Buffalo Wild Wings’ Spin on Game Changer

EZ4_GC_TableCaddyThis week, Buffalo Wild Wings launches Game Changer in its 925 locations nationwide. The pale ale designed by Redhook Brewery is aptly named, as it not only relates to the beer’s intended purpose as a brew to pair with eating wings while watching sports on the 50 or so screens found in any Buffalo Wild Wings, but also it changes the way restaurant operators and adult beverage suppliers work together. We spoke with Buffalo Wild Wings Beverage Innovation Director Patrick Kirk about the launch and the new direction of the concept’s beer program.

Beer has always been an important component of the Buffalo Wild Wings concept, yet there seems to be a sharp focus on it right now. Why is that?

It’s ironic, because beer is one of our three pillars—wings, beer, sports—but we haven’t put a strong emphasis on beer. The thinking now is to take our status to being the best in beer. We’re making the right draft selections by location and increasing the number of taps, and are also increasing our focus on training for bartenders and servers.

How is the beer selection evolving?

We have 24 to 30 taps on average, but the newer locations have 30, as do remodels. Our mix is 45 percent craft, 35 percent domestic and the rest are imports. There’s been an increase in craft and local brews on draft in recent years. With the additional bottle brands, total selection goes to 50 brands.

How did this idea of creating a beer just for the Buffalo Wild Wings experience come about?

The idea of a Buffalo Wild Wings beer started two-and-a-half years ago. Typically, there are two approaches to a restaurant having its own beer. One is to actually become a brewer, to brew on site and sell it under your own label, which is just not feasible for us right now. The other is the practice of having a beer that they call their own on tap, but it’s a commonly sold mass-produced beer on which the label is changed for that location or restaurant concept. That didn’t sit well with us. If we’re going to hang our hat on a beer, we want it to be authentic.

We have great beer partners, so we began exploring possibilities. Initially, we talked with Craft Brew Alliance [which operates Redhook Brewery] about having a beer that would fit our concept well. As it turned out, they had similar ambition to create a beer made for sports fans. It was fantastic to work with them to build a beer from the ground up that’s made for eating wings and watching sports.

Sort of intentional brewing?

Absolutely! It’s one thing to be a beer of a particular style and another to have an identity and shine as a brand. Some beers go well at the beach; others are known for being refreshingly cold. How great to create and sell a beer specifically designed for the purpose of watching sports and that goes with wings and variety of sauces. There’s an authentic story in that Game Changer is made for that purpose and brewed in a style to fit that occasion.

Exactly how does Game Changer fit that specific occasion?

First, it’s sessionable. We’ve seen an interesting trend, a movement toward craft beers coming back down to be more sessionable, brewed with lower alcohol and an easy-to-drink mentality. That’s what our guest is demanding. If you’re going to stay for a game from kick-off to the end, you can’t really drink beers with 6% or 7% ABV throughout the game. It’s not possible from a responsible service and consumption standpoint, as well as from flavor perspective and a cost standpoint. But you need great flavor. The goal was to not be fully in the craft camp but to be a step up from domestics, and brew a well-balanced, full-flavored beer that hits the middle between 4% and 5% ABV. Game Changer is at 4.6% ABV, so it’s definitely sessionable.

From a flavor standpoint, the brewmaster did a nice job of making sure it’s got great malt flavor balanced with hop presence, which goes really well with our food, specifically our wings. What’s great about pale ale is that whether you have a mild sweet sauce, (a) middle-of-the-road or a burn-the-tongue sauce, then a pale ale, and specifically Game Changer, will work every time. An aggressive IPA with our wings can blow out your palate, while a lighter beer with low ABV can’t hold its own with all the flavors of our sauces. Pale Ale is great fit. Redhook did a great job of nailing it on the head.

The cool thing about the Game Changer story is that as Redhook was developing it, they needed good market research to find the right path. We helped them to use our fan base to answer questions and drive the direction of the beer flavor and also come up with a name. We posed the question to a consumer panel and shared the results with Redhook. Game Changer is a great name; we’ve had a lot of fun with it as we build up to the launch.

How does Game Changer fit within the current beer selection at Buffalo Wild Wings?

The price point is higher than a typical domestic light but in line with all Redhook product pricing, which is good for us and for the consumer. Redhook brands are typically priced lower than a lot of national popular craft beers right now, so it’s good margin for us and delivers a good, clean, full-flavored sessional craft beer that’s affordable.

Will Game Changer cannibalize existing brands in your offering?

We see it as a great addition to the lineup. To put a pale ale on the map nationally in one day—it’s a good thing for us. There are great regional pale ales but not a lot of national ones. One reason we hit on pale ale was we saw an area of opportunity for our tap lineup. A lot of great craft brewers have flagship IPAs, same with Belgian-style wheat ales. Everyone already knows the leaders there, so we’d be hard-pressed to compete. Pale ale felt like the right spot in terms of ability to compete and fill that void in in our offering and the marketplace.

Game Changer provides a point of differentiation for Buffalo Wild Wings because you can’t get it anywhere else right now, correct?

Yes; it’s not going to be available at retail. It’s only on draft, and it might go into other on-premise accounts. But you can’t get it in bottles at the store, so it maintains that unique element. I wouldn’t be surprised if other concepts choose to carry Game Changer, and would almost encourage it because we want to see the brand take off and be successful.

Tell us about the rollout plan.

Game Changer will be our featured craft beer from July 15 through September 1. We have POS on tables, information in the inside drink menu and posters, as well as team-member training and lanyards for around their necks with the Game Changer logo and tasting notes as a conversation starter. Also, logoed glassware and a really unique tap handle—it looks like remote control, which is a play off the name that’s great for a sports environment. With 50 big-screen TVs in each restaurant, the bartenders always have a remote handy for changing channels.

Would you foresee more such partnerships for Buffalo Wild Wings?

We will see how Game Changer does and where we can go from there, but really, the sky’s the limit with this one. Do we develop new variations of Game Changer, or does the message change with the sports season? Does Buffalo Wild Wings pursue being even more of a beer destination and offer more new, unique brews? This is the one that we’re rallying around and bringing attention and focus to now, but we’re also reaffirming our commitment to quality, service and presentation. It’s exciting to have a beer that encompasses everything Buffalo Wild Wings is about. It’s changing our game totally with regard to our beer program.

We feel like the way this beer’s been brought to market, we’re changing the broader industry’s game, too. This really shows that you can maximize the partnership between those who serve the product and those who produce the product, and the results should be exciting.

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Donna Hood Crecca

Donna Hood Crecca is Senior Director of Technomic Inc.’s Adult Beverage Resource Group. She has covered adult beverage in both the on-premise and retail markets for nearly two decades, most recently as Publisher and Editorial Director of Nightclub & Bar.

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