Last week, SweetWater Brewing announced its high-profile partnership with Delta Air Lines. Since then, we've learned that SweetWater is also partnering with Turner Field for the 2014 season. Georgia's biggest craft brewery (and the 19th largest in the country) will increase its presence at the Ted this year, including in-seat menus, expanded availability around the stadium including the Chophouse, club locations, and suites, and, according to a press release, SweetWater IPA and 420 Extra Pale Ale will be available "at all locations stadium-wide in 16-ounce tallboy cans."
SweetWater is also taking over the formerly-Coors-branded beer kiosk in Turner's Fan Plaza (see photo) near the front gates. The rebranded "beer island" will feature as much or more tie-dye than that other 420 festival, "a 30-foot fishing pole to reel fans in upon entry" (no word if that reeling is literal or metaphorical), and six different beers, all made by the 17-year-old Atlanta brewstitution.
SweetWater director of marketing Steve Farace says the exclusive craft beer sponsorship isn't solely about increasing sales volume.
"It is so much more an opportunity to introduce people to our cans, and for those that are new, or haven't had SweetWater in a while, [to give them] an opportunity to sample our beer again or for the first time," Farace says. "We sent a couple hundred cases in for the opening order, [and we're] hoping with our new brewery expansion we'll be able to keep up with demand."
While it's the biggest craft-beer presence in Turner's history, the move comes with a downside for at least a couple other Georgia breweries. That former-Coors kiosk also served beers from the likes of Red Brick and Terrapin. The latter also had several taps throughout the stadium. Asked for clarification via email on the other beers being offered at Turner, SweetWater communications manager Francesca Zeifman said, "The stadium will offer whatever it has in the past (I believe), but we are the only official sponsor, and will be offered in nearly every point of sale location." Calls to Aramark (the national foodservice that works with Turner) were not immediately returned.
As it turns out, the other Georgia breweries have been dropped from the stadium. When CL emailed Red Brick sales manager Jason Topping last Wednesday, less than a week from tonight's home opener, he was unaware his beer was being pulled from Turner.
"I called our distributor to see what their stance on the matter was," Topping said in a phone call follow-up. "The word was that we had no product on the initial order at Turner Field, which is generally a sign that you will not be there for the remainder of the season."
Red Brick's been selling bottles of its Hoplanta IPA for the past two seasons at the Coors kiosk. Topping says it's been an easy arrangement and that he thought Aramark was making its expected margins on Red Brick's beer. Turner was a top 25 account for Red Brick.
"According to our wholesaler, [one year] we outsold Corona bottles in the stadium, which was really cool. It was an exposure thing. The fans are looking for more than the big beers sponsoring the stadium, so having our stuff as one of the front options was pretty cool," Topping says.
Topping found SweetWater's deal "extremely surprising," especially since "we didn't even get an opportunity to come back, which was the most shocking thing." While he understands the business of beer and sports, how this isn't just another neighborhood bar his brewery's competing for, he's frustrated given the history.
"This is a sponsorship opportunity because it's a major sports franchise, so they're not just going to let anybody in," Topping says. "Except that they'd done that with us the past, and it worked. This year, it seems they wanted to go exclusive, with just one craft brand. Which is not exactly how I pictured them going, or the scene for craft beer in this country, which is: support all the locals, not just one."
Terrapin got a little more notice. Area sales director Steve Hayes says he started hearing rumors about a possible SweetWater deal a couple weeks ago, and eventually confirmed it with Terrapin's wholesaler, United Distributors, Inc. (United also represents SweetWater, other big craft names like Boulevard and Sierra Nevada, and macrobreweries like MillerCoors and Pabst Blue Ribbon.) But he didn't realize at the time just how much it would affect Terrapin's No. one account. In addition to bottles at the Coors kiosk, Terrapin had "probably 10 taps around the stadium," all Hopsecutioner.
"It did take us by surprise," Hayes says. "That's a lot of business we're going to lose out on. I don't know the exact number of what [SweetWater's sponsorship] deal was, but it's a pretty big number. And we definitely don't have that kind of sponsorship money built into our budget. It did come as a little bit of a shock."
Hayes says he hopes Terrapin will be able to still sell some bottles at the stadium, but as of Sunday, two days before tonight's opening game, they were still figuring it out. Nevertheless, he and Terrapin co-founder John Cochran are happy to see a bigger craft beer presence at Turner, even if it's not their craft beer presence.
"If anyone is going to be a beer partner with Turner Field or any other major venue, I would much prefer it be a craft beer," Cochran says. "So kudos to SweetWater."
Topping says he doesn't fault SweetWater for making the deal, but that it's still a tough pill to swallow, given his line of work. "That's why craft beer is such a unique industry," he says. "We all work together to fight the big guys. We don't have beef with each other because there's enough good beer to go around and enough taps in bars for all of us to make money and feel very comfortable with that. We work together. It's a joint mission to engage more consumers. But when some breweries get bigger and bigger, they get a little more pushy, and they don't play as well with others. In our city, for the most part, we don't see a lot of that."
UPDATE: Following the publication of this story, David Freireich of Aramark's Corporate Communications team sent over this list of currently available craft and/or craft-targeted beers/ciders at Turner Field. He noted that the list is subject to change:
Blue Moon Seasonal
Sam Adams Seasonal
SweetWater Georgia Brown
Third Shift Amber Lager
Redd's Apple Ale
Smith & Forge Hard Cider
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