Inside San Diego beer clubs

Members-only clubs allow local breweries to share their rarest beers and closest communications with the most fervent of their customers

Brewing companies make the best margins selling their ales and lagers at their taprooms. Those profit centers took hits during the pandemic because of temporary closures and restrictive regulations, but breweries operating members-only beer clubs had a helpful revenue source stretching beyond their four walls. Such factions extend the direct-to-consumer experience beyond on-site interactions by offering their most loyal consumers exclusive products, events and discounts.

Just over a half-a-dozen San Diego County breweries operate members-only beer clubs requiring registration and payment of annual dues. The eldest of those factions is Modern Times Beer’s group, The League of Partygoers and Elegant People, which was formed before the Point Loma-based company sold its first pint.

“The League originally started as a Kickstarter tier when Modern Times opened in 2013. It was a level of early investment that helped get some of the brewery up and running,” says Leanne O’Neill, membership coordinator. “In 2016, The League made a return in a new form as a membership club, and in 2018, a higher, invite-only tier called The Theory of Leisure Committee was introduced to reward our most engaged supporters.”

Membership in The League is $350 plus tax per year, which nets members 10 bottle equivalents (an equivalent translates to one large bottle or two cans) of specialty beers — some of which are available only to club members — and are allowed to purchase new beers and event tickets ahead of the public. Members also receive a bar credit to use toward beer purchases at Modern Times’ tasting rooms as well as access to members-only sections at Modern Times’ festivals. In previous years, member welcome parties were part of the package, but pandemic conditions have them on hold for now. Even without that prime asset, membership in The League remains in high demand. In October, the club had 150 open spots (out of 1,750 total) and they sold out in under 10 minutes.

O’Neill doesn’t take that level of enthusiasm or support for granted, especially in the age of COVID. “We were particularly grateful for our members throughout the pandemic. Having an established group of supporters who had some form of buy-in to seeing our company pull through was really important for our success this past year-and-a-half.”

The mission of rewarding longtime supporters is what led the team at The Lost Abbey in San Marcos to establish The Patron Sinners and Saints club in 2018.

“Online and in-store releases were becoming a bit much with our loyal patrons not getting their hands on certain releases. Setting up the club made it easy to make sure those that have followed us through the years would have a chance to get rewarded,” says Adam Martinez, director of media and marketing.

Sinners and Saints membership is $410 per year, which includes 13 bottles released on a quarterly basis as well as member-specific merchandise, a discount on beer purchases for the year as well as special offers and members-only sales. The Lost Abbey is one of the country’s most lauded producers of barrel-aged beers, and those included in this membership are so rare that some are never accessible to the general public. This year’s allotment will include one of the brewery’s most popular offerings, Duck Duck Gooze, a blend of barrel-aged wild ales released only once every three years.

Exclusive beers are the bread-and-butter of all clubs of this nature. AleSmith Brewing has long been heralded for its barrel-aging program as well as its portfolio of high-alcohol beers, but it wasn’t until 2018 that the now 26-year-old Miramar company established its Order of the Anvil. A $375 annual fee entitles members to a dozen oak-aged strong ales non-members will never see or sample, making for an enticing lure. Other perks include credits at AleSmith’s taproom, discounts and access to members-only events. In addition to promoting brand loyalty through memorable experiences, the latter allow for a great deal of interaction, especially with customers whose memberships span years.

“We consider the club to be its own family of nth-level fans and love the interactions between members and our staff,” says Kristen Ballinger, marketing communications manager. “We request regular feedback from them in order to build our beer lists for the following year and pride ourselves on listening to our members. A lot of them have been with us since the beginning. It’s rewarding to see them return and gives us the sense that we’re doing things right.”

Members-only beer clubs in San Diego County

  • AleSmith Brewing (Miramar): Order of the Anvil
  • Harland Brewing (Scripps Ranch): Harland Seekers
  • Horus Aged Ales (Oceanside): The Convocation
  • The Lost Abbey (San Marcos): The Patron Sinners & Saints
  • Mason Ale Works (San Marcos): Mason Nation
  • Mikkeller Brewing San Diego (Miramar) – Viking Club
  • Modern Times Beer (Point Loma): The League of Partygoers & Elegant People
  • Pure Project Brewing (Vista): Cellar Cyndicate

While club coordinators universally enjoy when customer satisfaction is achieved, they also note the challenges associated with keeping members happy and dealing with disappointed parties. A sense of entitlement and raised expectations from having paid for exclusivity creates a propensity for dissatisfaction, which is typically communicated via angry emails to club managers or lengthy, incendiary posts on social media.

Despite the challenges of operating a club, all who run one say it is absolutely worth it, as clubs provide bankable income. More than that, club revenues come in ahead of product delivery, all at once and on schedule, allowing companies to allocate those funds for use over the course of the following year. But not all clubs are established for these reasons.

In the case of Kyle Harrop, he just needed a means by which to fairly distribute the minimal product from his Oceanside-based barrel-aging interest, Horus Aged Ales.

“I make such a small quantity of beer that I only have enough for a few hundred people with each release,” says Harrop. “It makes sense to offer those beers to the people who always support your company and vision rather than just random people trying to buy a hyped release when one comes around.”

Membership in Horus’ The Convocation — which selects new members by a lottery each May— is $400 and includes 12 club-exclusive barrel-aged beers, a uniquely branded tiki mug and the right to purchase any beer, merchandise and event tickets released throughout the year.

“I know 75-80 percent of my club members by name and I am able to connect with them on a regular basis,” says Harrop. “I run every one of my bottle pickups and love seeing everybody excited for their new beers.”

The Convocation started with 200 members in 2017 and has doubled to a capped 400 members. The League, Sinners and Saints, and The Order have all seen consistent and significant growth year-over-year, as well. Ditto the Cellar Cyndicate, the members-only club of Vista-based Pure Project Brewing, which was founded in 2017 and has gone from 100 members to 500. Enrollment in that group opened in September and is already sold out.

“Early on, as we were establishing our barrel-aging program, we wanted to get the beers that came out of it into the hands of our most loyal customers. Creating a bottle club was a way for us to do that while allowing us to brew more barrel-aged beer and be more creative with recipes,” says Director of Marketing Makenna Barris. “Members get 14 bottles, including exclusive beers, custom glassware, tickets to select events, presale access on all bottles and cans, including some of our more sought-after beers, and more.”

While the Cyndicate, Convocation and League are closed clubs, Order of the Anvil is accepting new members through the end of the year, and Sinners and Saints’ open-enrollment period will stretch into January.

This article originally appeared in the Business section of the Saturday, December 25, 2021 edition of The San Diego Union-Tribune

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