How Evolution Craft Brewing continues to stay one step ahead of the crowd
For John and Tom Knorr, the plan for the Evolution Craft Brewing Co. was to always maintain a recognizable local identity. Started in 2009 in Delmar, Delaware, being a small craft brewer in a small town was the perfect plan. But then something exciting happened along the way—the demand for the Evolution name kept growing, which means the Knorrs had to grow with it.
The story of their beer—and their growth—centers on two passions: beer and food. Ask John and Tom and they’ll tell you that top-rated beers are perfectly crafted to complement great food—either the food they serve in their restaurants or the food customers make at home. The success is in the continual evolution, pun intended.
Perfect food requires perfect beer, and vice-versa.
For the Knorrs and the many fans of their beer and food, the Evolution name continues to add to its legacy, which along with its much sought after craft beer includes their Public House restaurant. To get a feel for where the Evolution Public House & Brewery brand is heading, we sat down with John and Tom.
Give us a snapshot of today’s craft brew market from your perspective.
While it’s a highly competitive market, it’s a consumer’s market because there are so many great breweries out there with many different styles. It continues to evolve every day. There are so many different styles of beer people are putting out.
What’s likely to happen next?
As more breweries open, they’re moving more toward on-premise sales, meaning over the bar instead of the distribution world. Because the distribution of craft beer is more competitive now, people are doing more sales from an on-premise standpoint. They can also do can releases at the brewery so people can buy it there. More brewhubs and beer gardens are being built to give that on-premise experience because there’s only so much shelf space. It’s shrinking every day because the seltzer market is really hot, which leaves less space for craft beer.
If you’re entering the market and you want to know how to sell craft beer, you’re going to build a brewery and try to make an awesome outdoor area to base sales on instead of shipping beer all over the place.
What trends are defining the space?
IPAs still lead the market. Younger breweries are trending more toward hazy IPAS and call some of them milkshake IPAs. The next hot trend is sour beers; limited small can releases. One time batches so they are keeping the variety always changing and drawing more people into their business. You must continue to evolve your styles and innovate new beers.
From the standpoint of brick and mortar, there seems to be a significant investment in outdoor venues. We continue to work with breweries on how to accomplish this with designs that promote the outdoor connection, while still providing cover and protection from weather. Security and other control elements are key pieces constantly being evaluated. We have achieved all these with the new outdoor venue here at the Public House and are looking to expand the experience in the very near future.
What’s your story from a brand perspective?
Evolution was founded on the goal to create beers that we thought were well balanced. We were looking at other breweries—looking at the best styles, then taking those styles to decide what would be infinitive of those. We wanted to evolve from the popular beers—evolving different styles of beer and what we think is best.
The background from the restaurant side was creating well balanced beer that would go well with foods. We looked at cross sections of all menus to create styles that would take care of any style of restaurant. For example, if they are a Latin restaurant with spicy foods, they would pair with IPAs. They cut through the spiciness with its bitterness. Or, if we have a BBQ place, we have our Lucky 7 porter, which has smoky roasted notes so we have different styles of beer that fill any restaurant’s needs.
Walk us through your branding strategy.
When we create a new brand, my goal is to make a relevant style we can sell with the current market climate of what people are drinking. Branding the name always has something to do with the actual process of the beer or something about the beer. Lot #3, for example, is a third in the series of IPAs we brewed to make, what we thought, would be our definitive IPA. Lucky 7 porter is made with seven different malts. Each brand tells something about the beer. Exile red ale is a classic English pale ale.
We use all English ingredients except for some American hops in there. We said the British would love this beer, but would exile it because it has American hops in it. All the styles go with the names and mean something on how they are perceived. It’s a cohesive way in branding. We need to make sure we reach the market and have the customers remember Evolution for what they sell and the quality in the way we make the beer.
What’s the biggest issue today related to the marketing/sales side of the business?
Competing with new breweries. You want to make sure your brand is fresh enough to compete in the current market. Every day someone is putting out something new. For a veteran brewery like us, it’s harder. Your branding gets stale a little quicker than it used too. We didn’t do any refresh of our brands for about eight years and now we’re having to do it more often just to keep up and compete.
The market is growing so fast that everyone is doing well and everyone is still looking at us like a rising tide, but on the distribution side, we’re competing with multiple breweries, which can be a challenge.
Another segment of our industry that is pretty hot right now is farm breweries. There are some really awesome ones in Maryland right now. Barns with post and beam kind of deal. Sit on the lawn with your beer, listen to music—500 people on blankets and food trucks. Big trend right now.
What’s the secret to creating a branding story that consumers can buy into?
Something you can relate with. It’s about having a good story that resonates with someone; not too long and simple enough that it makes sense about the beer or the product you’re selling. Make everything as approachable as possible. You don’t want to make consumers feel dumb. You want to make the beers approachable and not overwhelming.
The way we have grown our company is by making well balanced, approachable beers that people will want more than one of at a time. We want them to show loyalty by sticking to our brand and not go overboard. It’s taking the intimidation factor out for us and just simplifying it. Tell a story that resonates.
What’s the one thing every craft beer brand should do in the way of marketing?
I think making sure you’re constantly analyzing your brands to make sure they are fresh and relevant to the time you are in from a marketing standpoint. Also, utilizing tools like social media to prop those brands up. You must evolve to the next generation.
What do you see as some of your biggest opportunities moving ahead?
From our perspective, it’s spending more money and investing in our brick and mortar to make it more inviting and user friendly. I think that’s what will drive our bottom line more from an internal perspective.
The future expansion will be a new outdoor bar and toilet room facilities. This will allow us to potentially extend the season and also host larger crowds. The outdoor area also creates a significant presence on the highway that people see and want to experience.
Externally, from a distribution standpoint, we want to keep developing relationships in the marketplace with restaurant groups, the restaurants and the retail world. Maryland’s market is much different than others across the country because in most states you can go to a grocery store and buy your beer, which is driven by a corporate level.
In Maryland, you have thousands of little retail stores you can sell, which in time, you must forge relationships with those small groups. It’s a tricky business because one state at a corporate level can take it away in one year. In Maryland, you dig in deep and build that relationship because you’re selling to 6,000-plus consumers. It’s important we maintain those relationships and make sure the beer is selling well.
What’s the biggest item on your to-do list?
It’s regaining a lot of the accounts that had shut down or cut back in 2020 due to COVID—some of which we’ve had for years. We want to be sure we can support them as they reopen and make sure that relationship is still strong. A lot of focus is on making sure we have staffing levels to meet our needs now with the expanded outside area.
This expansion has forced most to shift focus in on how they present new offerings and will give them a specific venue to highlight them. Patrons will now be immersed in marketing and branding that will tie food and beer selections along with music concerts.
We also want to make sure our guest experiences are what we want them to be. It has been challenging because of competing with unemployment. Luckily, we have a pretty great staff, but everyone is burnt out at the end of the week.
How does your taproom space integrate into your branding/marketing strategies?
Our taproom acts as our lab for new brands. We utilize it to test new brands to see if people like the beers. We also use it to market our core brands. We get a lot of tourists come through that may not be familiar with around here. We have our core brands that you can get throughout the Mid-Atlantic, so hopefully they like the brands enough to buy them when they get back home.
What are some of the adjustments you made to your business model surrounding the recent state of events?
We expanded the outside area. We had the facility split into two. We were running a pizzeria on one side of our restaurant and a public house food side on the other. We had two separate menus and have since worked it into one menu. The pizza expansion has merged well with the craft brew. There seems to be as many critics and fans for wood fired pizza as there are beer enthusiasts.
Food offerings in these new gardens must be elevated and must have the same level of attention as the main character. So, with that, the architecture and design really needed to help reinforce this strategy. The design of how people feel, act and what they remember are all key elements in planning a successful venue.
Pull up a barstool
Inside the design of the Evolution Public House & Brewery
To get a feel for what went into the design of the Evolution Public House & Brewery, we sat down with Fisher Architecture Principal Keith Fisher. Here’s his take on what it takes to design the perfect craft beer experience.
We had been contacted by Tom and John (Knorr) when they decided to make a significant expansion. They had previously worked out of a small grocery store and needed a larger space to increase the production. They chose what once was a Reddy Ice plant to convert. The main focus was on the brewery, but ownership knew they needed to have a Public House that elevated the restaurant scene in Salisbury (Maryland). This restaurant would become one of the more prominent places to go and the design was something that the area had not experienced before.
Working with them, we developed a master plan to house the brewery and maintain all the necessary functions to be able to grow in the future and to handle the demand. They also designed the Tap Room, the dining room and bar area to be in line with the company’s overall goal of feeling welcome and to not intimidate its patrons. Guests feel welcome and at home when they come in and are excited to experience the offerings of a traditional public house.
We have since developed plans for an outdoor area that will be both accommodating to guests and be in line with the future of restaurant dining. With the global pandemic restaurateurs are constantly trying and testing new concepts in order to be inviting and have guests feel comfortable. This new venue will do all those things and provide a unique experience to the area.