Classic spots in the City of Chicago like Hopleaf, The Map Room and Goose Clybourn converted countless unsuspecting patrons into craft beer fanatics over the last decade. As craft, especially local craft beer, soared to new heights of popularity, opportunities began to present themselves outside of the City. Two of the early movers in the recent surge are now two of the most popular, Solemn Oath and Penrose, who sit 13 miles apart in the Western Suburbs.
I had always wondered what the motivating factor was for Eric Hobbs, formerly of Goose Island and co-founder of Penrose, to choose Geneva, IL as their home. Was it the more reasonable cost of land and building? Was the environment more conducive to open fermentation? When I asked, it turns out the answer was much simpler. It was the opportunity, and in 2014 his vision became a reality. Eric grew up in Geneva and recognized that the Tri-Cities (Geneva, St. Charles, Batavia) was ideal for a Craft Brewery. I made the early mistake of thinking that Solemn Oath’s decision to choose Naperville, another Western Suburb, as their home in 2012 would have influenced Eric’s decision. It turns out that Eric had started the business plan for Penrose in 2010, two years before Solemn Oath even opened. This served as a friendly reminder of just how long it takes to open the doors of a new brewery, well over three years in Eric’s case.
Most “outsiders” to the craft beer world would view these two breweries in neighboring towns as competitors, especially since both have tap rooms and focus on Belgian-inspired beers. While there is of course some truth to that, Penrose and Solemn Oath have done a great job at representing the industry and their respective community. I have always felt that each other’s success is actually in both of their long-term best interests. When I asked Eric if he sees Solemn Oath as a competitor, he responded “Well there is truth at the core of the statement - every brewery competes with every other for retail real estate, wholesaler/retailer/beer drinker share of mind. But I would also make the case that a strong local beer community is a worthwhile goal, and that is ultimately why breweries like Penrose and SOB work together to offer new/unique beer drinking experiences. We also share info about their events, and they do the same for ours. Then again, we also F@#% with them every chance we get."
He’s right in my opinion, and it’s what I find so fascinating about this industry. Per the Brewers Association, in 2014 89% of national beer consumption was Domestic/Import, while 11% was craft. Looking at barrelage, if we stick with 2014 stats, every percentage point that craft gains translates to just shy of 2 million barrels. That represents a tremendous opportunity for new breweries and expansion for existing ones. This is why I believe that the comradery demonstrated between Penrose and Solemn Oath, both behind-the-scenes and on social media, is helping to further interest in communities not used to having a local presence. Each macro, wine or cocktail drinker who Penrose converts to craft beer is likely to check out Solemn Oath next, and vice versus. Crowded shelves and tap handles will continue to be competitive, probably more so than ever, but will result in most new investments having a heavy emphasis on the taproom/on-premise model. That’s always been more common in states like California and Oregon, versus my home state of Illinois, but we're starting to see it more and more. Both Penrose and Solemn Oath however, have had this vision from the beginning.
Saying that the two breweries share a significant portion of their audience is one thing, but being able to quantify the overlap would be more meaningful. One way to measure would be to extract their Instagram followings, compare, and find out how much they do overlap. I find Instagram to be especially relevant here because Penrose and Solemn Oath are among the elite with their Instagram presence. Despite being very different visually, both feeds are clean, consistent and have a cool story-telling approach. They don’t just tell you what beers are being released and when you can expect to see them. Both breweries give you an inside look at who they are and what they’re all about. Eric explained, “John [Barley] (Founder, Solemn Oath) and I absolutely both feel this is a very important part of our ability to share an authentic/honest story about our breweries. In fact, I hired a former photojournalist as our Taproom Mgr (Jeff Cagle) to be sure our story and photos were on point.” Jeff’s work is indeed fantastic and represents their brand perfectly. The overlapping follower results below are fascinating to me, but not necessarily surprising:
I was curious what Eric thought about this 40.5% overlap in customer base, to which he explained, “I hadn't really thought about it before you mentioned it, but I guess I'm not too surprised to hear it. I'm sure our brewery's close proximity to the other would affect this, but I think it would be more attributable to the fact that we regularly engage with each other on social media.” From my experience over the years, being mentioned in someone else’s post will certainly result in a small gain in followers, but those people will unfollow you the second your posts no longer feels relevant. The more active you are, the more you subject yourself to being unfollowed. My @beeraficionado feed has 12.7K followers, but has been unfollowed by over 7K people. I wouldn’t say that Instagram has reached it’s peak yet, not even close. It has reached the point however, where users regularly clean up and curate their following, keeping it as relevant as possible. I do agree that awareness of each other’s feeds is enhanced by the mentions, but given how active each account is, I don’t feel either brewery would be able to maintain followers who aren’t current or soon-to-be patrons. Penrose averaged 24 posts/month over the last 3 months and Solemn Oath averaged 16 posts/month. Eric suggested monitoring the overlap after a significant mention, which will be an interesting experiment to try at a future date.
I realize that we haven't necessarily gotten to the bottom of many of the points I've brought up, but I wanted to kick off the conversation. There's a lot more that can be done comparing follower bases than just looking at 2 breweries head-to-head. Once we start involving the entire local scene or the entire local distribution footprint and involve retailer accounts as well, we'll have a lot more to discuss. I am curious what everyone thinks about these topics. Feel free to leave comments here or on Instagram. Your feedback will help steer future posts.
I have 3 people to thank for making this possible. Thank you to Eric Hobbs of Penrose for your willingness to provide feedback and color to the article. Thank you to Matt Johnson for your assistance with the data. And finally, thank you to Brian Devine for creating the badass Venn Diagram to help illustrate the overlap in Penrose and Solemn Oath's following. I look forward to collaborating with you each on future ideas and again, I welcome any comments or feedback from readers.