Nick Hazen is a big fan of 3 Stars Brewing in Washington D.C., particularly its specialty concoctions that mix various flavors into unique tasting beers. Though 3 Stars’ big sellers like Peppercorn Saison and Southern Belle, a brown ale, are usually easy to find in most area grocery stores and liquor shops, its specialty releases are hard to find. But Hazen, an obstetrician/gynecologist in Washington, doesn’t have to worry about how to get these beers get delivered. He’s a member of 3 Stars Illuminati Reserve Society, which might sound like something out of a Dan Brown novel. In some ways it is.
The Illuminati is an exclusive club of about 200 members that get five specialty bottled beers, which are typically barrel-aged. For $118 a year, members also get a special welcome party at the brewery and 10 percent discount on purchases in the tap room. Last year, those special beers included a barrel-aged Imperial Stout that spent two years in rye whiskey barrels that was then blended with an American Strong Ale that spent nearly two years in American bourbon barrels to make a huge 11.7% ABV beer with big malt character. These are not your run-of-the-mill IPAs or wheat beers and that’s what Hazen loves. “I enjoy the complex flavors and enjoy the flavors they come up with,” he said.
“I figured I would be spending $100 on their beer anyway so why not do it all at once and be a part of the club,” said Hazen, 36, who has been an Illuminati member since it was created in 2013.
3 Stars is one of hundreds of craft breweries that have started their own membership clubs in the past five years in an effort to satisfy their most devoted fans and increase cash flow. Most of these club memberships sell out within days or a few weeks at beginning of each year.
Unlike the beer-of-the month clubs that have been around for years, the brewery clubs often give members access to exclusive or rare beers without having to stand in line. But members usually have to come to the brewery to pick up their brews rather than having it mailed to them. In addition to beer, membership usually includes special glassware, t-shirts, exclusive party and discounts on food and beer in the tap rooms.
Some craft breweries have started membership clubs even before they open their brewery tap rooms as a way to raise cash. Other well-established craft breweries have only recently joined the club movement. This includes Sierra Nevada – one of the oldest craft breweries — that in 2015 started its Alpha Hop Society.
Terrence Sullivan, a former brewer and now beer content manager for Sierra Nevada, said Alpha Hop has about 350 members who live near their breweries in Chico, CA and Asheville, NC or its tap room in Berkeley, Calif. “We do have a huge fan base, but some super hardcore loyalists that we really wanted to scratch their back and provide beers that only they could have as members,” Sullivan said. For a $370 annual fee, members get 18 beers over the course of the year and get to attend parties at the brewery locations as well as a special tasting glass and T-shirt. “We’re absolutely glad we did it,” he said. One of the big releases last year was Lime Guava Gose aged in tequila barrels.
Among the 2018 releases for the Alpha Hop Society include:
Barrel-Aged Biscotti Beer brewed with almonds and star anise (9.7% ABV, bourbon barrels), Barrel-Aged Cinnamon Swirl that is aged in whiskey barrels with cinnamon and vanilla (10% ABV) and a Belgian-Style Cherry Quad brewed with cherries and aged in bourbon barrels (13.8% ABV).
The Alpha Hop Society is a way for Sierra Nevada fans to sample experimental beers with volumes too small ever to make it to the general marketplace — previously available only at exclusive brewery festivals “We’re constantly experimenting with new beers and new flavors and, until now, we never had an outlet for these beers,” said Ken Grossman, Sierra Nevada’s founder. “Our barrel rooms are full of single-barrel batches, odd lots, and other unique projects that would never make sense for a larger release. The Alpha Hop Society is the perfect way to showcase these exciting beers, and help get our experimental and innovative projects out into the world.”
Port City Brewing in Alexandria, VA. in February 2018 launched its Port City Porters Union — a new membership group that for a $150 annual fee includes a four-pack of its award winning Colossal 5 and six-pack of Colossal 7 as well as $1 off pints on Wednesday in its tap room. Members also get a discount off growler fills, a shirt, and are invited to a release party at the brewery before new beers go public. Twice a year, the union will hold special parties outside the brewery.
Tim Quintyn, tasting room manager at Port City, who came up with the idea, said he was looking for a way to get more people to visit the brewery on slower weekdays as well as recognize their most devoted customers. Membership sold out its 100 slots within 36 hours. The name of the membership club was inspired by his favorite beer – Port City Porter.
“My main focus is to keep the tasting room relevant and I saw an opportunity to keep people interested in coming out for beer and creating an exclusive club is one way to approach that,” Quintyn said. He said the parties and other events to try new beers will help bring members closer to the brewery and its staff. “It really will make them feel part of Port City,” he said.
Adroit Theory Brewing in Purcellville, VA launched its Black Heart Society membership club a few months before the brewery opened in 2013. Since the first year, the club has sold out membership, which this year has 150 patrons. Black Heart provides four exclusive bottles of beer as well as an invite to appreciation parties and discounts on other merchandise. “It is nice to have a set number of people into what we doing as well as a money making opportunity for us,” Osborne said.
The concept of the club was so people didn’t have to wait in line at the brewery for special releases and so people could contract up front for a certain number of beers. The Black Society Club in some ways acts as an informal sales network for the brewery, which specializes in big, bold tasting beers, an emphasis on barrel aging and a constantly evolving line of draft beers, Osborne said. “Club members preach what they like to friends and family and the structure of the club is so they have a good time and get good discounts and in return, more people into the brewery,” he said.
Osborne said the money from the memberships was helpful in the early days after the brewery opened. “It gave us money upfront and locked in set number of clients who showed up every week and the numbers drove our popularity,” he said.
Are you a member of another beer club? Please feel free to tell us about it in the comments!
Phil Galewitz has been writing about the the craft brewing industry in the Mid-Atlantic states since 2011. He lives in Washington D.C. and South Florida. Twitter: @philgalewitz Instagram: Philmorebeer. He visits over 300 breweries a year across the United States.