At least nine beer clubs offer mail-order brews, says the Association of Brewers, Boulder, Colo.
"I think there's really a renaissance going on in America and a cultural shift as far as people's appreciation of beer," said Craig Wesley, president of MicroBrew Express, a Santa Clara, Calif., mail-order beer company with a modest "membership" of 1,750.
The company offers two microbrewed beers a month, an industry newsletter, merchandise, magazines, books and special-event information.
Typically, six-packs of two kinds of beer are delivered a month for about $15, plus another $5 for shipping, handling and tax. Microbrews are more than double the price of commercial beers, caused largely by increased unit costs at smaller breweries and use of higher-cost ingredients.
The fledgling industry's sales are estimated in excess of $20 million. Most marketers use direct mail and radio advertising to generate orders, with radio spots ranging from local stations to syndicated talk shows like Howard Stern's or Rush Limbaugh's.
Beer Across America, Cary, Ill., the first and largest mail-order beer business, ships to 55,000 customers a month in four states. Co-owner Todd Holmes hopes to ship to 22 states by Christmas once gaining state regulatory approval.
"There's 50 states with 50 different sets of regulations," said John Thomas, chairman, American Beer Association, Temecula, Calif. "You have to go to each state and get regulatory permission for each state."
Mr. Thomas said obtaining such permission could top $500,000.
"When you realize what the regulations are like, it is literally a nightmare," said Tom Dalldorf, publisher of Celebrator Beer News, San Francisco, an every-other-month industry newspaper.
Since starting his Chicago area business in 1992, Mr. Holmes said Beer Across America has changed marketing from direct mail to radio spots, created in-house.
"We're [trying to reach] beer lovers-someone who knows, someone who loves beer and people looking for a unique gift," he said.
Beer Across America, which also handles advertising in-house, spent $4 million on marketing last year, including direct mail, radio and magazines like Bon Appetit, McCall's and Playboy.
James Sorenson, president of Beers 2 You, Milwaukee, ships to more than 10,000 customers each month and advertises on radio in 42 states. Beers 2 You also has produced in-house TV spots placed on cable.
Most mail-order owners see the potential to grow a market that some say resembles the wine in- dustry in the 1980s.
Microbrews are sought by "the former food and wine folks," Mr. Dalldorf said. "Now you're finding microbrewed beers being served at dinner parties and paired with certain foods."
"Seventy brew pubs and 30 microbreweries started in 1993 alone ... it's only logical that the [mail-order beer] industry would be born," said Lori Tullberg-Kelly, Association of Brewers marketing director.
The association says there are 154 microbreweries, 278 brew pubs (restaurants or pubs that brew and sell their own beer) and 10 regional specialty breweries in the U.S. Many use mail-order beer clubs to reach new consumers.
"Most of our advertising is through beer tastings; we take it one customer at a time," said Steve Schellhardt, brewmaster, Kessler Brewing Co., Helena, Mont.
Although financial terms vary, most mail-order beer clubs buy microbrews at wholesale prices.
Wayne Anderson, general manager, Bridgeport Brewing Co., Portland, Ore., said mail-order companies expand awareness. But he is apprehensive about losing control of his product, which, like many microbrews, may be unpasteurized with a short shelf life.
Tom Potter, chairman of Brooklyn Brewery, New York, said he has had great success with mail-order clubs and received immediate positive feedback through computer bulletin boards.
Ben Steinman, editor, Beer Marketers Insights newsletter, said although the specialty beer business represents only 1% of the $45 billion U.S. beer market, it's growing at a phenomenal rate. But he said varied state regulations and/or laws may limit growth.
Mr. Thomas once owned a mail-order beer business and said the American Beer Association will do what it can to change current state rules or write new ones to ensure public access.
"So far states haven't [enforced collection of taxes on mail-order beer shipments and licensing fees on beer clubs] but they're thinking about it," Mr. Thomas said. "There are too many people getting into it and it's stirring up a lot of dust, and will hurt the mail-order wine industry, too."
Morton Siegel, a Chicago attorney who has practiced alcoholic beverage law for more than 20 years, said only Texas bars shipments of beer directly to homes. "The states are going to have to evaluate ... whether or not this type of business will be permitted."
With 80 million-plus U.S. beer drinkers, mail-order clubs see huge potential for growth. "Beer drinkers outnumber wine drinkers 20 to 1," Mr. Sorenson said.
Gary Levin coordinates Direct Marketing News.