Craft beer aficionado Christopher O’Connell lives just two blocks from Salem’s Gulu-Gulu Cafe and has long been a regular, dropping in often to order a pint or two from what he calls the area’s best lineup of beers. So, in 2014, when the cafe launched a beer club that challenged would-be members to try 200 different brews, O’Connell was in from the very beginning.
Slightly less than a year later, he had met the lofty goal, becoming the first full member of the Flying Gulu Beer Society.
“The convenience of living right nearby helped,” O’Connell laughs.
The Flying Gulu Beer Society was born when Steven Feldman, who owns both the Gulu-Gulu Cafe and the neighboring Flying Saucer Pizza Company, decided he wanted to create an experience that would both create camaraderie among regular customers and help build customer loyalty. He was inspired by the idea of a mug club—in which bars reward customers who drink a certain number of beers with their own beer mug kept on the premises—but he wanted to give it his own twist.
The result was the beer society. Once a contender drinks 200 different beers from those on offer at Gulu-Gulu or Flying Saucer, they are rewarded with a membership card and a personalized t-shirt. They also earn the right to drink from the society member chalice—they don’t get their own, but there are several available, so no member shall be deprived of their hard-won drinking vessel.
There are also less tangible benefits. There’s the pride and camaraderie of being one of the select few to achieve membership—so far only 49 people have completed the requisite drinks to earn admission. Members might also be invited to special keg tappings or have the chance to test out samples of beers under consideration for the menu. And once Gulu-Gulu bar manager Zakk Nix gets to know your preferences, he might just go out of his way to make sure there’s something interesting on tap for you.
“You almost become something bigger than the beer you’re drinking,” Nix says. “Your thoughts and preferences are being used to create and fortify the space you’re spending time and money in.”
In the early years, there was a specific list of beers aspiring members were required to drink and fewer than 10 were available at any one time. Completed drinks were at first logged using pen and paper, and later, they were hand-entered into a spreadsheet.
Today, candidates can choose any of the options from the ever-changing and expansive menus, which generally include nine draft choices and more than 30 bottles and cans at Gulu-Gulu alone. And there’s now an app for tracking progress: When a society hopeful orders a new brew, they find it on the app then ask their server to enter a secret code on their phone verifying their order.
While the precise methods and rules might have changed, the principle has remained the same: encouraging people to think beyond the IPA and try something they might not have considered previously.
“The idea of taking a tour of a variety of different styles was really appealing,” Nix says. “You’re stepping out of your comfort zone a little bit in order to broaden your palate.”
Including beers from both Gulu-Gulu and Flying Saucer furthers this mission, by pushing society aspirants to explore both beer lists, each of which has a different focus, Nix says: Gulu-Gulu tends to favor more European beers and West Coast craft breweries, while Flying Saucer pours a lot of microbrews from around New England and New York.
The society has been a natural fit because beer has always been the heart of Gulu-Gulu, Nix explains. When the owners opened their original cafe in Lynn in 2005 (they moved to Salem in 2007), they wanted to create a space that was about community, more about hanging out than turning over tables. Beer has proven to be an essential in creating that atmosphere.
“They wanted to create this small, cozy place where you can relax,” Nix says. “The beer is something to do and something to talk about—you never run out of things to talk about when you’re talking about beer, whether or not you’re literally talking about beer.”