Retailers of Distinction #1
An Interview with Jim Sebring, Blue Max Liquors, Burnsville, Minnesota
August 5, 2004
Written by Nuffield
Nothing is more precious to drinkers of fine beer than the retailers who pamper us—you know, the ones who go out of their way to bring you beers that no one else in your area will touch, who look at a bottle in Cyrillic letters and say “cool” rather than “but who’s going to buy it?”, who know that some consumers look for “born on” dates to find the really old beers rather than the really fresh ones, who know that Belgium produces some rather tasty beers, thank you very much. At Ratebeer, we honor these people. It may not be the most glamorous or high-paying job in the world, but they do a good service and make our lives a little bit—or a lot—better.
Jim Sebring is one such retailer. The “beer guy” at Minnesota’s Blue Max Liquors he lords over a collection of coolers and shelves that rank among the very finest in the American Midwest. Those of you who have had a chance to visit Blue Max and meet Jim know the enthusiasm he brings to his job. He tries every beer he has in stock, is always looking out for more to bring in, and has been known to keep a few good bottles “in the back” for his best customers. He’s the kind of guy Ratebeerians should get to know.
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Jim Sebring, he’s definitely your friend
Q: Tell me a little bit about yourself, how did you get into the retail business?
Jim: I started in the beer business as a bartender when I was eighteen. It was a step up from waiting tables and managed to put myself through five and a half years of college. It seems I discovered beer a little early and it slowed down my completion of my degree. I managed to get a Civil Engineering degree with a emphasis on watershed management a few years later. My dream job was with the Minnesota State Department of Natural Resources as a field agent but my long-standing application with them has since expired. After college I kept bartending hoping that a so-called "real job" would appear. After a year or so with no offers I took a job with MGM (a local liquor store chain here in Minnesota) part time as a clerk. They soon offered me a management position that included being the beer buyer for a few different stores. It was then that I started drinking better beer. After a few years with them, I decided it was time for a change and happened upon the Blue Max at the perfect time. They were looking for a beer buyer. I thought I knew beer but I was floored by what the Max had to offer. I definitely realized that I knew very little. The last few years have been a blur of education and imbibitions for me.
Q: I understand that you have pretty much a blank check from the owner to buy anything you can. How did Blue Max come to be a store that focuses so intently on beer?--you obviously sell cases of macros as well as wine and spirits, too. Was it just an "enlightened" boss?
Jim: I wouldn’t say we focus so heavily on beer at Blue Max, it’s more that very few other retailers do. About 10 years ago Tom and Diane Pilney (the owners) made the decision to change the image of the store from a joe-six-pack-business to a more upscale boutique style. They got rid of kegs entirely and dropped many of the jug wines and bottom shelf liquors. With the newfound space they brought in all the new and exotic beers, over 200 single malt scotches, shelves of premium spirits and a wine selection that rivals any in town. I’m not sure if I would call them enlightened, but they saw the revolution towards better drinkers/drinking far enough in advance to put themselves in a prime position to take advantage of it. They created a destination rather than just a package store.
Q: How have consumers responded?
Jim: Our customers are some of the best in the world. In the last couple of years as the economy has slowed and a few local liquor stores have closed their doors, ours has grown. Thank you to all our customers that have kept me gainfully employed.
Q: Have you seen tastes change among your clientele?
Jim: It’s hard for me to monitor how our customers’ tastes have changed for two reasons. First, I have just grown into this level of beer business over the last three years and did not know enough when I began to make accurate assessments of them. Secondly, when I started, the Blue Max had just under 800 different beers, now we are very close to the 1100 mark. The selection has grown so rapidly that a lot of them are still trying all the new styles available.
Q: How has the Minnesota beer scene changed over the years?
Jim: It seems that people are drinking less but drinking better. People have stepped up a shelf so to speak. We still sell all the “macro brews" sure, but the growth of such companies like Rolling Rock, Sam Adams, Sierra Nevada, and Summit has made it evident that people want a better beer. This effect has snowballed into the smaller and more obscure microbrews and shattered sales levels in the micro/import market.
Q: What beers do you find easiest and most difficult to sell?
Jim: That answer has been made easy for me as of late due to the strength of the dollar to the Euro and the Eastern European currencies respectively. I really have to hand-sell pints from Britain and Belgium as prices have jumped as much as 50% in the last year. I don’t mind doing so as some of the best beers in the world come from European Common Market Countries. The Eastern European beers on the other hand have kept prices quite low while producing some wonderful beers that I can sell around 2 bucks a pint. It’s hard for me to keep those shelves stocked at times.
Q: Your store is unusually deep in particular areas, such as your stock of Eastern European beers, and your run of George Gale Prize Old Ale from 1996 to the present. When I last counted you had no fewer than eleven of the Cantillon bottles, including all three of the Lou Pepe (Kriek, Framboise, and Gueuze). Do you find yourself trying to push your patrons in particular directions or is it much more that they are demanding these beers?
Jim: I am handicapped by the three-tier system. I’m not allowed to call a brewery or importer directly and have them ship me some beer—sorry folks. So I have about 15 distributors that I can buy beer from. What we have done at the Max is simple: if my distributor has it, we have it. There are a few exceptions to this rule, but they usually fall into the sub-Natural Ice category. Who wants to drink a forty anyway?
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"Who wants to drink a forty anyway?"
Q: Some of us beer geeks have no problem spending $10 or more for a single bottle, but how much of a barrier do you think price is to expanding the market for craft beer?
Jim: Our pricing scheme is very fair to the customer and our competitors make us look good at the register. We often promote beers of the next tier that I mentioned earlier. If we can put Sam Adams, Summit, Sierra Nevada, and Rolling Rock out on the floor at prices at or below the national brands, people will try them. Once people try these better beers it’s common for them to continue to evolve their palates up the ladder. Remember: Better people drink better beer.
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Q: How do you research potential beers to sell? Do you travel much or go to festivals?
Jim: Whenever I travel, I always try to find the "best beer store" in the area and go rifle through their selection that I can’t get here in Minnesota. In the last few years I’ve been to New York, British Columbia, Chicago, and St. Louis and have found a few gems here and there. Secondly, a few of my customers bring me beers back from their own travels. Did I mention we have great customers? Man, I love my job.
Q: What brewers, regions, and countries do you want to explore more of?
Jim: Will someone take me to Belgium? I’m a good travel companion, know which way is north, and can drive on the wrong side of the road. Please?
Q: Tell me about your relationship with your distributors. Do you feel they listen to retailers like yourself about where to go with their selection? What grade would you give the distribution sector of the industry for building and satisfying the connoisseur beer market?
Jim: If you knockout Bud, Miller, and Coors distributors, that leaves me with a dozen distributors to work with. All of these are a bit smaller and therefore fill out their portfolio with some of the more obscure beers that have made Blue Max famous. I regularly supply my distributors with names of beers that both my customers are asking for and I feel will be successful in our market, but I often feel like the proverbial Dutch Boy at the bottom of the dyke--so many holes, and only so many fingers. The people that have really been outstanding for us are two local distributors called Grailworks and Elite Brand Imports. They’re run by Jeff Halverson and Brad Magerkurth, respectively. They are brokerage companies that deal exclusively with importers and out of state breweries for "special order" orders. This simply means they hand me a portfolio of a particular importer and say: "Whatever you order will be here in 6 weeks. Fire away". Every time I walk into my storage room I curse them. Every time I look through my coolers I worship them. Brad had my job (Blue Max Beer Guy) before me. He then took an offer from a local distributor/importer named All Saints and worked with them for a couple of years--thanks for the job Brad--until they went out of business. This was not his fault by the way. Brad eats, sleeps, drinks, lives and dies for the suds. It’s because of him and his work that have put Minnesota back on the beer map.
Q: Would you ever trade working on the retail side for working either on the distribution or brewery side?
Jim: I’m not sure I could work outside the retail sphere. I thrive on the customers and love when they come back to me and tell me about beers that I suggested and how much they liked them or even if the beers weren’t their favorites. I’ve learned so much about my customers individually and feel like I can always give them something they haven’t tried before but will love. I could be interested in working at the brewery level, but it would have to be for a brewery that I believe in--like Dogfish Head, Bell’s, Rogue, Capital, or Schells. I love these breweries’ beers and could easily stand behind them. The distributorship level would be hard for me to work at because of all the different lines they sell—hey, I play favorites. Aside from that, Blue Max has been a great job for me and I truly do feel at home there and have really grown. I know it sounds sappy, but it’s true.
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We tell visitors that this is what the beer selection looks like in every liquor store in Minnesota. Yeah. Right...
Q: If you could change one thing about the state of the beer industry today, what would it be?
Jim: Get rid of the three-tier system! If I want it, I should be able to call the brewery or the importer and have them ship me their beer. Then, all my customers could have anything they wanted. That would be nice.
Q: Is it getting easier or harder for retailers to succeed with the connoisseur’s end of the market? Would Blue Max be financially better off if it took out all of your specialist coolers and dropped in pallets of Budweiser and Miller?
Jim: We at the Blue Max have created a name in our business as the end-all-be-all of beer stores here in the Midwest. Many of our competitors send their customers to us for special beer needs. I have customers that come from as far as you can drive in a few days just to fill up their trunks with beer they can’t get at home. If we were to bow down before the evil empire (A-B) and put pallets of Bud on the floor, we would be just like everyone else--mediocre. Tom and Diane (the owners) have pride in their store and what they have created for their business. I’m happy to be going along for the ride. As far as catering to the connoisseurs’ end of the market goes, it keeps getting harder. The world is getting smaller through both travel and the internet, therefore people are being exposed to a larger variety of beers and are asking for more and more different beers. Both my supply and my space are maxed out. If the Minnesota beer market continues to grow, I will have to start making choices as to what I want to keep, and what may go. These decisions are hard as I see all beers being good; just some are better than others.
Q: Most beer lovers would enjoy going to work in the morning if it meant lording over your refrigerator cases. What are the greatest rewards and greatest drawbacks or frustrations about your job?
Jim: My customers motivate me to come to work everyday. I know so many of them by name and when a new beer comes into the store, I mentally draw a list of who I am waiting for to tell them about it. Sometimes I feel like a little kid on Christmas when new beers come in. What is it? What does it look like? How’s it going to taste? Who (of my customers) needs to try this? Frustrations are many for me: Why is this beer seasonal? How come I can only order this beer four times a year? Why would you want to drink THAT (not naming names)? I feel like when I go to work, I’m going to make a difference in someone’s life today, and that is enough for me to look at the guy in the car next to me with the suit and tie on, and smile.
Q: Any parting words to the beer community?
Jim: When it comes to beer, drink what you like. Life is too short to be with the “in” crowd and drink what everyone else is drinking. People like me are only trying to guide you to your true tastes. I can only show you the glass; you have to fill it. But please, drink better beer! I’m having a Unibroue Maudite right now—it’s lovely!
Disclaimer: All views and opinions expressed are strictly those of Jim Sebring and are not necessarily shared by or representative of Blue Max or its owners.
<a hrefhttp://www.ratebeer.com/Places/ShowPlace.asp?PlaceID=392>Read what Ratebeerians have to say about Blue Max Liquors.
[EDITOR: Retailers of Distinction is an ongoing series at RateBeer where we recognize the very best retailers in the world of craft beer. Have you met one of the world’s greatest retailers? Well then what are you waiting for? <a href=/Feedback.asp>Tell us about it!]
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I am handicapped by the three-tier system. I’m not allowed to call a brewery or importer directly and have them ship me some beer—sorry folks. So I have about 15 distributors that I can buy beer from.
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