In December 2013, Foothills Brewing issued a bold challenge to its fans: Help the company reach 15,000 Facebook likes and Foothills would finally start bottling its beloved Jade IPA. Typical activity would have left Foothills well short of this magic number, but the response was far from typical.
“We were averaging 500 likes a week after that, and by January 19 we reached 15,000 likes,” said Ray Goodrich, marketing and communications manager for the Winston-Salem, N.C.-based brewery. “I was pretty amazed by how quickly it got done. We just had a guy from Iowa who got Jade in a trade and was posting pictures of it on Facebook—it’s permeated the craft-beer culture pretty fast.”
Utilizing the “build it and they will come” philosophy, Foothills has mastered the art of brewing outstanding beer and then generating a swirl of hoopla around a particular brand.
Sexual Chocolate Imperial Stout
Take the brewery’s Sexual Chocolate Imperial Stout—with a perfect 100 score on Ratebeer.com, it didn’t take long for word to spread around the Southeast that Sexual Chocolate was more than just a catchy name. Foothills has since turned statewide demand for the dark nectar into a cult-like following by creating a one-day bottle release event at the brewery each February that draws 400-plus fans.
“We definitely have a lot of beer tourism come through our brewpub, and Sexual Chocolate puts us on more of a national stage because there’s a lot of talk and excitement surrounding the brand,” said Jamie Bartholomaus, Foothills’ president and brewmaster. “A lot of people from the Midwest, for instance, on their way to the beach will make a detour through Winston to come to Foothills. Whether or not Sexual Chocolate is on tap at the time, I think it brings a lot of awareness to our company.”
Only 400 cases of 22-ounce bombers of Sexual Chocolate were produced by Foothills in 2013, 150 of which were sold during the event. According to Bartholomaus, Foothills continues to stick to its roots by making Sexual Chocolate a mostly draft-only product, unveiling a limited supply of bottles as a way to thank its loyal fans and generate excitement for the brewery release party.
The bottle auction raised $2,500, which Foothills matched, and all the proceeds were divided up and distributed to four local charities.
“It’s more than just the beer,” Bartholomaus said. “It’s a great beer, great name, great logo, great demand. There’s a lot of great imperial stouts out there, but the way we do it with the timing and everything—it just makes for a fun experience.”
At nine-years-old come St. Patrick’s Day 2014, Foothills is no one-hit wonder. Its flagship Hoppyum IPA is the top-selling IPA in North Carolina—and among the top five-selling six-packs in the state among all brands, including macros. And now, with the bottling of their Jade IPA—which scores a 96 on BeerAdvocate.com—the Southern hop heads have gone into a frenzy.
Fueled by the opening of a 26,000 square-foot production facility at the end of 2011, Foothills experienced its first major growth spurt in 2013, more than doubling production to 28,000 barrels. Essentially a draft-only brewery with one 22-ounce bottle offering prior to last year, the company filled in the other half of its business by launching six-packs and additional 22-ounce bombers while making the leap from self-distribution to wholesaler.
“We anticipated pretty strong growth,” Bartholomaus said. “Moving to wholesaler put us in the position to get out there quickly. We had a strong demand for draft, so we knew we would sell a lot of bottles. We kind of hand-built our brands as demand grew, so we’ve pretty much prepped them to fly; the wholesaler got it in a pretty good state.”
Jade is a perfect example. The beer, made with Jade, Citra and Chinook hops and heavily dry-hopped, was the result of a trip to the Craft Brewers Conference seven years ago. Bartholomaus and Head Brewer T.L. Adkisson were checking out the Jade hop at the Hop Union booth and “we were both kind of waxing poetic about how great they smelled,” Bartholomaus recalled. A few years later the brewers were able to get their hands on some and Jade IPA was born.
A hop lover’s dream, the beer was packaged strictly in half-barrel kegs, making it available only at certain tap accounts. By the time enthusiasm was ready to boil over among consumers, Goodrich made his social-media push and Jade made its long-awaited bottle debut in February 2014.
“Jade is kind of the latest brand we brought up through our ranks,” Bartholomaus said. “So all of our brands started off as draft-only and then went to bottle when they were ready. Three years from the day we started brewing Jade, we put it out in bottles, so we just kind of build the demand over time.”
Aspiring to be known as the premier IPA brewery in the Southeast, Foothills also began 2014 by introducing a new IPA of the Month that allows Adkisson to play with new hop varieties and keep Foothills “on our toes.” A different IPA will be released each month throughout 2014 in extremely limited quantities to elicit more excitement from their fans.
Goodrich, who came on board last year to keep marketing on pace with production, once again took to Facebook with another challenge for the brewery’s fans: Come up with the name of the woman on the vintage pin-up girl label that adorns each beer and win a 22-ounce bomber. For the first contest in January, Foothills received 400 responses in less than 24-hours, and just one day after announcing the IPA of the Month release the post had reached 13,000 people.
Such efforts are paying off—in addition to the 15,000 likes on Facebook, Foothills has 8,000 followers on Twitter and a thousand on Instagram. Its Klout score, which measures online social influence, is equal to that of the Boston Red Sox, according to Goodrich, and ranks as the highest of any North Carolina brewery as well as top 10 among all breweries in the U.S.
“So we’ve definitely noticed an organic groundswell of people who have started to turn on to us from a social media standpoint,” Goodrich said.
Freshness and Quality Remain a Top Priority
With such a following, expanded distribution and a brewing facility capable of someday yielding 100,000 barrels annually, Foothills is primed to soar, though it is approaching such growth cautiously to remain quality-driven.
The company aims to limit bottled beer life at the brewery to 10 to 15 days maximum. It has also maintained its fleet of nine North Carolina sales reps and is hiring local staff in new markets like Richmond and northern Virginia rather than sending current staff to out-of-state accounts.
“We work very hard with retailers to keep beer as fresh as possible,” Bartholomaus said, “and our attention to detail on boring stuff like inventory helps the consumer in a big way. We do all the ordering for our North Carolina wholesaler ourselves. The challenge is to get the beer on the market as quick as possible and then sold as quickly as possible. You don’t want four IPAs of the Month sitting next to each other on the shelf.”
Goodrich concluded, “When we moved from self-distribution to wholesaler, we knew there was going to be a disconnect between us and our consumers, so we knew we had to work harder to build demand for our brand. Our goal is to stay small as we get big.”
Gary Glancy is a longtime, award-winning journalist living just outside the booming craft-beer town of Asheville, N.C. He left the newspaper industry in 2012 to embark on a beer-centered six-week road trip across the U.S., culminating in his first visit to the Great American Beer Festival®, and then follow his passion by pursuing a career in the craft-brew industry. A Cicerone® Certified Beer Server, Glancy is now a brewery tour guide and bartender for The Poe House craft beer/fine wine tavern in Hendersonville, N.C., and a beer-tender for Catawba Brewing Co.’s new Asheville tasting room and eventual satellite brewery.