How giving its customers what they want (with plenty of choices) is driving the StillFire Brewing brand
Located just about 34 miles Northwest of Atlanta in Gwinnett County, Suwanee, Georgia is defined by its dense suburban feel, swath of diverse eateries, and host of resident-friendly parks. Nestled strategically in the middle of it all sits StillFire Brewing, the brainchild of co-founders Randall Veugeler and John Bisges.
StillFire, which ironically enough was conceived after the duo spent a night discussing their mutual dream of opening a brewery over beers, has not only become the toast of one of the country’s most livable communities, but the craft world as a whole. Veugeler and Bisges, along with nationally recognized Brewmaster Phil Farrell, have created a community that craft beer enthusiasts cannot stop raving about.
And that name? StillFire had a message that resonated with their plans for their brewery. They envisioned StillFire Brewing to be a place where conversations can inspire others to find that flame burning within its patrons—a place where people can find the courage to act on their passions. The spark is symbolized in the company’s logo and tagline “Find YOUR Fire.”
To get a look at what lies ahead for the StillFire brand, we sat down with StillFire co-founder and CMO Randall Veugeler, and Brewmaster Phil Farrell.
Give us a snapshot of today’s craft brew market. What’s likely to happen next?
Phil Farrell: There was a terrible unexpected stress put on the craft brew market when pubs and taprooms unexpectedly closed for an extended period last year. At the same time, isolated craft beer consumers ventured out to stores looking for something new to break the monotony of being home. Craft brewers were rewarded by consumers willing to try almost anything once, however those same adventurous drinkers were equally willing to forever reject a beer that didn’t meet their expectations.
While innovation has larger rewards for bold brewers, there is risk of failure in a crowded market if you aren’t on top of your craft. Cans as a package for craft beer is no longer a novelty, and even canned special releases are readily embraced by consumers. There are tens of thousands of brewers trying to figure out which new hop, yeast, or small batch malt deserves their attention, and it has spawned a generation of craft beer fans who have never known a time when the market was boring and stagnant.
I think craft beer has some similarity to music. Contemporary music lovers are often surprised to discover their favorite tunes have roots in classic rock, blues or jazz. Just as New England-style Hazy IPA and fruited Gose-style sour ales emerged as small, initially regional twists on a classic style, there will be something breaking out in 2021 that will be a reimagined classic style, a “cover” beer to borrow a term.
Just like music, the original classics really never go out of style. It will depend on how they are presented as to whether they become the next hottest segment.
What trends are defining the space?
Farrell: There are four pillars in the current craft beer world: craft lagers, fruited Gose-inspired sours, IPAs (Hazy New England and everything else), and alternative beverages, including seltzers. For every bold and innovative offering from a craft brewer, there is a corresponding trend to twist a pillar by utilizing one or more of lower alcohol, gluten free, non-GMO, organic, locally sourced, reduced calorie or alcohol free. Poorly imagined beers won’t survive today’s craft beer drinker’s rising expectations. With a plethora of choices, brewers have to be on their game to capture today’s consumers.
What’s your story from a brand perspective?
Randall Veugeler: My partner, John Bisges, and I both had the same dream of one day owning a brewery after college but then life happened. We both got married, raised families, started businesses and went on with our lives. When we met and started talking, we discovered we both still had that fire to open a brewery. When developing the brand story and name for the brewery our team came back to the idea that we both still had that fire after all those years and the name, StillFire was born.
The name had a message that resonated with our plans for their brewery. We envisioned StillFire Brewing to be a place that could spark conversations that could lead others to find that flame burning within them and to find the courage to act on those passions. That spark is symbolized in StillFire’s logo and our tagline, “Find YOUR Fire.”
Walk us through your branding strategy.
Veugeler: One of the things that makes our business successful is that John is an extremely successful business operator, while I’m the owner of a marketing firm. Our families are both very involved in the community. When developing the strategy to launch the brand, we felt like we already had a head start. My wife and I are the creators of the “Suwanee American Craft Beer Fest,” one of the largest craft beer festivals in the Southeast, which takes place in a park across the street from the new brewery site.
After eight years of marketing and growing the beer festival brand, we knew we understood our audience. The consumers in Suwanee are very discerning and well educated about craft beer. They have pride in their city and expect the best. And, most importantly, they are always ready for something new. We knew that if we emphasized the high quality and the varieties of beer produced by StillFire, it would go a long way in differentiating the brand from other area breweries.
It just so happened that through my connections with the festival, I had met an award-winning brewmaster. As one of the top 10 ranked Beer Judge Certification Program judges in the world, Phil had been judging beer for decades at all the world’s most respected contests and was highly respected in the craft beer world. He agreed to come on board. Since then, he and his brewing team have consistently delivered exceptional beer.
In fact, they produced more than 75 different beers in the first year alone. Advertising this incredible variety (we always have at least 25 beers and seltzers on tap), the quality of beer and showcasing the taproom and the people who make up our community has been the focus of our marketing. We spent a lot of time designing and creating a unique taproom experience that is welcoming to people of all ages. Our digital marketing concentrates on giving customers a reason to visit the taproom and experience who StillFire is first hand. This has been key in building a following that feels emotionally connected to our brand.
What’s the biggest issue related to the marketing/sales side of the craft beer business?
Veugeler: It’s no secret that the craft beer industry has become wildly popular over the last few years. With laws changing to be more brewery friendly, more craft beer locations are opening not only in the State of Georgia, but nationwide.
While this growth is a big win for the industry, the crowded marketplace is making it increasingly vital to differentiate yourself and find more authentic ways to grow your brand loyalty. Because of this, it can be challenging to break through and stand out from a digital and social media perspective as well as out in distribution.
What’s the secret to creating a branding story that consumers can buy into?
Veugeler: The biggest thing is remaining 100% authentic. Remember to go back to your roots of what you stand for and why you do what you do. People following your business want to relate to your brand, and feel connected to it in some shape or form. Engagement goes both ways. If you aren’t liking, sharing and commenting on your audience’s content, they are much less likely to do the same for you.
What’s the one thing every craft beer brand should do in the marketing department?
Veugeler: Devote a lot of time to having a great social media presence. Social media is arguably the best marketing channel because it is cheap, engaging and provides almost instant feedback. Your social media platforms are also one of the best ways to develop and maintain relationships with current and potential customers. Finally, take advantage of paid advertising. Targeting specific geographies, demographics, etc., is an extremely helpful and powerful tool to reach more people.
What do you see as some of your biggest opportunities moving ahead?
Veugeler: One we have right now is the chance to keep growing out in distribution. Our beer is currently distributed to restaurants and package stores across the state, but growing our on-premise accounts is our focus now that restaurants and bars are opening to full capacity. We also are developing plans for a second taproom.
What’s the biggest item on your to-do list?
Veugeler: We just launched a charitable foundation, The Find Your Fire Foundation, in an effort to give back to our community. We’ve been so inspired by the support we’ve received over the past year and a half, and we realized we have the opportunity to do more than just brew beer.
Since opening our doors, our StillFire team has not only been dedicated to creating delicious innovative craft beers, but also strived to foster a more positive quality of life in our community and beyond. We partnered with Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta and hosted our Foundation Launch party recently in an effort to raise money for childhood cancer. It was a huge success. We are now planning on other fundraising events to host in the taproom in an effort to continue to give back.
How does your taproom space integrate into your branding/marketing strategies?
Veugeler: Our brand strategy starts with the taproom. We created our taproom as not just a space to drink beer, but as a space for friends and neighbors to come and connect with those around them. The StillFire brand is woven throughout the entire space—from our “Find your Fire” wall, which is an explanation of how we began and how it relates to each taproom visitor, to our racoon mascot, Bandit, who graces one of the walls, to the metal posters showcasing our can artwork throughout the taproom, and painted kegs to look like our cans that serve as a backdrop for bands. The space has a high-end, yet comfortable ambiance, with fire pits on the front and side patios, umbrella tables, communal high tops and picnic tables for larger groups.
What adjustments have you made with everything the past year?
Veugeler: One great thing about our location is that the City of Suwanee has an open container policy. We knew this would be a key opportunity when designing the brewery, so we added in a to-go window with draft beer available for purchase as well as a variety of four-packs. Our to-go window was a lifesaver during COVID, as it allowed us to keep our doors open—in a sense. We were overwhelmed with the community’s support and bought a crowler machine, which allowed us to sell 32 ounce crowlers of any of our beers on draft as well.
Sitting down with StillFire Brewmaster Phil Farrell
What’s the most rewarding part of your job?
I have the best job in the world. I get to make beer, taste beer and drink beer with my friends. The most rewarding part of the job is the satisfaction I get when I see our team in the brewery rising to every challenge as a group no matter what is thrown at us. We literally had a life-threatening illness strike one of our brewing families independent of dealing with the uncertainty of a total shutdown and worldwide pandemic in our first year. Despite that, we kept challenging ourselves to do better every time we made a beer—whether it was a new one or one we made a couple of dozen times already. I feel nothing but pride in the people we have and am confident we are stronger for all of the adversity we endured.
What was the best advice you ever received?
I went to Grand Rapids, Michigan to interview Mike Stevens and Dave Engbers for a magazine feature about Founders Brewing. During the interview, I listened intently as they described the first turbulent years of Founders. They were brewing beers that many craft brewers were brewing in the 90’s (Porter, Red Ale, Pale Ale), yet they were having trouble finding customers. They literally were within days of losing their lease and having the bank padlock the brewery. Mike said he spoke to Dave, and they realized they had lost their way by brewing what others were brewing rather than what made them want to become brewers in the first place. They also loved to drink.
That was the genesis of Dirty Bastard, a Scotch Ale that was 50% stronger than their beers of the time. The name even shocked their very conservative investors. But they asked for a little more time to go with their gut and brew something they were really excited about. This one sea change turned the brewery around almost overnight. Founders stayed true to that guiding principle to this day.
That advice guides me to this day every time I’m thinking of brewing a new beer or improving one we already brew.
What’s the best thing a customer ever said to you?
Our most regular, regular customer said to me, “I have never had a bad beer here. I like all of them.” This is someone who made it a point to visit us the first 400 days we were open, and even a few we weren’t officially open, so it is something I really am proud of. I visited a table of new customers and immediately noticed that eight people were drinking eight different beers.
New customers routinely thank us for our variety, and it is not uncommon to either hear, “There are so many choices” or “I am having trouble choosing because there are three or four I really like.” One customer said they bring their sister-in-law over every time she visits because we are the only brewery that has beer she likes. We try to brew beers that are great to drink with friends in a social setting, so one I have heard numerous times that really makes me grin with pride, “You just made my new favorite beer.”