Who Decides What You Can Choose From?
A beer distributor speaks about the business
Styles & Seasonals
January 16, 2003
Written by gfb108
On any given week, I see kegs of Chimay Cinq-Cents, Delirium Tremens, and St. Bernardus on pallets stacked 20 feet high. I see truck loads with Westmalle, Westvleteren, Achel, and Rochefort. Did you ever stop to think about who is it that decides what imports and micros your local distributor, store, or bar carries? Believe it or not, I’m lucky enough to actually get paid to do just that.
I got started in the business part-time as a stock boy when I was home from college. I worked a full-time day job and came to the beer distributor at night to earn extra money. To be honest it wasn’t really the money but it was mainly to fulfill my fascination with beer. My dad grew up with the owner of the company so he was nice enough to give me work whenever I wanted. When I graduated from college, I went back while I was looking for another job and fell in love. I began asking questions about breweries, beers, importers, etc. I was learning and I was passionate. I became trusted, my ideas were good and they worked. I earned a tremendous amount of responsibility; deciding who was going to carry what, how to better educate people about products, and figuring out how they were going to be priced. Ordering it, selling it, and spreading the word; I did. I worked frantically. I began to seek out the best products to add to our wholesale portfolio. In addition to being a retailer in the state of Pennsylvania, our company is an exclusive wholesaler for over 600 products from all over the world throughout the Central Pennsylvania region. Consequently, I get to meet and work with some of the best people in the craft brew and import industry. The passion and the drive come from the love of great beer and deriving satisfaction from making things available that make people happy. When someone says, “That case of beer you recommended was excellent,” that’s what you are in it for.
So how do I go about making my decisions on what products go into the market? I do my homework (tasting and research). To sum it up, you have to be mature enough to realize that your own tastes can only take you so far. Not everyone likes or will like the same things. You need to pay attention to things like variety, style, shelf life, niche products, and so on. God bless Ratebeer.com. It is because of you that my company distributes brands like Bell’s, Dogfish Head, Hair of the Dog, and Three Floyds. Unlike an AB, CB, or MB wholesaler, our decisions are based upon what is good as opposed to what marketing suits are going to pump a lot of ducats in to.
The most challenging part about specialty beer distributing is educating people. A lot of people have no idea what good beer is because they have been brain washed by the marketing dollars of large breweries. Another challenge is getting the materials you need to properly promote the brand. Sometimes I’ll get a bunch of different kegs, but the importer/supplier/brewery won’t send me any tap markers. You can’t effectively represent the product. I end up making a lot of things myself to promote brands. It really is upsetting because there are brewer’s guilds that are supposed to alleviate some of these problems; maybe they’re just under the wrong leadership. I’d love to start my own and run it honestly. In terms of dealing with unique problems, availability of products is perpetually changing and often times retailers are afraid to put products on their shelves that they’re unfamiliar with.
Another challenge is the regulatory environment - you really have to know your stuff. There is a ton of paperwork and contracts that go into wholesaling a brand. Since we are a “case” state (you can only buy less than a case of beer in a bar) the price of some of the cases can get a little hairy (i.e. Westvleteren 12 ---$215.99). When you go into a bar for a six pack, you end up overpaying because you have no other option as to where to buy.
You also have to acquire the rights from breweries and suppliers to distribute brands in specific territories. Sometimes distributors will get the rights to a product and not service the territory and instead of giving up the brand you have to buy it from them and resell it. It really hurts the customer’s wallet.
The best part of my work involves foresight. I put it all into the terms of knowing what’s cool before it’s cool. For example, Victory V-12 is going to be cool. Therefore, because it will be limited, I will order as much as I am allotted because in shortage it will be a hot commodity. I have a feeling Unibroue Éphémère is going to be a good one in our market from what I am hearing, as well anything that’s coming from Greg Koch and the fine gentlemen at Stone Brewing Company.
In terms of American micros - Victory is bigger than ever and growing (Bill and Ron are brilliant), people love Anderson Valley in my neck of the woods, and I’m really just getting my feet wet with Stone; people are digging it though. Imports - Chimay and Sam Smiths are big sellers. I’ve resolved in 2003 to get De Dolle products in a few bars. Great stuff.
Anyway, I hope I left you a little bit more informed/entertained than before I found you. Take care everyone, keep up the good work, and get more involved at the establishments that are serving your favorite products. Encourage them to carry the beers that are made by hard working and honest people.
To women, horses, and the men who ride them!!!!
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