The Role of Virtual Tastings in a Post-Pandemic World

people in virtual call drinking wine

 By: Alyssa L. Ochs

The COVID-19 pandemic affected all aspects of life in 2020, from how we received medical care to how we dined at restaurants, shopped at stores and even enjoyed our favorite craft beers and spirits. In past years, craft beverage enthusiasts planned entire road trips and even flew to other countries to experience what the best brewers and distillers of the world had to offer. But during the COVID era, producers were forced to switch gears and consider offering virtual tastings as one of the many ways to stay in business due to restrictions and shutdowns.

We heard a lot about virtual beer, wine and spirit tastings during the height of the pandemic, but those conversations have dwindled as business picked back up as usual. Yet there still may be a place for virtual tasting experiences in today’s craft beverage industry, just as long as producers can evolve with the times and reestablish the relevance of this service among the mix of in-person offerings and events.

What Are Virtual Tastings?

  Virtual tastings are a relatively new concept, and many people don’t consider trying them because they don’t understand what they are. Virtual tastings are immersive, alcohol-themed experiences you can enjoy from the comfort of your home. Many of them require breweries and distilleries to ship boxes to households with sample-size portions, materials to read and opportunities for online engagement.

  During the COVID-19 shutdowns, some beverage producers turned to virtual tastings as a way to keep their customer base engaged and stay afloat as profits declined. But even during times of normal business operations, virtual tastings can be used to celebrate birthdays at home and corporate events in an office. Beyond the confines of a physical tasting room, there are also opportunities for virtual tastings at team-building activities, couples’ date nights and social gatherings to help local groups get to know each other.

Types of Virtual Tastings

  Some breweries and distilleries have created virtual tasting packages with beverage and food pairings to entice customers’ attention, particularly when in-person tastings were not an option. Recently, we have seen cooking kits emerge with alcoholic beverage samples and opportunities to participate in live online events.

  Other virtual tastings experiences involve sending a few bottles or cans of products to consumers with exclusive online access to an hour-long video call with a brewery or distillery representative. There have also been question-and-answer sessions offered with brewers and distillers, beverage judging sheets provided so consumers can rate and pick their favorites and seasonal experiences that highlight fall and winter brews, for example. To further capitalize on virtual tasting experiences, producers can offer the option of purchasing branded merchandise, such as hoodies and beanies, as part of a shipped package for an additional, discounted cost.

Benefits of Virtual Tastings

  During the pandemic times, the benefits of virtual tastings were evident because of the lack of other tasting options allowed and available. Virtual tastings enabled beverage fans to support struggling producers during difficult times while still feeling like part of the beer and spirits community.

  But even now, there are some significant benefits of virtual tastings that are worth considering for the months and years ahead. If marketed well, these socially distanced offerings can help breweries and distilleries reach new customers outside their home region who may not ever travel to the actual tasting room. During the winter cold and flu season, when COVID-19 cases tend to increase, virtual tastings appeal to some consumers as a safer and healthier alternative. If a tasting package includes printed materials that are informational and fun to read, there are opportunities here to help consumers better understand a beverage brand and its products. Since these packages can be designed around different interests and price points, they can offer something for everyone, from the casual drinker to the true connoisseur.

Challenges of Virtual Tastings

  Yet many challenges come with putting together virtual tasting packages, first and foremost, their relevance and value. Beverage producers must make these types of delivery/online tastings worth the cost and add value consumers wouldn’t necessarily get by visiting the establishment in person. There has been declining demand for these services lately and less internal dedication to marketing them since people are willing to travel more and crave a return to normalcy in the outside world.

  Meanwhile, some breweries and distilleries have been unsure of what to charge for virtual tastings. The average cost for this service is between $50 and $200, depending on how much product is shipped and other perks offered. For the virtual tasting industry to be sustainable, more effort will need to be directed to packaging and shipping beverages, which is a significant pivot from the previous experience of many beverage operations. There also need to be staff members who are tech-savvy and trained in how to plan and lead online events, as well as handle the inevitable technology glitches that so commonly occur during video calls and group chats.

Creative Ideas for Virtual Tastings

  If virtual beer and spirit tastings will survive as a side gig in the craft beverage industry, now is the time to get creative with offerings, pricing and perks. If this is something that a brewery or distillery owner is interested in getting involved with, it might be worth hiring a company or consultant specializing in virtual experiences instead of handling all aspects internally. At a minimum, it is worth researching examples of successful virtual tastings and perhaps even reaching out for a discussion or collaboration. Denver Microbrew Tour, City Brew Tours and Common Space Brewery are a few of the many groups that have excelled in this space. Other examples to learn from include Brews Less Traveled, Sierra Nevada Brewery, Fullsteam Brewery and the Sommelier Company.

  One idea to consider for future virtual tastings is to make the experience customizable for certain types of products, such as whiskey, rather than taking a one-size-fits-all approach. Promotions for the service can be centered on the benefits of receiving miniature versions of spirits so that consumers can try samples before committing to full-bottle purchases. Celebrity promoters and social media influencers may be able to help revive the virtual tasting industry if breweries and distilleries make the right connections. Also, the virtual tasting experience can be enhanced by social media participation and through educational lessons about mixology and beer-brewing.

The Outlook for Future Virtual Tastings

  At least for now, it seems that most craft beverage producers, including Fullsteam Brewery, have stopped offering virtual tastings since the lifting of COVID restrictions. With people feeling increasingly comfortable going out in public and preferring in-person experiences to virtual ones, there are significant challenges for the virtual tasting industry right now, but not insurmountable ones.

  Winter is an ideal season to revive virtual offerings because of the predicted increases in COVID-19 and flu cases. This is also an ideal time of the year for virtual options for holiday gift ideas, because of cold weather that keeps some people indoors and potentially more difficult travel with snowy conditions.

  While we don’t anticipate virtual tastings ever replacing the actual experience of drinking onsite, they could be offered as an add-on opportunity for consumers to get even more involved with their favorite beverage companies. During the holiday season, these types of tastings can take the guesswork out of planning gatherings at home with a fun activity as the party theme. As the weather warms up, forward-thinking producers may be able to expand virtual tastings to virtual festival events and online education about beer and spirits. This could lead to more formal training in the craft beverage industry and perhaps even address the staffing shortages still so prevalent in so many places around the country. Yet, in the short term, these shortages may also prevent breweries and distilleries from having the labor resources to dedicate to the tech side of beverage marketing in the first place.

  If you are interested in getting more involved in the world of virtual craft beverage tastings, you should know that this market is far from saturated, and there are openings for growth. Emerging, niche companies could assist with the production and execution of virtual experiences as a service to breweries and distilleries that do not have the time, expertise or staffing to do so themselves. But for now, these types of tastings will primarily be carried out by individual breweries and distilleries that are large enough, have ample staff and enough time and resources to expand their offerings to an online audience. If successful, those offerings could be models for an expanded online industry in the future.

  As a small sampling for inspiration, here are some resources to check out and virtual tasting ideas to consider:

•    The Drunken Grape has a team of sommeliers and offers interactive tastings, niche event planning and execution for private parties, wine and beer dinners, and weddings/corporate/charitable events.

•    Book a beer expert for your event through City Brew Tours.

•    Bourbon & Banter offers whiskey tastings for corporate events.

•    Dewar’s Aberfeldy Distillery is still hosting virtual experiences upon request.

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