and the brewers? Participants also get a sneak peek at the off-the-cuff comments and tasting notes that sometimes don’t make it onto official reviews/taste profiles. It’s a behind-the-scenes of sorts that’s shared with those who are most interested. There’s really a lot to learn by participating in one of our online craft beer tastings, in addition to all the fun of sipping brews and tweeting about it.

AR: Why is it so important to provide your customers the opportunity to discuss craft beer and why do you think craft beer drinkers are so eager to build a virtual community and learn about craft beer?

bepkoQUOTEMB: Since most craft beers are born from small batch production and have limited distribution, the offline support that develops around any particular brand or product has limited exposure. By uniting in the virtual space, the advocacy for the products (and the craft as a whole) is amplified and with much larger reach, thus allowing the awareness of the products and the producers to grow. What’s truly amazing is that no matter where I travel around the U.S., I’m just a few tweets away from knowing which craft beers to try and where to find them. How awesome is that?

AR: On a personal level, what does craft beer mean to you?

MB: To me, craft beer is 100 percent passion—plus science, chemistry, experimentation, crazy, love, delicious, bravery and happy.

AR: What are some of your favorite American craft beers to imbibe?

MB: Since I live in Austin, my favorites tend to be those that are brewed locally… like, actually in my neighborhood! For example, Hops & Grain is a wonderful little brewery literally 100 yards away from my front door. (jealous much?) I’m a big fan of their Alt-eration, which is a tasty German-style Pilsner. I’m also a big fan of the brews from (512) in south Austin. I especially love their Pecan Porter and their super-tasty Wit (Belgian Wheat).

AR: And for fun, if you were a style of beer, what would you be and why?

MB: I would definitely be a hefeweizen. Everything that comes from Germany is gorgeous: the people, the accents, the cars, the architecture, the beers… so there’s that. But also, the flavor is quite unique and most people can probably remember the first time they had one. Not to mention, it’s always served in those special glasses. I mean, who doesn’t want to be tall and skinny? Throw in a spritz of citrus and that sexy German pronunciation of ‘w’ and that’s me!

“Save the Planet, Drink Organic” Twitter Tasting

Join Ashely and Michael for their next Twitter Tasting on Tuesday, April 10, from 8-9 pm EST. Four  organic beers will be discussed. Every fifteen minutes, the focus will shift to the next featured beer as brew masters take questions from Twitter fans and share stories about the beers and the breweries. Learn how to participate.