On Saturday, at the Great American Beer Festival in Denver, Colorado, the Craft Beer Distributor of The Year will be announced. And among the 20 finalists, is Itasca, Illinois wholesaler Town and Country Distributors.
The National Beer Wholesalers Association and Brewers Association team up for the annual award which, “recognizes an American beer distributor who goes above and beyond in their efforts to actively market, sell and promote craft beer,” according to a press release from the NBWA and BA.
Town and Country is the only Illinois distributor named a finalist and it’s their third nomination to boot.
We wanted to know what made Town and Country tick and how they managed to be singled out as the only Illinois wholesaler to be named a finalist, so we reached out to Town and County CEO John Holland and GM Jon Jahnke to get a glimpse into what they do and how they rep their craft brands.
GDB: First, John, can you give us a brief history lesson on Town and Country? How long has it been in operation as a wholesaler, how many people do you employ and what area(s) of the state do you cover?
T&C: Absolutely, Ryan. Town & Country was established in 1953 by my wife’s Grandfather, Jack Rohner, and his brother-in-law, Walter Sowa. It remains a family business owned and operated by the third generation in conjunction with our outstanding, professional management team. We have approximately 150 full-time employees and distribute beer in the western 2/3 of Cook County, covering the entire Northwest Suburbs and down into Chicago.
GDB: Can you give us a snapshot as to what beers make up your portfolio; craft, domestic, import and cider?
T&C: We currently distribute beers (and ciders) from thirty-five separate breweries with another four slated to come on-line by the end of the year. Those thirty-five breweries, however, result in our carrying almost nine hundred different SKU’s.
Domestics first –Miller Brewing Co. and Coors Brewing Co. are our two major domestic suppliers.
Listing a few of our craft suppliers, we have Blue Moon, Boston Beer, Sierra Nevada, New Belgium, Harpoon, Abita, Southern Tier, Lakefront Brewery, Half Acre, Chi-Town, Argus, Firestone Walker, Southern Tier and a number of other really great breweries.
We have a broad import portfolio topped by Crown Imports (Corona/Modelo), along with Heineken USA (both their Dutch and Mexican portfolios), Guinness (Diageo) and some truly great, smaller imports –Hacker Pschorr, Innis & Gunn, Pilsner Urquell, Peroni, Warsteiner, Bittburger just to name a few.
As you know, the cider category is simply exploding and I’m happy to say we have the majority of the better cider offerings: Crispin, Woodchuck, Angry Orchard, Horsnby’s, Strongbow, Magners and a few specialty ciders as well, such a Clos Des Ducs from France.
Rather than name all of our suppliers, I’d direct readers to our website at www.tcbeer.com to highlight our entire portfolio.
GDB: Let’s talk specifically about the craft brands, if we could, what was the first craft account you landed and when?
T&C: Our Craft business goes back to 1997, when after courting Jim Koch for a few years we were able to secure the Boston Beer portfolio. It was hand selling back then, just like it is today with the primary difference being our frontline Sales folks speaking to beer intrinsically at a much higher level. My response to your question would have to be more targeted, the same way we analyze our retail Craft business. Our first Craft Beer dinner was at Wild Fire Restaurant in Schaumburg three years ago, and many have followed since as all of our waistlines can attest. Our first Tap Takeover was at Bigby’s in Addison about two and a half years ago, and there’s no better way to expose a Craft portfolio than to have the Master Brewer engage consumers directly at retail. Our first Beer Flight program was 2 years ago at Wool Street in Barrington, and it’s really taken off (pun intended) at many of our Craft accounts throughout our market. It’s a powerful sampling tool that allows the customers to try a variety of beers on a flavor continuum.
My point is it’s not just about gaining a placement in a Craft centric account, it’s about activating the brands at retail and engaging the consumer.
GDB: What kind of growth have you seen in your craft brands since bringing them on board?
T&C: I think the only word that could describe the craft industry is explosive. Our crafts, on average, are growing 25-30% year over year. While new breweries are consistently coming on-line, this seems to have only accelerated the already meteoric growth of the existing craft suppliers that we distribute. Increasingly, crafts present a larger share of our overall sales as well as dollars. We have a few brands this year with growth well over 300% and one brand in particular with growth in excess of 2,000%.
GDB: How does craft beer fit into the big picture at Town and Country?
T&C: The growth and opportunities with crafts have helped sharpen our entire organization’s focus on how best to sell and effectively distribute beer. Above all, it forced us early on to drive hard to educate our entire staff. Our entire sales organization is 100% Cicerone Level 1 certified and we have eight Certified Level II Cicerone’s of our twenty-three salesmen. On top of that team, we have a specialized craft team the consists of a dedicated craft marketing expert, and a craft specialty salesman and his assistant. Our entire team sells 100% of our portfolio but our specialized craft (and import) division doubles down to help ensure the proper penetration at the right accounts with the right brands.
This model, however, has proven not only to be a success with our craft brands, but also with our import, domestic and cider portfolios. I’m a strong proponent of education and the more our people know, the more they can offer our retailers. We’ve always been known throughout Chicago for our customer service –now we can take that to a new level both with our depth of understanding about the products we sell and our ability to help educate our retailers.
GDB: Why go all in on the certification? And what, if anything, should that say to the both the consumer and the brewer about your operation?
T&C: We’re not fans of doing anything half way. If something is worth doing, then we’re going to do it and do it right. Once we looked at the Cicerone program, we immediately saw the benefits. It’s important to us to have the best trained sales force in our territory and, without a doubt, we do. It’s not just us here at Town & Country –all of the MillerCoors distributors throughout the entire Chicagoland area now have sales teams that are 100% Certified Level I Cicerone trained.
To us, it’s equally important for our brewery suppliers and our customers to know that our sales organization –every single one of them –knows beer passionately. Each year we host an in-house brewing competition to sharpen our skills and understanding of different styles and the specific ingredients contained in each.
Our training, however, doesn’t stop with Cicerone certifications. For us, that’s merely the tip of the iceberg or, better said, a starting point for our organization to understand the vernaculars surrounding the brewing process and beer characteristics in general. We’re now completing the third year of our in-house education course called Beerology. This twice a month training involves our entire team and takes an in-depth evaluation of new styles, flavors, processes and traits associated with our portfolio –and other beers that we don’t carry..
GDB: What do you think Town and Country has done to wind up a finalist for Craft Beer Distributor of the Year? And what does it say about what you do to be nominated?
T&C: We continue to double down on the training discussed above, we provide a level of customer service that continues to differentiate us from our competitive wholesalers and we expose our beer portfolio to the broadest array of consumers. The question then is how do you do that. Through our website, Facebook, Twitter, targeted email blasts regarding new releases, seasonal, small batch offerings, we’re driving information about our beers directly to our retailers, and consequently consumers, allowing them the opportunity to better engage our portfolio.
We’re honored to have been named as a finalist for Craft Beer Distributor of the Year for the third consecutive year. It’s not an accolade we set about to achieve, but it is a valuable and very much appreciated recognition of the achievements of our entire team here at Town & Country as we strive to excel and carry out our mission as a great wholesaler for our brewery partners. Above all, what we believe separates us from the competition is consistency in that we execute at a high level utilizing the tools mentioned above and we do it time after time. We want our retailers and our suppliers to know that we don’t just do our job one or two times in order to post short-term growth numbers. We consider ourselves to be brand builders and we’re in it for the long haul.
GDB: You mentioned this is the third year you’ve been nominated. Is 2012 the year you bring it home?
T&C: I truly don’t know. We’re the only Illinois distributor named, so we’re proud simply of that accomplishment. It’s never been our goal simply to win awards, but we’re always very flattered when the hard work and professionalism of our organization is recognized, especially on a national stage.
GDB: As a craft beer fan it’s a really exciting time right now with all the new breweries coming on-line in Illinois over the next few years. Is it just as exciting, or more, for those in the industry?
T&C: Absolutely, but I would be less than truthful to say it isn’t an increasing challenge. There are over 750 breweries coming on-line just this year. The recognized problem is that there’s a limited amount of shelf space and tap handles in any given account. If you don’t have the reputation and relationships with accounts, when push comes to shove, there are going to be really great beers out there that are simply going to be limited in their ability to get into the hands of consumers.
As a distributor, that limitation won’t rest with us. We’re constantly adding new brands and adapting our organization to ensure that all of our supplier breweries receive their appropriate, and well deserved, share of mind, focus and attention.
The local element continues to gain in importance and that’s not limited just to beer. Whether its craft spirits, or locally grown produce, meat, milk, etc., the local focus from a commodity standpoint continues at an ever accelerated level of growth. Luckily for Chicago, after ABI (Budweiser) bought Goose Island and started really brewing that beer in St. Louis, there are still some truly fantastic local breweries. We’re honored to work with the folks at Half Acre, Argus and Chi-Town, along with Lakefront in Milwaukee. The enthusiasm for these locally brewed brands is amazing to watch.
GDB: Let’s talk about the big picture in regards to beer. Where do you see, not only the craft industry, but the industry as a whole heading both nationwide and in Illinois?
T&C: I touched on the future problems I see in regards to space constraints down the line. There’s been a lot of talk in the last year, all of which is factually supported and accurate, that beer in general has been losing share to wine and spirits. At the same time, however, in an economy that continues to be bad and not showing any real signs of improvement, beer continues to offer consumers a great value for what you get. To be able to grab six (or four) outstanding craft beers for the price of a lower-mid priced wine remains the best deal out there.
Domestic beers, despite the reputational hit by some as crafts have exploded, remain, from a share standpoint, the dominant players on the beer scene. Craft beers are here to stay, we believe the short-lived loss to wine and spirits is just that, and imports, domestics, ciders and crafts will continue to dominate for a long, long time to come.
GDB: Personal question here, John, favorite beer in your portfolio?
T&C: We recently starting bringing over Pilsner Urquell in packages marked “Express Shipped Cold.” The transit time from the Pilsen brewery to our warehouse has been cut more than in half, and the product remains cold the whole way. When you open one of these, and I particularly like the 16.9oz cans, it’s just like drinking the smooth, creamy Pilsner you get in Prague. From an import standpoint, it’s my favorite without a doubt. For those who would ever order a Stella, try one of these –there will be no going back.
On the craft side, I’d have to go with Southern Tier’s Pumking. We have other great fall beers, but this one steals the show.
GDB: Dicier question, favorite beer not in your portfolio?
T&C: I would have to say Dogfish Head 60 Minute IPA, along with St. Arnold’s (from Houston, Texas) Fancy Lawnmower. It’s a Kölsch style beer and one of the best I’ve ever had. Unfortunately, it’s only found in Texas.
(Editors note: I’ve met John a few times and I can tell you he has a certain, contagious energy about him. It’s hard not to get excited about what he’s talking about. He’s passionate about beer, especially his craft brands, and that passion is reflected both in John’s persona and the reputation he’s building at Town and Country.)