Expert Topic Mug Clubs: Two Different Models, Both With One Purpose

Which came first, craft beer or the mug club? An unanswerable question to be sure. For seemingly as long as craft brewers have been operating, they’ve offered customers the option to join a small and exclusive club of supporters. In the 90s, it seemed like every brewpub offered a mug club for their amber ale drinking fans. In the age of the brewery taproom, that pioneering model of craft beer is getting a second look.

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Your taproom may be interested in starting a mug club for several reasons, ranging from building community and brand connection to even financial gain. Let’s consider some two different mug clubs that will hopefully help guide your decision making on starting a mug club at your place.

The TailGate Model

At TailGate Brewery in Nashville, Tennessee, the mug club has some pretty generous benefits. The annual cost is $60 and it hasn’t changed since the program began. “I think we made that promise to our mug club members for a long time,” says Liz Tarry, the brewery’s Marketing Manager. She notes the costs to the customer does rise with any increases in the price of beer because it is a flat dollar fee off. But TailGate plans to maintain the low membership fee. “I think we just made that promise to our members, and we’ve made good on it,” she says.

For that price, members can visit any of the brewery’s multiple locations and drink from a slightly larger mug (four ounces bigger), get two dollars off every beer, cider, or seltzer, two dollars off cans to go and growler fills, as well as receive 10-percent off merchandise. In addition, they can participate in Kick the Keg Tuesdays, where the designated beer only costs a buck, and Mug Club Appreciation Day on the last Tuesday of the month, where every beer (save for barrel-aged ones) costs just a dollar. “It’s a deal that you break even on very, very quickly if you’re a beer lover,” Tarry says. She also notes the brewery continues to add discounts to the program.

The Notch Model

At Notch Brewing in Massachusetts, owner Chris Lohring runs mug clubs at each of the brewery’s locations. Lohring based Notch’s Krug Club on versions he saw in Germany, where beer halls have a locker that stores their mug and other items and members have their own key. “It’s a pretty exclusive club,” Lohring notes, saying that local dignitaries, including the mayor, would get their own lockers. “So I wanted to bring that to Salem and kind of have that exclusivity where you have a key but then democratize it and have the mug club.”
The cost to join Notch’s club appears a little steeper at $200 per year but Lohring notes that the benefits definitely eclipse the cost. Entry is limited to about 70 to 100 members at each location and they’re chosen in an annual lottery. Members must use their Steinkrugs (usually 1 liter ceramic mugs emblazoned with the Notch logo) at least once a month to be eligible for membership the following year.

In addition to the locker and key, members get larger pours at regular prices, merch, discounts on quart cans and four-packs, as well as early access and discounts on tickets to Notch’s events. In addition, Notch regularly holds quarterly members-only events, where mug clubbers can get together in a friendly environment. Lohring also hosts VIP tours, a popular Czech beer pouring class on the brewery’s Lukr faucet system.

“We wanted to make it so that the buy-in was high enough where the person coming into the club was serious about wanting to be in there,” Lohring says. “And not just casual, because we want people that participate. We want people that are active in it. We try to demonstrate that based upon the benefits that are provided, that you’re getting way more than $200. It’s a way to engage some of our more loyal customers and give them a little bit of special treatment.”
Focus On The Customer

TailGate Brewery in Nashville, Tennessee, uses its mug club to attract folks looking to save a couple bucks on beer and then develops a deeper relationship with them. “I joke all the time that you kind of start as just looking for this great deal and this great discount, and you just evolve into a regular,” says Liz Tarry, the brewery’s Marketing Manager. Tailgate’s mug club boasts nearly 2500 members across six locations and the brewery centers them in everything it does. “They’re the first people we think of when we’re looking at any changes, special deals, discounts, or events,” she says. “The loyalty program does what it’s supposed to and kind of turns them into big fans of ours. And it’s really growing.”

Chris Lohring of Notch Brewing agrees. He runs mug clubs at both of his Massachusetts locations and they’re focused on the customer. “I’m a terrible business person,” he jokes. “If this was for financial gain, it would be totally skewed to a different type of model. It’s really a reward to customers that are the most enthusiastic about us and want to share the experience and they’re our biggest advocates.”

Building Loyalty And Community Versus Financial Gain

One thing you hear when talking with brewery owners and managers about mug clubs is that the benefits are less about immediate financial return and more about building a lasting relationship with the customer. “It depends on your goal. If it’s financial, then I don’t really have any advice because we don’t do it for financial reasons,” Lohring says. “It’s worthwhile engaging your customer. It really engages in a different way. It brings in really engaged customers and enhances their experience in a way you couldn’t do otherwise.”

Tarry agrees. “I would not call it a financial gain for us, no, it’s certainly a loyalty program for loyalty sake and we’re really proud of it,” Tarry says. “I think community is obviously number one. We develop regulars out of the program, we get great feedback. They’re the people that we value their beer feedback the most, because they are our regulars, and they are in and they’re tasting our beers every day.”

Lohring notes that having the mug club renew in January each year does help the brewery with an influx of cash. “For the brewery, it’s advantageous because it comes up in quarter one, which is our slowest time of the year and we can really use a little influx of cash. And we get that, and that’s really, that’s great.”

The Mug Itself

Both Tarry and Lohring agree that taprooms should consider the importance of the mug itself as a selling point for both the brewery and the program. “We have a lot of people that are proud to be a mug club member. One important aspect of it is that you have a membership card and you are drinking out of different glassware that’s not necessarily open to the public,” Tarry says. “So there is some kind of exclusivity about the program, although it is no way in no way exclusive. So I think our members enjoy that.” And members can go to any of TailGate’s locations and drink from a club mug. “I think using different glassware is really important. The marketing of it is important versus just calling it a loyalty program where you come in five times and you get 10% off. It’s a really, really different feel.”

At Notch, the brewery will provide members with its standard liter mug but members can also bring in their own favorite mugs as they’re really getting the space in the locker. “You can put whatever mug you want in there,” Lohring says. “You can bring in a glass krug, you can bring in a half liter steinkrug from somewhere else.” Lohring just has one rule for a member’s mug: “it just can’t be another brewery brand.”

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