"It sounds silly, but beer is a bigger piece of the entertainment business than movies are," said Dennis Buettner, who, together with two childhood friends (and drinking buddies), founded the U.S. Beer Drinking Team in 2000. "We think we've got a way to take advantage of that."
The Beer Drinking Team -- which doesn't actually compete -- has since grown into an aspiring mini media conglomerate, with 35,000 members, a nationally syndicated radio program and a mid-seven-figure merchandising business. And it is in talks with at least three major cable networks about a beer-themed TV program.
Not bad, considering the idea grew out of a dock-party buzz.
"We're sitting around drinking, and somebody says, 'We're a team, and I'm the captain,"' recalled Joe Gardenghi, the team's chief operating officer. "After four beers, it sounded like a good idea."
Hobby and lifestyle
So Mr. Gardenghi and his pals built an amateurish Web site, and were surprised to receive 500 e-mail requests for membership during the following week. Inspired by the response, two quit their day jobs -- Mr. Gardenghi was a regional manager for Comcast and Mr. Buettner was a satellite pilot for NASA (a third partner, Scott Wiley, still runs a manufacturing firm) -- and devoted themselves to building the Beer Drinking Team brand.
While the $82 billion beer industry has been steadily losing ground to wine and spirits-its share of the alcohol market fell 4.1 points over the last four years, according to the Distilled Spirits Council-more than one in two alcoholic beverages consumed in the U.S. last year was a beer.
The U.S. Beer Drinking Team isn't funded by the beer industry. Instead, it uses its roster as its primary marketing tool, conducting e-mailings by zip code to its members, offering them benefits from the Beer of the Month Club and myriad local watering holes.
Beer Radio is available in 24 local markets, as well as over Sirius Satellite Radio. Produced in a studio full of equipment purchased secondhand on eBay, the call-in show treats beer as both a hobby and a lifestyle, with segments ranging from interviews with brewmasters and chatter about Nascar to fitness tips ("It's not a beer belly; it's an inactivity belly.").
Paid advertising on the radio show is sparse (Mr. Gardenghi describes it as a "loss leader") but some of the most interesting content comes from unpaid, vintage spots for defunct brands such as Falstaff, Lowenbrau and Ballantine.
"It's a very clever way to send a very positive message about beer," said Manny Manuele, a master brewer at Miller Brewing Co. who occasionally appears as an expert. (He's not paid for appearances, nor does Miller pay for him to appear).
While the show loses money, it has been successful at selling U.S. Beer Drinking Team merchandise, which Mr. Gardenghi described as his firm's "cash cow." The branded items are available in more than 20,000 stores nationwide, including 1,600 Wal-Marts. "We've sold through most of our inventory," a Wal-Mart spokeswoman said.
Mr. Gardenghi said the team recently reached an agreement to have its branded clothing, beer cozies, cigarette lighters and sunglasses sold in Kmart and convenience stores, and is in talks with Kohl's and Target.
But the Beer Drinking Team's largest growth opportunity is TV. They've hired a team of writers to produce a beer TV pilot for cable, and are in talks with the Food Network, the Learning Channel and Spike TV.
"I do see it happening," said Mr. Gardenghi. "This is going to be pretty big."