In today’s competitive environment, breweries have had to fight harder than ever for each drop of beer that consumers drink. Kombucha, hard seltzer, natural wine, “better-for-you” beverages: the list of options—and rivals—has never been longer.
Not many understand the recent shifts and nuances within the craft beer industry better than Joanne Marino. A Northern California resident by way of Boston and Austin, Marino has served as the executive director at the San Francisco Brewers Guild (which recently became the Bay Area Brewers Guild) since 2015. Today, she works to support its 130-plus members, helps lead the mammoth annual San Francisco Beer Week, and promotes independent breweries in a region that could well be considered the cradle of craft beer.
Lobbying for such a diverse group of breweries isn’t an easy feat. But Marino is confident that organizations like the Bay Area Brewers Guild can play a significant role in safeguarding craft beer’s future—and they can do so by drawing on the same sense of community that many credit with helping build the industry we have today.
[This interview has been edited and condensed for length and clarity.]
Kristen Foster: “Your craft beer journey began on the East Coast. How then did you wind up in California—and eventually become executive director of the Bay Area Brewers Guild?”
Joanne Marino: “Like many who go into craft beer as a profession, my pursuits in the industry are a labor of love. Previously, I cut my teeth in the music and tech industries, and founded a leading research and events company. Generally speaking, I'm an entrepreneur who always made sure whatever I did meant working with young companies and startups. My timing into the craft beer space definitely reflects that as well.
I worked in the financial services sphere for a time, and that’s what brought me from Boston to Austin. In Austin, there was a movement building around agriculture and growing businesses in the Slow Food Movement. I had always been a craft beer lover, so started working with the brewers there. Eventually I founded Austin Beer Week and worked for the Texas Craft Brewers Guild. When I moved to the Bay Area in 2012, I was going back and forth from Austin to San Francisco so I could continue working for the Texas Craft Brewers Guild.
In 2015, the San Francisco Brewers Guild was looking for a new executive director after their original E.D. left to work for one of the Guild’s brewery members, so I applied for the position. At the time, I was probably one of the few people that had experience organizing a large-scale beer week.”
Kristen: “When was the Guild founded, and what is its mission?”
Joanne: “The Guild was founded as the San Francisco Brewers Guild in 2004, and has evolved into the Bay Area Brewers Guild over the past year. Our mission is to be of service to our members and to promote and celebrate local, independent craft beer and breweries. As executive director, my primary function is ensuring the organization meets its mission while staying viable, so executing initiatives that promote our members, helping them succeed as breweries, and promoting the region's craft beer scene overall.”
Kristen: “What was the reasoning behind the Guild’s expansion into the greater Bay Area? What benefits do you think that change in scope has had for your membership?”
Joanne: “Forming a regional guild really boiled down to appreciating that we're stronger together than apart. All our members have a vested interest in pooling resources and leveraging economies of scale to promote the Bay Area's scene, both to people outside of our region as well as locally. To accomplish this, one thing we did that was different was work to preserve what makes each individual community of the Bay so unique and vibrant. We have a San Francisco chapter, of course, but also East Bay, North Bay, Silicon Valley and the Coast. Since a big part of our identity is celebrating diversity—the people, the landscapes, the differences in each brewery—this chapter structure means we get to celebrate these differences, and connect on a grassroots level, yet still work together to promote the region overall.
Transitioning into a regional guild—from 30 to over 130 members—has required a lot of hard work, including stepping back to ask ourselves what makes sense for the organization and our members, what's the best way to do this or that, and so on. It's still a work in progress, but we're seeing benefits already, and are really excited about where we're headed.”
Kristen: “The expansion of the Guild’s membership seems to mirror the expansion of craft beer in the last decade. What excites you about the beer industry right now?”
Joanne: “It’s exciting to see the creativity that first sparked the revival of craft beer still going strong, both here and abroad. Whether Hazy or Brut, or whatever your shade of sour is, there's a lot out there to both challenge preconceptions of beer and tantalize taste buds.”
Kristen: “With that rapid expansion has come difficulties as well, including breweries closing or being forced to scale back distribution. What challenges do you foresee in the future?”
Joanne: “Whenever a market matures, there's going to be fallout, particularly for businesses whose underpinnings may be shaky—whether it’s faulty assumptions, over-leveraging, poor timing, inexperience at managing a business, misunderstanding the market or what consumers want, and so on. It's sad, often tragic—and I hope we're not at a point where that's something those still standing would cheer.
Unlike other industries, and up until recently at least, an inherent compassion for each other has been a hallmark of this industry. For the 10-plus years I've worked in this space, it's always been brewers helping brewers. What I most fear is that we lose that quality, that camaraderie. I feel strongly that the most important role a guild can play is providing the social glue for maintaining community among its members. I think that spirit is still there, and guilds are a big part of that. At the core, we all are trying to help each other out—we know it’s a rising-tides-lift-all-boats environment right now.”
Kristen: "One of the Guild's main events over the last decade has been San Francisco Beer Week. It seems like a huge undertaking—how far in advance do you start planning, and what events or offerings have you been excited to offer?"
Joanne: “In terms of planning, any beer week is a big undertaking, and I can only say we can never start early enough in my mind. We are challenged in part because options for holding our opening gala are fairly limited to big San Francisco pier buildings, and that in turn means working with government stakeholders who often aren't able to approve and finalize as far ahead as we would like. Because the gala is the kick-off event, it can make getting the ball rolling for any given year a real challenge.
In terms of events overall, SF Beer Week is like riding a wave of coming craft beer trends. This past 2019 was about the rise of kveik yeast in craft brewing. The year before it was the introduction of the Brut IPA, which emerged directly out of the San Francisco beer scene by local brewer Kim Sturdavant, then of Social Kitchen & Brewery, now at Woods Beer & Wine Co. The year before that, Hazy and Milkshake IPAs were gaining critical mass, and the two years before that, you could see sours gaining greater and greater momentum. SF Beer Week events can be canaries in a coal mine—but in a good way!—in terms of gleaning what's going, or about to go, mainstream.”
Kristen: “Beyond running SF Beer Week, what other challenges are unique to the Bay Area in terms of continuing to grow craft beer?”
Joanne: “The cost of doing business is a significant challenge, but also competing against wine and cocktails, as both are strong industries here. There is competition for consumer spending, but also for tourism and other promotional resources. In our area, a tourism agency is more likely to prioritize wine than beer when allocating marketing dollars, and that can be tough.
That said, our brewers have great relationships with makers in these other industries and there is a lot of collaboration, cross-pollination and cross-promotion. At least until fairly recently, too, our audiences have been a bit different from each other, though there is greater overlap each year, demographically speaking.”
Kristen: “Is that primarily what your members and brewery owners are talking to you about, when they share concerns? What do they want the Guild to do to help them?”
Joanne: “Regulatory issues always rank high, but more than anything, breweries are working hard to differentiate and appeal to consumers, so their concerns and struggles are around bringing in business. For example, a 10% bigger crowd in a tasting room on a given night can make a difference for smaller breweries.
Our members want the Guild to help raise awareness about them, their beer and how to engage with both. They want the Guild to help differentiate their product from Big Beer and to help people realize, or remember in some cases, what an amazing craft beer scene we have here. This area has been, and remains, a motherlode of craft beer pioneers and innovation, and the Bay should be atop every craft beer lover's bucket list.”
Kristen: “If a brewery approaches you about how they can differentiate themselves, what advice do you have? Especially when you represent the interests of so many breweries that can, at times, be considered competitors?”
Joanne: “There has to be a solid foundation and awareness of who you are and what your objectives are as a business. As an example, if your focus is your tasting room and getting people to come on-premise, then it's really important that you pay attention to the details of that experience. It’s about saying, ‘This is who we are and this is our personality,’ but at the same time, taking care of what customers in general want. It’s a balance of being authentic and having strong fundamentals around making quality beer and meeting the needs of the customer.
One thing that customers are sharing through their spending is that they like diversity; they're curious about new and different things. Breweries that are nimble about that, but also stay true to who they are—that’s the sweet spot.”
Kristen: “What do you love about your role as executive director?”
Joanne: “I love the community. I really love being able to do a lot of different things, and knowing that I’m supporting our members. It's a very rewarding profession. It can also be difficult because you have to wear a lot of hats: marketing, finance, member services, educational services. We’re up to 150 members, and we're still building out our chapter structure and our governance, but it’s really rewarding to see the community grow. The Bay Area was ground zero for the craft beer movement. Back in the '60s and '70s, Anchor was making craft beer when there really wasn’t any craft beer at all. Then came Sierra Nevada, New Albion, Russian River—these craft brewers that came out of this region really served as the spark for the market we have today.
What's always been very cool about the craft beer industry, and our membership, has been the diversity of the breweries, which is why we set up a chapter structure. We live and breathe diversity here in the Bay Area, but it goes back to the diversity of the breweries. The marketplace is getting more competitive and the value of the Guild is to provide that social glue and that camaraderie—the idea of being beholden to each other as members of this community.”