In 1989 an American electrical engineer named Jeff Lebesch rode his mountain bike (with “fat tires”) through European villages famous for their brew. The variety of beer ingredients, from lime leaves to raspberries, inspired Lebesch to hatch his own libations from a basement in Fort Collins, Colorado. Today, a biscuity amber ale called Fat Tire by New Belgium Brewery is revered by hopheads around the United States.

Fat Tire’s success is rooted in community. In the old, basement-brewing days, Lebesch would offer samples of his homebrew to everyone – from friends and fellow brewers to cowboys and microbiologists.

Two decades later the brewery’s “high involvement culture,” as it puts it, has carried into the digital realm through a variety of Facebook pages, apps and other social platforms that harness the passion, conversation and sense of community that go along with a good beer.

From Barstool to Facebook Wall

Craft brewers are bold. Shunning the ways of big, watered-down commercial breweries, they are known for their innovation and non-traditional ingredients. Good brewers also know their customers personally, be it through philanthropy, volunteerism, sponsorship of local events or by sharing – or even creating – a beer with them.

Dean Browell, Executive Vice President of Feedback Agency, a social media consultancy based in Richmond, Virginia and London, England, has been a longtime friend to the beer community and counts a growing number of impressive keynotes under his belt at the annual Craft Brewers Conference.

“Craft beer is a source of experimentation and taste that lends itself to discussion, exploration and more,” says Browell, whose PhD thesis focused on generational differences and online technologies. “It’s one of those drinks that sparks conversation and practically requires you to drink with others, daring interaction.”

Online these qualities are reflected in the communities that have sprung up in and around specific breweries and beers, and between craft brewers themselves.

While they might not always have deep pockets like commercial brands, craft brewers have repeatedly launched social media campaigns that yield results.

An app on New Belgium’s Facebook page, “Share Your Joy Ride,” asks brew fans to create and share their own Fat Tire labels by uploading photos. During the summer months, winning beer label creators were awarded with a special 20th-anniversary edition Fat Tire cruiser bike.

Not content to settle for just one app, New Belgium offers a variety of branded Facebook apps, such as FoodBuzz (for sharing New Belgium-inspired recipes), Beer Ranger (for connecting local brew pages that are geographically relevant), and Mighty Arrow, a partnership with Outside magazine that sees one dollar of every download donated to local animal protection agencies (at the time of writing, the app had been downloaded more than 10,000 times).

The brewery’s Facebook page boasts almost 200,000 “Likers” who routinely share their hobbies and passions with the brand, and most importantly, buy their beer; New Belgium is now the third-largest craft brewery, and seventh-largest overall brewery, in the United States.

QR at the Bar

Brewing was once but a hobby for Colorado homebrewers Jeff and Stephanie Crabtree. Today the husband-and-wife duo crank out more than 900 barrels a year, along with a hefty dose of digital media.

Like many craft brewers, Jeff Crabtree thrives on direct interaction with customers. While he can’t sit at the bar with everyone who tips back Crabtree’s tasty creations, since September he has slapped QR codes on his beer bottles that allow him to engage with customers the new-fashioned way.

Anyone who orders a Berliner Weisse Ale – an old-style German wheat ale – can scan the QR code on the bottle’s label with their mobile device and view a video message from Jeff Crabtree himself who delivers the lowdown on the brew they’re about to imbibe.

Crabtree drinkers have an opportunity to hatch the next installment in the Digital Age series, by subscribing to an exclusive email list that allows them to keep the relationship going and ultimately decide on the next QR-inspired brew.

By adding a digital signpost to a real-world object, craft brewers have created an ideal inbound marketing tool. While beer lovers tip one back, brewers can collect data on their customers and measure the results of their campaign in real time.

Check-in to Your Beer

With location-based services all the rage, it comes as no surprise that there’s already a crowded market of mobile apps that allow users to “check in” to their favorite pint. One of the most popular is Untappd (think Foursquare for beer geeks), which provides an interactive beer rating and recommendation system.

Untappd users can literally place smaller, independent beers on the map by sharing what they’re drinking and where. Touting over one million check-ins, Untappd is available free on Android and iOs and can be synched with Foursquare, Facebook or Twitter.

Back to the Real World

Proving that the craft brew community is just as strong in the non-digital world, the East Atlanta Beer Festival recently

launched Re:Brew, a free iPhone app that helped concert-goers find – and rate – the best craft beers at this summer’s festival.

As people rated and chatted about their favourite microbrews at the festival, the event’s beer list was adjusted to highlight the most popular offerings.

Beer festivals aside, Twitter is flush with hashtags that paint a picture of the growing American passion for craft beer. Brewers & Union, based in South Africa, provides an ongoing chance to win a case of craft beer each week by simply tagging tweets with #idrinkcraft.

Whether it’s through Facebook pages, check-in apps or hashtags, craft brewers are giving macro-produced beers – and their marketing whiz kids – a run for their money. Most craft brewers live by a simple motto: No crap on tap. And now they’re bringing that philosophy to the digital marketing space.