Bourbon County NFTs put Goose Island at forefront of burgeoning trend, as breweries mix in real-world perks to engage fans – Chicago Tribune

bourbon-county-nfts-put-goose-island-at-forefront-of-burgeoning-trend,-as-breweries-mix-in-real-world-perks-to-engage-fans-–-chicago-tribune

Goose Island Beer Co.’s newest Bourbon County offering will be released Friday, and it’s one of the most striking innovations to date in the brewery’s long history of aging beer in whiskey barrels.

Just don’t try to drink it.

To celebrate what may (or may not be) the 30th anniversary of Goose Island’s iconic Bourbon County Stout, the brewery will put more than 2,000 “Barrel House Collection NFTs” on sale Friday that it values at more than $1 million.

The reserve edition of a Bourbon County NFT, which Goose Island will release for sale May 13, 2022. (Goose Island Beer Co)

Relatively few breweries have waded into the booming world of NFTs, but Goose Island’s parent company, Anheuser-Busch, has been an early and aggressive adopter. In recent months, the nation’s largest beer company, which bought Goose Island in 2011, has sold NFTs for brands including Stella Artois and Budweiser, and for its launch of zero-carb Bud Light Next during Super Bowl weekend.

Friday’s release will be a first for Goose Island, reflecting an ambitious and potentially lucrative new direction for Chicago’s oldest brewery and its most renowned brand, a family of boozy, high-priced barrel-aged beers released every year on the day after Thanksgiving.

NFTs are unique digital assets — digital baseball cards of sorts — that are collected online, stored in digital wallets with the potential to be resold. While the long-term worth of NFTs remains in question, and their prices have already fluctuated wildly, breweries have often paired NFTs with tangible benefits that add real-world value.

Goose Island’s Barrel House NFTs, for example, come with perks ranging from Bourbon County beer to special event access and autographed Bourbon County tap handles. They cost $499 each, plus tax.

In a statement, Goose Island President Todd Ahsmann said the NFT sale “is certainly new for us,” and compared it to the innovation of aging stout in bourbon barrels in the 1990s.

“We wouldn’t be celebrating 30 years of Bourbon County Stout if our brewers hadn’t tried something different, and we strive to bring something new and exciting each BCS season,” Ahsmann said.

At least two smaller breweries have dabbled with NFTs. Sudwerk Brewing, of Davis, California, touted itself as the “first brewery in the world to create NFTs” last summer when it sold one to promote the release of a fruity smoothie-style hard seltzer called Next F’ing Trend.

That NFT, a digital image of Next F’ing Trend label, sold for $300. It came with a case of seltzer, a signed print of the label art and a T-shirt.

Sudwerk co-owner Trenton Yackzan said minting and selling the NFT required a steep learning curve. But he sees opportunity to build community and awareness for small breweries by pairing NFTs with real-world goods.

“There’s definitely a market for this if you understand how to play the game,” Yackzan said.

Denver Beer Co. went even bigger with its NFT last summer, which came with perks far outweighing the digital image: four beers a day, every day, for the owner. That NFT, a digital spinning coin of the Denver Beer Co. logo, sold for 4.33 ethereum cryptocurrency, worth about $9,200 at the time. The cryptocurrency market is highly volatile though; that value, at about $10,000 Monday, was approaching $12,500 last week.

Charlie Berger, co-founder of Denver Beer Co., said the experiment was a marketing coup, bringing both attention and a fresh means to engage customers.

The person who bought the NFT is a longtime Denver Beer Co. customer, Berger said, whom “we have seen very regularly for years and years and still do, obviously.”

“It’s working out in everyone’s favor,” he said.

Because the NFT is proprietary, that customer, whom Berger declined to name, can resell the NFT at a potential profit. That would grant the new owner the four beers a day. Denver Beer Co. would also get 10% of the sale price, which is a common way to continue monetizing NFTs for their creators. (Goose Island will not take a cut of future sales of its Bourbon County NFTs, a brewery spokesperson said.)

So long as NFTs are rare in beer, Berger said, it offers a unique marketing opportunity as the number of breweries has soared from about 2,000 in 2011 to more than 9,000 in 2021, according to the Brewers Association. With that growth has come recent struggles for the industry; craft beer sales in grocery, big box, convenience and drugstores were down 4.6% in 2021 and more than 8% in 2022, according to Chicago-based market research firm IRI.

“All boats in the craft beer world have risen with the tide, but if the tide isn’t rising as much, then to grow we’re going have to do marketing a little differently,” Berger said. “Everyone is going to have to get a little creative.”

Even if NFTs become commonplace in beer, they can still be useful marketing tools, Berger said. Denver Beer Co.’s next NFT will be a much more affordable and lower-stakes venture, used to release a series of beers. Each beer in the series will only be available by buying NFTs that cost about the same as standard four-packs. When customers collect a certain number of NFTs in the series, they’ll be able to access special beers, merchandise or events, Berger said.

“There’s still a lot of room to explore,” he said. “It’s just fun marketing and another way to engage our customers into having fun with our brand.”

Goose Island’s venture into NFTs is far more ambitious, and reflects the approach of its parent company. Goose Island will release 2,022 NFTs that feature “designs inspired by the brewing process of the coveted Bourbon County Stout beers,” the brewery said. Images include spinning, hovering whiskey barrels in oscillating frames and a bottle of Bourbon County surrounded by its ingredients.

Anheuser-Busch partnered with Gary Vaynerchuk, an entrepreneur and internet personality who launched an NFT venture last year. In November, Budweiser sold 1,936 tokens — 1,900 of which were priced at $499 and 36 that sold for $999 — in under an hour, Beer Business Daily reported. A follow-up collection of 11,000 tokens, for which Budweiser partnered with 22 musicians, also sold out. Bud Light Next NFTs went on sale Feb. 6 for $399 each and sold out in an hour, which generated about $4.5 million in revenue, Beer Business Daily reported.

Goose Island’s NFT sale will include three tiers with increasing value.

Most common will be a select tier of 1,992 NFTs depicting eight chapters of the Bourbon County story (249 of each) — History, White Oak, Coopering, Brewing, Distilling, Bourbon, Aging and Variants. Getting all eight chapters in a digital wallet before November’s Bourbon County release unlocks a ninth chapter, Bourbon County Rare.

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There are also tangible benefits: a barrel stave used to age Bourbon County, a limited-edition snifter and a Bourbon County tap handle autographed by Goose Island’s longtime brewmaster, Greg Hall, who created Bourbon County Stout.

A reserve tier, composed of 29 NFTs, gets more exclusive benefits, which includes items from the select tier, plus entry to Goose Island events, the chance to buy rare Bourbon County beers and a Bourbon County tasting at the barrel warehouse. The most exclusive tier, dubbed the 24K Gold Edition, will have just one owner, and offers all the perks of the select and reserve tiers, plus, among other things, bottles of Bourbon County beer and a one-on-one tasting with a Goose Island brewer.

Like a pack of baseball cards, there’s no telling exactly what a buyer is getting — the NFTs are randomly assigned. And like baseball cards, that is meant to create a secondary market of trading and reselling.

Yackzan, co-owner of Sudwerk Brewing in California, said he’s in no rush to mint another NFT for his brewery. It was a fun experiment, he said, but it “doesn’t feel like part of the culture” he wants to nurture.

Whether NFTs are here to stay for the beer industry, “all depends on how much people buy into the metaverse,” he said.

“It made sense during the pandemic,” he said. “Now people would rather be face to face and having experiences. Me, I’d rather be outside than buying an NFT.”

jbnoel@chicagotribune.com

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