The world according to craft
How Urban South Brewery is preaching the gospel of good beer
Jacob Landry's love for craft came from Europe. While attending college there, the Southwest Louisiana native remembers falling hard for Belgian and English style ales and German lagers. After returning to the States, he worked in the education world, first as a teacher and then overseeing strategy for Louisiana's largest school district. And then came the call. As a good Cajun and Southerner, he recalls, he knew his future rested in sharing the gospel of good beer. Partnering with Kyle Huling, founder of the Louisiana Craft Beer team, they unleashed Urban South Brewery on the craft world.
Urban South's combination of the heritage of European beer making with the brashness of new American styles set the Cajun beer world on fire. Its mixture of cultural legacy and bold innovation hit the New Orleans market in 2016 with the opening of Urban South's production facility and taproom. In February 2020, Landry and Huling opened an R&D brewery and taproom in Houston, where they continue to focus on pushing the boundaries of American beer.
Their mission is to inspire community and fellowship through the gospel of good beer. Together, they plan to build an enduring company that embodies the values and traditions of the Urban South—while also being a strong community partner.
CBAM sat down with Landry and Huling to get their insights on their brand, the market and where we go from here.
What are some of the adjustments you made to your business model due to recent events?
Kyle Huling: Nearly 40% of our annual sales disappeared with the closure of bars and restaurants, so we needed to pivot quickly. Our anniversary party was scheduled for late March, so we had a bunch of one-off taproom releases in the tank, ready to go. So we canned 100% of those batches and sold them online for pick-up. Some of them sold out within minutes, which showed us that creating regular specialty releases could be the solution to our revenue shortfall. Since then we have done three to five taproom-only releases every Thursday, and continue to see amazing sales.
What type of conversations are you having with your customers?
Huling: So many are asking when they can come into the taproom for a pint. It really hurts to turn away business, but we have to follow the state and city safety guidelines. Social media interactions have gone through the roof. With the increase in remote work, people are spending more time on social media. We’ve had to up our content game while at the same time communicating the ever-changing safety procedures.
How should a brand lead in a distressed market?
Jacob Landry: Our fast growth has made us a leader in the craft beer scene here in Louisiana, and with leadership certainly comes responsibility. The pandemic has shown us that all you can do in uncharted waters is fall back on your core values. We have shown our community that we are committed to its well-being—through our extensive hand sanitizer donations, charity collaborations like “All Together” and “Black is Beautiful,” through maintaining our staff and paying them a living wage, despite the dramatic downturn in on-premise sales, and through the more lighthearted piece of producing a huge variety of special release beers.
What advice you can offer on dealing with today’s crisis?
Huling: Be aggressive and make adjustments quickly. During a crisis, some businesses’ strategy is to go into survival mode; reduce costs and overhead while trying to weather the storm. Our strategy was to take the opportunity to grow our market share in grocery stores. So our sales team, which usually made sales calls to bars and restaurants, instead visited grocery stores to stock shelves and to build displays. The result was a massive increase in off-premise sales that continued even after restaurants began opening.
We refined our to-go beer procedures after each week’s release with feedback from our customers. Whether it was implementing limits or creating safer pick-up options, we did not lock into a specific process.
Our brewing team took the opportunity to experiment a lot with different styles and recipes we had been considering for distribution beers. Since March, our team has brewed over 150 unique beers ranging from heavily fruited sours to hard seltzers. This has helped us build a game plan for new product offerings in 2021.
Landry: Hold true to your core values, and use those as your guiding principles—in our case—fearless, welcoming, honest, collaborative, and better every day.
What's next for the craft beer market?
Huling: The re-opening of bars is going to be the next hurdle for our sales team. Our team is going to need to work closely with business owners to create a safe strategy that promotes their business and our products. Additionally, we need to be respectful of their financial woes and not immediately start the sales pitch for a new brand we are launching. This is an opportunity for us to show that our goals are aligned and we can help to drive people (safely) to their bars to enjoy a long awaited pint.
What trends are defining the space?
Landry: Beer styles are certainly evolving. We never entered into the traditional IPA game—we jumped on the hazy, New England IPA trend from the start, and it’s still going strong. But we are also seeing a lot of consumer interest in fruited sour beers, and of course you cannot ignore the massive growth of hard seltzers and “better for you” beer. These are two categories that we’ll be entering with the launch of Paradise Park Hard Seltzer in early November and Paradise Park 100—our 100-calorie lager in late 2020.
What is your story from a brand perspective?
Landry: We launched at a great time in Louisiana craft beer—one where one brewery stood out as a leader, and no others had emerged as a clear alternative. This wide open space allowed us to start, not as a niche brewery, but one that could really hit across the spectrum with beer styles and distribution. We are also a group of chill, family-oriented folks, and I think our brand represents that. We are the beer for the everyman and everywoman—the one that slides seamlessly into the grocery store shelf and the festival beer booth. We aim to be that every occasion brewery, and I think our growing customer base appreciates that.
Walk us through your branding strategy.
Landry: We loved our initial branding. We intentionally created it to show the juxtaposition between old and new, and highlight those elements of the urban south that excite us—where fast-paced meets laid back, where cobblestone streets sit outside of tall glass office buildings. So in thinking about an update, we wanted to keep those elements that people are familiar with, while bringing more uniformity across our core lineup. We were able to draw upon our favorite elements from the hundreds of label designs we’ve done to create one cohesive look that was fresh, but that people would still recognize as Urban South.
What's the biggest issue today related to the marketing/sales side of the business?
Landry: The sheer volume of options. The consumer today has an environment of 8,000-plus craft breweries. When we started business planning just six years ago, there were only 2,500 in the US. In the early days of craft beer, if you brewed it, people would come, as it was novel and local. Today, not only does the product have to stand out in style, quality and consistency, but the brand also has to hit. We have understood this from Day 1, and this was a critical part of our decision-making in this brand refresh.
“Authenticity is key. The brand has to match the story, which has to match the liquid. We’re regular folks, most of us born and raised in Louisiana.” — Jacob Landry, co-founder & President
What is the secret to creating a branding story consumers can buy into?
Landry: Authenticity is key. The brand has to match the story, which has to match the liquid. We’re regular folks, most of us born and raised in Louisiana. We are taking our kids to T-ball games, fishing on the weekends, camping with extended family. If our branding, beer styles or pricing didn’t match who we are, I don’t think we could pull it off. Our customers would see right through it.
What is the one thing every brand should do in the way of marketing?
Landry: When people buy craft beer, their dollar hits small businesses, and in most cases, their own communities in a much greater way than when they buy macro products. Craft beer brands should more effectively make this case. It is got to be backed up with quality and consistency, but we need to show our communities that not only can we make beer as good as those larger brands, but we invest in our backyard in a way they could never do.
What are some of your biggest opportunities moving ahead?
Landry: As uncertain as these times can feel, I’m optimistic about a number of opportunities. I’m bullish that our brand can carry beyond Louisiana—and we will be aggressively looking to open other distribution markets in the Southeast over the next two years. I am also confident in the model of the brewery as a “third place.” We opened our Houston taproom in February of this year, and we are exploring other opportunities to create retail-focused taprooms in cities that match our brand story.
What is the biggest item on your to-do list right now?
Landry: Deciding what’s next from a location standpoint. We are pleased with how things have unfolded for our Houston taproom, and we think that model has legs in some other Southern cities.
Sitting down with…
Highland Brewing’sJacob Landry & Kyle Huling
What’s the most rewarding part of your job?
Kyle Huling: I love to see the professional development of our team. There are numerous examples of people who started out in one area of the company, but over time, we have given them the chance to follow their passions. For example, Oliver Phillis and Murphy Fleenor started on the packaging line, and now are engineering and building some of our equipment for expansion. Or Abby Perkins, who started out as a marketing intern, and now she is leading our brand refresh and new product launches.
What was the best advice you ever received?
Jacob Landry: I recently listened to a podcast with Danny Meyer, who said, “Stop complaining about your problems. Problems are the definition of business. The real question is who do you want to solve them with, and how can you have fun doing it.” This resonated with me and with the journey of entrepreneurship. There are a million headaches, but as entrepreneurs, tackling these are the essence of what we do.
What is the best thing a customer ever said to you?
Landry: It may be simplistic and cheesy, but it never gets old when a customer tells me that XYZ is their favorite beer. These are the folks that keep us going. We do a ton of experimenting and innovating, but it’s the lady buying a six-pack of Paradise Park each week and picking up a 15-pack for parties that keep our lights on. We know those folks exist, but it is so refreshing and reassuring to hear it firsthand.
What is your favorite brand story?
Landry: I’m a big fan of the “How I Built This” podcast with Guy Raz. One that I have gone back to a couple of times is the story of Jeni’s Ice Cream. I still remember the first time I stepped into one of their retail stores and was struck by how spot on the brand was, and how well the story came through. The podcast filled in a lot of the story for me, and I love the struggle, persistence, and how well the brand is executed at the store level.