Interview With Haw River Farmhouse Ales Brewery

By Clay Schossow on March 10, 2014

There are several things that unite the New Media Campaigns team: web design & technology, dogs, running, and beer.  We love getting together for a team happy hour on a nice day complete with beer and nachos at one of the many local restaurants that feature outdoor seating.  We've also been lucky enough to work with a number of breweries around the country; they're always fun projects as they tend to have ardent fanbases and the principals are true craftsmen who care deeply about their work.

Haw River Ales Owner Ben WoodardPhoto by Richard Mitchell

Recently, we got to work with an old friend, Ben Woodward, to help him build a site for his new brewery in Saxaphaw, NC, Haw River Farmhouse Ales.  While we had a blast building the site, it was even more fun to watch Ben build an online community around his new venture.  From their super successful Kickstarter campaign to their thousands of Twitter Followers, we were inspired by the work Ben was doing online and wanted to talk to him about.  Below is an interview that covers everything from his favorite beer to the secrets behind crowdfunding more than $36,000 on Kickstarter.

Hey Ben!  Tell us a little bit about yourself and Haw River Farmhouse Ales.

Haw River Ales

Haw River Farmhouse Ales started as an idea while on vacation in a Nashville, Tennessee coffee shop in November of 2010, when my wife Dawnya and I were in town for a concert and stopped in for a cup. The space we entered had such unique character, we spent a few minutes glancing in all directions and imagining how great the space would be for a brewery, sketching on a napkin and dreaming about the possibilities. From there, we got it stuck in our heads and kept thinking about what it would mean to have our own little brewery.

Then in January of 2011, I sold my small graphic design firm, moved to Saxapahaw, and with my wife, started putting all my effort into what will soon become Haw River Farmhouse Ales, a little craft brewery in Alamance County, brewing beer styles that celebrate the North Carolina agricultural landscape and push the boundaries a bit as to what folks enjoy as locally-made craft beer.

So, I know you as a designer (and a very talented one at that!). What triggered the jump from that to brewing?  Was your design background particularly helpful in the new career?

A significant portion of writing recipes and brewing beer is rooted in the creative realm, so my design and creative background has certainly been beneficial, both from a brewing and marketing standpoint. I think a lot of businesses benefit from unique, creative solutions to problems and alternative approaches to common ideas, whether you’re selling a concept for a new corporate brand to a client or a delicious pint of beer to a thirsty customer.

"I think a lot of businesses benefit from unique, creative solutions to problems and alternative approaches to common ideas, whether you’re selling a concept for a new corporate brand to a client or a delicious pint of beer to a thirsty customer."

From the beginning, how did you see the web playing a role in Haw River's identity and marketing?  And now that you've got some experience marketing yourselves, what are you trying to do online going forward?

It’s pretty much common knowledge at this point to claim that social media is the key to interacting successfully with your customers, but with a start-up small brewery, it really is the lifeblood to getting your name out in front of people and having them involved with what we have planned. Without the web and social media channels, it’s much more difficult for folks to know what we hope will set Haw River Farmhouse Ales apart from the myriad other breweries opening their doors these days.

By having a solid, focused social media presence and a clear brand message in our everyday interactions with people interested in what we’re doing, we hope to generate some excitement from folks who are looking forward to sitting down with a pint of our Cotton Pickin’ Farmhouse IPA at their local watering hole a little later this year when we get our doors open.

You have a pretty unique look on the web with hand drawn illustrations.  How did that come about?

Haw River Ales Illustration

We’d previously worked with a fantastic local artist named Nathan Golub on a few other projects in the past, and we were always thrilled to get the chance to include his talent in any creative endeavors on which we got to collaborate. So when we began putting together ideas for Haw River's brand, we wanted to make sure we conveyed a friendly, simple, "handmade” aspect for which we knew Nathan would be a perfect match.

When he first sent us the original sketches for the little farmer and bloodhound characters, we knew immediately we were on the right track. Working with Nathan has been nothing short of spectacular so far—his unique talent is certainly a large part of what makes Haw River Farmhouse Ales stand out before we’re even open.

You're a new brand and you've already got more than 2,000 Facebook Likes and Twitter Followers.  How did you get such a strong presence in those networks so quickly?  Any tips for others who want to build up their followings?

We’ve been thrilled to have so many energetic and excited folks tuned in to what we have on board while we’ve been planning things. I think the key to successful social media interest (i.e.: picking up new followers and engaging the ones who already are following you, which obviously go hand-in-hand) is having an engaging story that stands out from the crowd, and then working that narrative into as many channels as you have access to in a captivating, inviting way. People like to play an important part of something *real* these days, instead of just standing on the receiving end of a marketing message.

One thing that really caught our attention was your successful Kickstarter!  Why did you choose Kickstarter as a route for funding?

We actually never intended to use Kickstarter for the brewery’s fundraising, opting for more traditional means of raising funds from personal savings, helpful family members, and the traditional channels at our local bank. But as we got closer to opening, we realized there were folks who really wanted to help us reach our goals, so we thought Kickstarter would be a great way to allow our fans and followers to become intimately involved with the genesis of Haw River Farmhouse Ales.

And by choosing to niche our campaign to specifically help us source equipment to improve our sustainable practices and processes, it became easier to grasp what everyone's involvement would really mean to the brewery. Kickstarter has a built-in audience and does a great job pushing and promoting active campaigns from within, so we quickly realized it made the most sense for us to work with them on our crowd-funding goals.

"We realized there were folks who really wanted to help us reach our goals, so we thought Kickstarter would be a great way to allow our fans and followers to become intimately involved with the genesis of Haw River Farmhouse Ales"

How did you market the Kickstarter campaign?

Haw River Ales Kickstarter marketing

Again, this is where social media is key. We’ve seen some campaigns by well-meaning folks with only a couple hundred Facebook fans or a few dozen followers on Twitter, and it’s definitely an uphill battle. Our approach was to try to get our social media followers and friends personally involved with our goal, so they’d feel a need to share the campaign with their friends and work alongside us to help reach our goal.

We took advantage of “mini-goals” throughout the 30-day period, pushing to reach a certain number of pledges or a certain pledge amount by a particular day, and giving away small prizes once we met our milestones. Folks seemed to have a lot of fun with it, and it certainly helped keep higher levels of interest going throughout the 30-day campaign period, while keeping the momentum churning and allowing our listing on Kickstarter to retain its place on their internal search pages.

More than 400 people backed you to the tune of $36,510.  That's amazing!  Tell us a little more about the experience and how it felt to hit the goal?

It really is humbling watching so many people care so deeply about what we’re already putting our hearts into, and the day we reached our target goal was a perfect example. We assumed we’d end up having to push hard right down to the final minutes, but during the last week, we noticed our fans pushing that final stretch via their own social media channels without as much of our direct involvement. It really was fascinating to watch, and was key in meeting our target goal three days beforehand.

What do you think are the most important elements of a successful Kickstarter campaign?

You need to have four things: an engaging message, a realistic goal, an entertaining process and a rewarding outcome. An engaging message is the first step, especially as a brewery trying for a successful crowd funding campaign (versus a more “artistic” endeavor, like recording an album or funding a new technological invention, which is how Kickstarter has been set up and seems much more attuned to). And since funding small breweries is a bit on the outskirts of how most folks view Kickstarter’s purpose, having a realistic goal is key; although there have been a few $50K+ campaigns by breweries in the past, we’ve seen many, many more recently that have shot for higher levels of fundraising that may not even get halfway to their goal before their deadlines.

"You need to have four things: an engaging message, a realistic goal, an entertaining process and a rewarding outcome"

The process has to be fun for the donors as well—the internet is riddled with people asking for this and that, and to get someone’s attention long enough to have them actually want to be financially involved (to the point they open their wallets and pledge toward your goal!) is a monumental undertaking. And last but certainly not least, the successful outcome of your campaign has to be something that each of your donors truly wants to be a part of on a very personal level. If your audience is indifferent, they simply won’t care about being involved, or sharing with friends, or pitching in an additional few bucks at the last minute just to make sure they get their rewards and become part of something special.

Haw River Ales Brewery

What are your upcoming goals for Haw River?

We want to make the most delicious, most innovative beer we can, using ingredients grown by real people who live and work as close to Saxapahaw as possible. We want to open people’s eyes to what beer can be, pushing boundaries and reviving styles and techniques many people may not know exist. And we want to provide another avenue for people from all over to discover how great our hometown of Saxapahaw is and how special the people here really are.

Two part question to wrap up. First, what's your favorite beer that you brew?  Next, what's a beer you're not responsible for that we should all check out?

Thanks!

My favorite beer we brew is probably our Rusted Plow Farmhouse Saison. It’s a soft, tart, hoppy Belgian style farmhouse ale that we ferment with a “wild” yeast called Brettanomyces that gives is a dry, funky finish that pairs really well with a range of food, and we’re looking forward to producing it once we open in our 30hL French oak foeders (which are big upright wooden tanks a lot of wineries age wine in). We’re hoping it’ll end up our flagship beer, since it embodies the core concept of what we have in mind for almost everything we’ll produce: real, rustic, delicious ale.

Far as your second question goes, I’d suggest doing a quick online search for the closest brewery to your home and taking a trip one weekend afternoon sometime soon to sit down and try some of the beers they’re pouring. Talk to the owner or the head brewer and learn about their process, their recipes and the concepts and ideas that go into what they’re doing. I know it sounds a little cliche, but there really is nothing like a fresh beer made by real folks right down the road who care about what they’re doing.

"I know it sounds a little cliche, but there really is nothing like a fresh beer made by real folks right down the road who care about what they’re doing"

Haw River Ales

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