Why doesn't anybody want Goose Island's NFTs?
On tokens, tap handles, and timing the market
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It’s a long-held article of financial faith that you can’t time the market. Goose Island Brewing Co.’s non-fungible token project rollout is proof that the wisdom applies to web3 just like it does to everything else.
Earlier this month, the pioneering Chicago craft brewery announced it would introduce its first-ever NFT collection “made up of 2,022 NFTs commemorating Bourbon County Stout’s 30th Anniversary.” What might be a challenging venture for an independent brewery1, is for Goose Island, a matter of institutional corporate knowledge. Having been acquired in 2011 by macrobrewer Anheuser-Busch InBev, the Chicago-based outfit has access to all the web3 experience its parent company has gleaned from previous projects with Budweiser, Stella Artois, Bud Light Next, and other portfolio brands.
Better still: Bourbon County Brand Stout is Goose Island’s crown jewel. It’s a legitimately coveted annual release that still attracts diehard fans and enterprising resellers despite the explosion of top-notch breweries in the intervening three decades since its introduction (not to mention Big Beer’s controlling interest in the firm for the past 11 years.) BCBS is a longstanding exemplar—even a progenitor, to some extent—of hype-heavy “drop culture” in American craft beer. If you were looking for a perfect use case for leveraging IRL scarcity and existing customer behavior to simultaneously cash in (the tokens were originally priced at $499 apiece) and consolidate an offline fanbase into an owned-and-operated online community, Bourbon County Stout would be pretty damn close to the ideal.
ABI and Goose Island thought so, too. In a press release prior to the release Goose Island’s president, Todd Ahsmann, touted the so-called Barrel House Collection project as a logical next step to “innovation” that’s “always been a part of our DNA.” “Now our BCS community - and NFT fans - can collect some digital keepsakes to go with the prestigious beers,” he’s quoted as saying. (After pitching Fingers on coverage of the BHC launch, a representative for Goose Island did not respond to specific questions about the project sent via email.)
In hindsight, the brewery might have opted against scheduling the sale for Friday the 13th.
No sooner did Goose Island set the date than the price of Ethereum—a cryptocurrency, and the blockchain on which BHC and many other NFT projects are based—began to tumble. A day before the Goose Island mint, ETH had fallen around 20%. The Chicago brewery tried to adjust in kind. “[W]e can’t ignore this week’s market volatility and the fact that overall purchasing power is down,” it wrote in a blog post on 5/12. The BHC rollout would continue as scheduled, but for the matter of price: instead of $499, each token would be $399, a discount that proportionally mirrored ETH’s slide.
Alas, it wasn’t enough. In the intervening 10 days since BHC tokens have been available for purchase, under 300 have been minted, by around 200 wallets, according to information from the NFT trading platform OpenSea. Six of the NFTs were minted by a wallet that appears to be controlled by Goose Island itself. It’s hardly the sold-out reception that greeted Budweiser’s collections in late 2021, and when to the strong demand that the corresponding barrel-aged stouts still generate each November at real-life retail, it’s damn near flop territory for BHC. What happened?
The plummeting price of ETH and the broader crypto crash is certainly part of the story. You can’t really blame Goose Island for mistiming the market, because as we’ve already established, it’s not the sort of thing anyone can consistently and accurately predict anyway.2 But another factor in BHC’s super-slow start is the relative lack of “utility”—i.e., privileges conferred upon token holders. In short, there just didn’t seem to be much of a point to buying a Goose Island BHC token.3 The lowest and most common tier of token entitled holders to an autographed tap handle, a barrel stave, and a “NFT-owner only limited edition snifter.” That’s not nothing! But also not “worth” the mint price unless you’re a Goose Island superfan with plenty of disposable income. In ABI’s Budverse Discord server—I didn’t name it, please stop yelling at me—two members summed up the apparent aversion to the Goose Island project (emphasis mine):
[User A:] It looks like a good looking collection / professional launch. But niche market and feels geographically bound with limited leadup promotion and bad market timing... If I lived in Chicago I'd buy it in a heartbeat...
[User B:] I'll buy it on 5/20 when it dumps after reveal. If they weren't so vague about utility I'd be a buyer. Most BCBS customers don't want tap handles, they want BCBS.
To be fair, higher-tiered tokens come with additional privileges, including the “guaranteed opportunity” to buy a $30 ticket to the 2022 BCBS release event (known as Proprietor’s Day or Prop Day) and the “ability” to buy $130 worth of BCBS. If you get ahold of the rarest “Gold” BHC token, you don’t even have to pay for that stuff at all! But also to be fair, there’s only one Gold NFT in the entire 2,022-token project, and the type of token buyers got was randomized anyway.
But while the the reasons for the BHC project’s flat launch seem fairly straightforward, the implications for ABI’s overall push into the web3 space are harder to discern. The firm bet big on NFTs early on, launching a string of projects affiliated with its brands and reportedly investing in VaynerNFT, the web3-focused media services agency of unflappable rise-and-grind namesake Gary Vaynerchuk. Many of those projects sold out quickly: Budweiser’s Heritage Can NFTs were gone in a matter of hours, and according to trading activity on OpenSea, they have mostly held their value. But not every NFT project from the world’s biggest beer company has been a winner: the tokens minted at $399 apiece for Bud Light Next’s Super Bowl debut earlier this year currently trade at a floor price of just around $40, a tenth of what original holders paid for them. (The corresponding beer has only fared slightly better on real-life store shelves since its release.)
Reporting on the Heritage Can project last year for VinePair, I interviewed Dr. Merav Ozair, a leading blockchain expert and fintech professor at Rutgers Business School. The challenge that lay ahead for corporate early-adopters like ABI rushing into uncharted digital territory, she warned, wasn’t simply a matter of getting in on the ground floor. They’d have to follow through on their promises, roll with the punches, and deliver actual value (read: utility) to holders. “Being a first mover is good, but the question is, can [they] build on that momentum?”
In other words: timing isn’t everything, it’s just one small piece of the puzzle. Maybe that’s good news for Goose Island and its sluggish NFT debut.
📬 Good post alert
Don’t miss out, follow Fingers on Instagram today. It’s frand your feed will thank you. (Not really, that would be weird. But you know what I mean.)
As Friend of Fingers Michael Kiser recently told me with a laugh in a phone interview about early web3 adoption and implementation efforts in the industry: “Oh god, nobody in craft beer knows how to do that. You’re gonna need some kind of consultant in that space to basically like, hold breweries’ hands and make it happen. But I'm old enough to remember when breweries needed people to help them fucking set up their Facebook pages and like, develop a Squarespace site. So it's not surprising to me that craft brewers who are not necessarily historically technological hub of any sort, would need help with that. And there's no shame in that.”
I mean, you can, in the sense that they didn’t have to do a big promotional/commercial initiative on the blockchain, and by doing so opened themselves up to the volatility inherent even in established cryptocurrencies like ETH. But downstream of that, it’s not like they chose to launch their project during a historic crypto crash.
The obvious dunk here is that there’s no point to buying NFTs generally. Which is a pretty fair take in reference to the profile picture (PFP) projects that fanned the flames on the NFT bubble/craze in 2021. But there are some firms doing interesting online-to-offline stuff with the technology, too—including some craft breweries. Nuance!