Talking Shop with Left Field Brewery
Toronto Craft Beer, Baseball & Basset Hounds
In early 2019, we had the pleasure of helping Left Field Brewery navigate a subtle brand refresh and packaging update. The resultant work was overwhelmingly well received—a testament to how popular Left Field is, more than how good a job CODO did, I suspect (though we’ll take all the credit we can get).
We’ve continued working with Left Field on a few key product launches since the big refresh and have been consistently impressed by how nimble Mandie and her team have been before and throughout the Covid pandemic.
It’s been a little over a year since we launched their refresh and we figured it would be a good time to catchup with Mandie to talk shop and see how Left Field is continuing to strengthen their brand, improve quality and further enmesh themselves throughout Toronto.
Hi! I’m Mandie Murphy from Left Field. Together with my partner Mark, I founded the Left Field Brewery, a community minded, baseball loving brewery in the east end of Toronto, Ontario, Canada. Before Left Field, I worked in beverage alcohol and packaged goods marketing. Mark is a Chartered Accountant who left his career to attend brewing college, despite my initial opposition to the idea. We started Left Field as a contract brewery and quickly knew we wanted a space of our own to call home. For us, the brewery has always been an opportunity to bring people joy through great beer, community and shared experiences.
So many! Naturally, there’s the idea of the continuous training and dedication that’s needed to hone the specific skills for both. There’s the social aspect of the game itself being about community and shared experiences in the same way that our local craft breweries and taprooms facilitate these spaces and experiences for us. Baseball and beer are things that as fans, we love, we are passionate about and that we can connect over. As a long game and a relatively slow sport, baseball gives spectators the chance to be together with others of shared interests and of course enjoying a beer together through that experience is the quintessential fan experience.
In both cases, the super-fan of a baseball team knows about every trade, stat and big play in the same way that a super-fan of a brewery would know about every new release, hop variety, brewer and would sport the brewery’s gear as a badge of who they are and what’s important to them.
At their core, both baseball and craft beer share values like integrity, sportsmanship, teamwork and community.
I don’t. Whenever we’re asked this question, we like to joke that there are at least 4 train inspired breweries in our market and nobody can argue that baseball isn’t at least as popular as locomotives.
The baseball theme gives us the opportunity to tell stories about the game’s rich tradition, history and quirks which we have a lot of fun with. Baseball also gives us the opportunity to tie everything together thematically, so that if someone comes across our baseball bat tap handle they might think “oh yeah, that baseball brewery with the beer I really liked” (hopefully). In its simplest form, we enjoy sharing the stories of the sport that we love with others.
In a more strategic sense, the Left Field brand is about a lot more than baseball. As we’ve grown, knowing who we are and who we want to be in the minds of beer drinkers has been really important in every decision we make. The hope is that all of these small decisions will ladder-up to a stronger brand of authenticity, quality, integrity and community to name a few.
Very, I think. Stories help us feel connected. If you know something about where your beer came from, the ingredients chosen, how it was made, what inspired its name, what values the company who made it has, etc., you are almost certainly more likely to choose it over something else. I think this is true for today’s consumer in general and that it’s so much bigger than beer.
Frankly, as a small business owner it has been terrifying. That said, we are weathering it pretty well and every day I remind myself that we have a lot to be thankful for. Initially when bars and restaurants closed and we had to close our taproom, we lost 50% of our business overnight. Fortunately, we already had a well established online store and were legally able to distribute directly to people’s homes. Our all star licensee (on premise) sales team pivoted to put together a free home delivery program using that platform almost overnight. Our tap room team members and sales people started routing deliveries and packing orders and we rented some vans and started delivering beer directly to people’s doorsteps.
We were also fortunate to have a decent number of retail listings in grocery stores and our provincial liquor stores and those sales spiked immediately. We only had to shut down brewing for 2 weeks and looking back, probably shouldn’t have slowed production at all given some of the summer inventory shortages we were faced with.
It certainly hasn’t come without its challenges and we’re pretty worried about the long-term repercussions that this will have on the hospitality industry overall. That said, we’re faring pretty well and just taking it day by day.
In our annual big ideas meeting, Mark put this one on the table and we all immediately got really excited about it. Ice Cold Beer is a fun, easy going, easy drinking beer that reminds us that beer doesn’t have to be so serious—but that it can be if you want it to be and that as producers, we take ingredient sourcing seriously. Ice Cold Beer is a blonde ale made with 100% local (Ontario) ingredients and drinks like a “beer that tastes like beer”—which is something we get asked for all the time being an IPA and sour-focused brewery. We call it a 100% Ontario Ale. It’s the beer you’d want to drink in the stands on a hot day while watching the game. The hawker in the aisle would be walking up and down the steps shouting out “GET YOUR ICE COLD BEER HERE.” It’s 4.5% ABV, crisp, clean, clear, cold and simple.
We are so hesitant to call anything a ‘flagship’ but we were all so excited about this one and hoped our fans would be too. We had planned to release it on the first day of the 2020 Major League Baseball season through a series of “First Pitch” events across the province. Covid happened and baseball was cancelled but we launched the beer anyway and immediately couldn’t keep up with production. It quickly surpassed Greenwood IPA as our top selling beer and has been a huge success for us so far. We tend not to decide which beers are flagships and which are rotationals or seasonals, we let the sales results speak for themselves to a degree. There’s a little more strategy to it than that, but essentially, if a brand sells well, we keep making it and eventually it will become a core brand. When a brand’s sales start to taper off, we look to replace it with something that sells better. It’s important for us to keep adapting the lineup to deliver on what our customers want.
I tend to see every mistake or stumble we make as a learning experience and without them, we wouldn’t be the brewery or business we are today, so that’s a tough one.
Figure out why you exist, what’s your story and who you are or who you want to be as a business and in the eyes of your customer – this is your brand. Use this lens in every decision that you make, big or small. A brand is not your logo or your packaging (those are also important), but rather it’s what your business stands for.
Know that you will be running a company—if you are a marketer or a brewer, how do you plan to tackle HR, operations, logistics, legal, etc. Winging it is harder than it seems.
Marketing & Business: Ann Handley’s email newsletter, Total Annarchy. I saw Ann speak at a Craft Brewers Conference a few years back and look forward to her email newsletters. I always learn something new from them and she has a knack for delivering her content in a funny, relatable way.
Baseball: Swing And A Belt (Podcast) with Dan Shulman: shorter daily podcast that tackles an issue or story from around the league with an in-depth interview.
Baseball Life Advice by Stacey May Fowles (book & email newsletter): A passionate fan’s account of what the game means to us as people, why it’s important and what some of it’s challenges are.
Quality focus. I’d like to see more breweries making hard decisions about their beer, even when it’s inconvenient or expensive. We all need to remember that one bad experience from a new craft drinker doesn’t only leave a mark on the brewery itself, but is likely to turn that person away from craft beer altogether. Think about the bigger picture before the bottom line and take a long-term view for not only your company but the industry.
If our industry wants to retain the most talented professionals—brewers, scientists, engineers, marketers, servers, sales people, etc. we need to stop relying on how “fun” working at a brewery is as a form of compensation and treat employees like the professionals that they are. We have the ability to attract great talent as an industry because of the perks, ‘fun’ work and culture but again, we should be taking a long-term view and looking at industry retention to take us to the next level.
To continue growing and evolving while holding on to our values and what brought us success in the early days while remaining relevant. To be a great place to work, a producer of great beers and beer experiences and a leader and friend for our industry peers.
This one hasn’t changed since we started—more space. We always need more space than we have. Space for cans, boxes, ingredients, merch and cold space for finished beer, more seats for guests, more shelves in the retail fridge, more space behind the bar, more office space for our team, an actual meeting room, a bigger and dedicated lab and sensory space, more parking and the list goes on. Being a brewery in a densely populated urban centre means that we make do with what we have. The benefits of being in a central location in the middle of one of North America’s biggest cities always seems to outweigh the lack of space but it would sure be nice to be able to spread out a bit.
In my view, they are the same thing. Your brand is the quality of the beer and experiences you create for your customers just as much as it is the label on the can or the logo on the shirt. Long term success doesn’t come without both and without your team being intimately aware of their role in bringing both to life for your customers.
Hah, Wrigley is great! Wrigs is our floppy, lazy, stinky basset hound who was born the day before we opened our doors in 2015. He grew-up at the brewery and until Covid, had taken over the couch in the office. He has been working from home through the pandemic and his productivity is questionable. We’ve recently asked him to start reporting back to the office on Fridays which seems to be going well so far.