The Elements of Style

Published in the October 2015 issue of Dispatch Magazine 

Pete Bissell tells us why it’s about more than just the beer.

Photo by Peter Bissell

Though there is no disputing that the general public simply cannot consume enough of their beer, there is something more to the success of Bissell Brothers Brewing Company — a style of DIY branding that draws beer drinkers in like a moth to a flame. It appeals to several elements of human nature, such as our need for something new, different, and whimsical, an alluring promise of escape from our mundane existence.

Though the flavor of the beer is, admittedly, a bit aggressive in style for my personal drinking tastes, there is something about the tall, shiny can that makes me want to see at least a four-pack prominently on display every time I open my refrigerator, just to know it’s there. The blue on silver is so refreshing to look at, I assume that the contents must be equally so (regardless of my previous statement about my personal preferences).

Since their inception in 2013, Bissell Brothers almost immediately became the producer of Maine’s most sought-after beers. Beginning with their flagship IPA, Substance, and progressing to other brews with insanely catchy names like Baby Genius and Swish, they have developed a cult following that, more often than not, leaves most bar owners, who are fortunate enough to be able to offer their beers on draught, scratching their heads wondering, “how the hell did we go through so much of that in one night?!”

I meet with Pete Bissell, who handles the marketing of the company while his brother Noah oversees the brewing process, in early September. As the sun sets on their second summer in operation, I want a glimpse behind the curtain from the man himself. A photographer by trade prior to founding the brewery, Pete has spent countless hours delving into books like Linchpin by Seth Godin and The 48 Laws of Power by Robert Greene to develop his business strategy and learn the art of appealing to the aforementioned human nature. Greene’s grandiose strategies to control the thought process of others have been adapted and made famous by Jay-Z and Will Smith to name a few, while Godin’s focus is on marketing and leadership. He recalls that, “These authors opened up a hidden world to me, and when I applied their philosophies to my working life I began to realize that I had the power to do almost anything I wanted.”

Meanwhile, Noah, the younger of the two natives of the small town of Milo, Maine, had been dabbling with brewing after he became immersed in craft beer culture. Though the idea for the collaboration between the two brothers had already begun, the pivotal moment in the process came unexpectedly on Christmas Day of 2010. Noah had brought a porter that he had made, and was particularly proud of, to the family dinner. Pete recounts the occasion:

“I told him that the beer tasted like ash, because it did. I felt strangely compelled to be brutally honest with him, which in turn made Noah realize that he needed to seriously focus on brewing beyond just a hobby. I knew that neither of us wanted to work for anyone else, so we might as well do this thing together.” They immediately began what would be a two-year process honing the recipe for their flagship IPA, Substance.

With Noah focusing on the beer itself, Pete turned to his marketing strategy:

“Most ‘geeks’ in any field — engineers, craftsman, creators, brewers, chefs — don’t like to acknowledge that the quality of the product alone simply isn’t enough anymore,” he says. “The user and consumer experience is now a necessity.”

He explains that what many breweries do not understand is that in this day and age you are either a specialty or a commodity, and those who expend energy trying to appeal to everyone will always end up as the latter. Ever wonder why each can of Bud Heavy or glass of Veuve Clicquot Yellow Label Champagne tastes the exact same every time? It’s because these operations go to painstaking lengths not to risk losing a single consumer and put zero emphasis on making changes or improvements. Of course, this isn’t necessarily always a bad thing — if I ever ordered a Big Mac and it came out topped with sundried tomatoes, it would cause me to question whether or not I actually wanted to be alive anymore in a world where this could be a reality.

Pete elaborates stating that, “for instance, don’t brew an English Mild to tone your shit down for the masses just because they ask you to. There needs to be a line in sand.” A prime example of this was the huge boom in the popularity of making charcuterie in restaurants — rather than focus on one, maybe two styles and doing them incredibly well, many chefs decided that it would be preferable to drown in a sea of mediocrity by churning out oversized boards heaping with forgettable interpretations of everything from head cheese to duck prosciutto.

Another of the most direct marketing philosophies Pete employs is that if you have to sell your product you have already lost.

“Most consumers are very aware of when they are being sold to, and to be honest we don’t really care if you like our beer or not.” Though this stance may initially come off as extreme, it rings particularly true if you have ever witnessed a particularly weak-willed restaurant owner trying desperately to respond and react to each and every negative remark on Yelp!, completely losing focus of why the hell they opened their business in the first place. In The 48 Laws of Power, Robert Greene asserts — correctly —that, “When you show yourself to the world and display your talents, you naturally stir all kinds of resentment, envy, and other manifestations of insecurity … you cannot spend your life worrying about the petty feelings of others.”

He warns of the dangers of getting involved with the perpetual fight for coveted tap handle space in bars, and refuses to be a part of it. The way he sees it, if people want their beer they can call him directly, and if they don’t like the way Bissell Brothers does business there are plenty of other establishments that will.

“We also don’t make more beer than we can sell, and we are very comfortable running out,” a practice which, as Pete points out, “Has done wonders for us — you can’t lose if you play on a different field with your own rules.”

Historically, in the case of everything from websites to fascist regimes and social media giants, one of the most important elements in their success is a prominent, unmistakable logo. For Bissell Brothers Brewing, Pete was inspired by an image of a cattle brand, which he transformed using three B’s to form the same shape, bringing on local designer Glen Halliday to achieve the symmetry of the final design.

“It stands for something; you live it and love it everyday and it will elicit a response,” which prompts him to make the comparison to the clothing business, “where, if you think about it, so many garments would mean nothing without the label.”

Despite their powerful emphasis on marketing, Bissell Brothers maintain a staunch position on not advertising, insisting that do so would imply the need to. Instead they focus on living their brand, day in day out, a practice that, Pete insists, sells more than actually selling. This approach echoes Seth Godin’s statement that “The secret of leadership is simple: Do what you believe in. Paint a picture of the future. Go there. People with follow.”

“You need to develop an ethos and document your personal life to show that the brand isn’t merely an image or façade,” he tells me. “It’s the closest we can currently get to telepathy with our customers.”

Bissell encourages patrons to come to the brewery to purchase the beer, so they can see all of this in action — the art, the mess, the Liquid Swords playing over the speakers, the broken pinball machine. Vendors that set up in the their parking lot, like the High Roller Lobster Company or the Mami Food Truck, are provided with table tents and laminated menus to incorporate them into the Bissell lifestyle as well.

Of course, at the end of the day, great marketing requires a keen sense of aesthetic. Nothing embodies this like the packaging they employ for Substance IPA, the name for which was the result of a camping trip to a small town in Nevada in 2009.

“We were tripping out on mushrooms in the middle of nowhere,” Pete remembers, “and we decided that, if we were to be confronted and questioned by any law enforcement officers at the time, we would explain to them that we were there to forage for substance.” If you’ve ever eaten mushrooms, this scenario will make perfect sense to you.

The silver 16-ounce cans were emblazoned with black and bright blue designs, including a streamlined, scientific font and an image of the chemical compound humulone, an organic acid that gives beer its characteristically bitter flavor.

Bissell Brothers Brewing avoids submission to competition in a variety of ways, but one of the most prominent, to Pete, is their refusal to over-expand, concluding that: “It’s not just about what you are, it’s equally important what you aren’t.”

This is a lesson that many could stand to learn.