Ashley Routson, aka "The Beer Wench and co-founder of IPA Day.
The public relations pitches for IPA Day start rolling in earlier and earlier every year. Even the country’s largest breweries are jumping on the bandwagon, trying to attach their beers to the trending topic. Lost in the marketing madness, however, is the humble origin story of one of the craft beer industry’s most popular social media occasions.
In the beginning, Ashley Routson had an idea. Well, it was a riff on a friend’s idea. But she was going to steal it because craft beer needed it. Lost a bit in the ubiquity of social media in today’s world, Routson was the first social media influencer in the beer space. She was an influencer long before that word attracted both cachet and ridicule. Armed with a background and talent for marketing, Routson built her own brand, The Beer Wench, into a powerful and well-placed voice in an industry long dominated by men. In addition to gaining followers, the social media maven and author also promoted craft beer as a self-described “evangelist” at every opportunity. And she saw a chance to do just that with a day dedicated to craft beer’s most popular beer style, IPA. But, in this case, promoting beer starts with a little bit of theft.
“I actually stole it from the wine industry,” Routson notes with a laugh about her idea for IPA Day. “The wine industry was inspired by the food industry and there would be like some random days, like Donut Day and Taco Day or Pizza Day, and it became kind of a trendy thing to like have one day to celebrate something.”
Routson had spent time living in both Napa and Sonoma and was connected to the California wine industry. “I do credit a lot of my social media skills from the wine industry because the wine industry acknowledged social media marketing way before the beer industry did,” she recalls. “And they actually were the very first in the alcohol realm to start hiring people to work at their companies as social media marketers, they were the very first alcohol segment to create a position for social media. So I kind of watched what my friends in the wine world were doing and I tried to mimic it in the beer realm.”
One friend, Ryan Ross, worked at a winery in Napa called St. Supéry, where he had started Cabernet Day. Ross designed the day as a way to get people around the globe to focus on Cabernet and hopefully drink more of it. “A lot of it had to do with him promoting his Cabs, you know, but in a way it was to unite the world to celebrate one style of wine and all just drink and tweet about it.”
It was 2011 and social media was simpler. “It was before Instagram. Twitter was the platform and you started a hashtag, so everyone can follow the same conversation and you can see everybody post about Cabernet. And I thought that was really cool. And so I got together with a few other people via email and I was like, “we have to do something like this. This blew up and beer is so much cooler and Cabernet it’s big, it’s bold, whatever, you know, but I bet you that we can get a lot more people than they did to drink beer. But we’ve got to pick something that’s more accessible.”
Routson settled on the obvious choice, the trendiest style, the leading category at the Great American Beer Festival, and one that everyone knew: IPA. “So we had all these factors of like, ‘how can we make this a big worldwide party?’ It’s gotta be an accessible style. A lot of breweries have to be able to have one because we didn’t want it to be like something small like sours, because what, then you’d have 10 breweries participating. And people in rural areas or in some states that don’t have a huge amount of craft beer available, they’re not going to find a sour.”
Routson and her friends then focused on how to maximize the buzz for the first IPA Day. They decided to reach out to some of the biggest breweries in the country to help coordinate a timed promotion of the day. “We we’re all gonna post and make the announcement about IPA Day together on Twitter at like 10:00 AM on a Thursday, we’re going to announce the date of it. And then everyone’s going to see this blow up, if you had like 50 breweries that you’re following or, you know, a bunch of it was beer bloggers, breweries. I forget how many people were involved total, but then, the announcement itself was coordinated and everyone scheduled their tweets. And we had such a huge amount of people doing it at the same time. And it was like the larger breweries, like Founders and Dogfish Head and New Belgium. And if everyone saw everyone post at the same time, they knew something was up.”
The Brewers Association joined in and created a link that was ready to go live with the timed tweets so people could read about the day and the significance of IPA.
Routson coordinated with bars and breweries around the country so they could set up events to correspond to IPA Day. In her outreach, Routson called on “all craft beer evangelists, brewers, bloggers, and suds-savvy citizens!” She told them that on Thursday August 4, 2011, they were invited to “participate in the largest international craft beer celebration and virtual conversation the world has ever seen.” She described International #IPADay as “a grassroots movement to unite the voices of craft beer enthusiasts, bloggers, and brewers worldwide through social media.” She predicted that “craft beer drinkers across the social sphere and across the globe will raise pints in a collective toast to one of craft beer’s most iconic styles: the India Pale Ale. This celebrated style represents the pinnacle of brewing innovation with its broad spectrum of diverse brands, subcategories, and regional flavor variations – making it the perfect style to galvanize craft beer’s social voice.”
Routson made clear that #IPAday was not some big brewery invention. “#IPADay is not the brainchild of a corporate marketing machine, nor is it meant to serve any particular beer brand,” she wrote in 2011. “#IPADay is opportunity for breweries, bloggers, businesses and consumers to connect and share their love of craft beer. Getting involved is easy; the only requirements are an appreciation for great beer and the will to spread the word. Anyone can participate by enjoying IPA with friends, making some noise online with the #IPADay hashtag, and showing the world that craft beer is more than a trend!”
The response was a bit surprising. “It ended up being huge,” she recalls. “It was really exciting to see something like that happen because the second the clock changed to midnight, boom the IPA Day hashtag went crazy and people were drinking IPAs all day long. We had posts from all over the world. We had posts from so many different countries and I think Brazil was the number two country besides the United States when it came to posting about it. So it was really cool to be a part of a global movement of everybody supporting and talking about craft beer. Because for the most part, the bigger breweries didn’t make IPAs. So we were talking about your local IPA and it was just so much fun. It was like one of the coolest things, especially that first time, it was just so cool to watch all day long and to see all of the bars, having IPA tap takeovers and just to see the buzz that it created and all the people that became interested in it because they just, all of a sudden saw the Internet talking about this beer. And if you had never heard of an IPA, chances are that day you learned what one was.”
In the relatively early days of Twitter, #IPAday made its way into the app’s Trending Topics section, something never seen before for craft beer. “That was a huge moment for us. Because that’s when you know that you’re exploding. People are probably clicking on that hashtag like, “what is an e-Pah? Like an iPad?” We got eyeballs on the beer industry that had never been on it before. So that was cool.”
As with all successful social media campaigns, IPA Day quickly grew beyond Routson and Ross and took on a life of its own. The hashtag, now #IPAday to avoid iPad confusion, will be used hundreds if not thousands of times on the first Thursday in August by breweries and beer fans from around the world.
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