A Day With The ABDI; Bridging The Gap Between Brewer & Distributor

In Beer News by Ryan

“You sure do have some gumption…walking in to that room, saying the things you said.” I wheeled around to see an unnamed distributor wearing a black pullover with a grey Bud logo over his heart grinning at me. He found me pacing the hallway outside of the Picasso Ballroom at the Omni Hotel on Michigan Avenue, coming down from my presentation before twenty-or-so members of the Associated Beer Distributors of Illinois. My time behind the podium was only supposed to last 30 minutes, including 5 minutes set aside for Q & A. I wound up spending an hour standing before a roomful of distributors talking up locally brewed craft beer and answering their questions.

Before I get in to the meat and potatoes of what I said, and what they asked, there were two distinct impressions that roomful of distributors left me with. (1) They’re not as hell-bent on destroying craft beer as some of us think and (2) there are some pretty sizable misconceptions that the craft beer community has about distributors and that distributors have about craft beer and craft brewers.

If you read my post last week, then you know the game plan I had going in to the presentation. I essentially wanted to give the distributors present a snapshot of the current state of craft beer in Illinois and where it was headed; with an emphasis on small batch brewing. While I didn’t stray too far from my original message I did find myself veering off course a little thanks in part to some conversations I had with distributors before my presentation and the presenter who spoke before me.

“Right now, craft beer is the prettiest girl at the dance,” bellowed John Conlin – who runs Conlin Beverage Consulting. Well, he certainly had my attention.

Conlin, who lives in Colorado and travels the country working with distributors, interspersed other observations about craft beer in his hour-long presentation before the ABDI. At one point he chastised craft brewers for wanting “exceptions” (self-distribution rights) and questioned why a distributor should take a chance on a small, up-and-coming craft brewer. He went so far as to wonder aloud, why a small craft brewer should have access to the distributor’s thousands of bars, restaurants and liquor stores. What’s in it for the distributor – what do they (the craft brewer) bring to the table? He questioned.

I scribbled notes furiously as if I was preparing to cross-examine a witness. Then, John insinuated something that caused me to drop my pen and do a double-take; that craft brewers didn’t appreciate the three-tier system and that distributors should remind them (read: hold it over their head) what it’s done for them. Sure, there are plenty of brewers that would love to toss out the three-tier system but I think – for the most part – craft brewers benefit in some ways from it – and know that, maybe.

As I stepped to the podium I congratulated John on imploding about a quarter of my speech and also thanked him for giving me plenty of things to talk about. I then launched in to my presentation talking about who I was and why I was there, this site and Save The Craft. I tried to give the distributors a look in to the mind of a craft beer drinker; why we like what we like and why we’ll try just about any style of beer from any brewery once. I talked about the brewer too; giving them the back story of Argus Brewery and the soon-to-open New Chicago Beer Company. I also introduced them to the small and upcoming 4Paws and Scratch Brewing. To segue between the two breweries that had distributors and those that didn’t I posed a question to the room, “How many of you have craft beer reps or a craft beer manager?” To my surprise, almost everyone raised their hand.

In talking with some of the brewers a week before my presentation I was clued in to the fact that some distributors do have craft beer managers. I expected to see a few hands go up when I inquired about it. I did not, however, expect 90% of the distributors in attendance to have craft managers. Maybe it’s because I didn’t know the ins and outs of the distribution side of the industry, but I was fairly surprised to learn many of the distributors in the state think enough of craft beer to devote at least one person to the brand. Moreover, I was equally surprised and pleased that there many distributors in attendance are actively courting craft brewers – big and small.

How small? I quoted Matt Gebhardt’s goal of 300 barrels in his first year of operation at 4Paws to the roomful of distributors and asked if anyone would be willing to take on that small of an amount. I fully expected eyes to the floor, no one willing to make eye contact. I mean, let’s face it; a distributor probably isn’t going to make a ton of money off that small of an amount. But, without batting an eye, Kevin Mullarkey – President of Joseph Mullarkey Distributing – said he would. In fact, as I walked back to me seat after my presentation he handed me his card and wanted to get in touch with Matt. I have since passed that contact info along to Matt, who was jazzed to see there was already some interest brewing (pun intended) in his beer.

This lay to rest one of the misconceptions that I had of distributors – and I suspect some of you thought this way too – they are fiercely loyal to whatever is on the side of their trucks. Now, this may be true for the distributors that are still exclusive to Anheuser-Busch InBev or MillerCoors. But those distributors who declared their independence, breaking free from being tied to one macro-brand and whatever was under their umbrella, did so for a reason. They wanted to carry more variety. And they wanted to carry craft beer. That was the case for Scott Givens, CEO of Illinois Distributing Company. Scott’s a former A-B guy – as in he worked there – and Illinois Distributing was an exclusive A-B distributor until around 2008 when they went independent. Now, they distribute a handful of craft beers from the Missouri side.

Unfortunately you wouldn’t know it by going to their website. In fact, the only beers they list are all under the A-B InBev umbrella. This brings me to a point that I tried to drive home to the distributors; we think you don’t care about craft beer because it doesn’t look like you care about craft beer. Now, I talked to Scott personally and I know he gets it. And I know he sees a bright future for the craft beer industry and wants to be a part of it. But you wouldn’t know it by going to the online home of Illinois Distributing.

So where do we go from here? Well, I proposed – on the fly during my presentation – that we get some distributors and some craft brewers, both veterans and the news kids on the block, in a room to hash some things out. A Craft Beer Forum, if you will. If most distributors think like John Conlin lead me to believe he does; that chasing after craft brewers will be a waste of time and, why bother, because they don’t value the three-tier system anyway – then they’re wrong. And the only way to help them see that is to hear it from the brewers themselves. On the flip side, if a distributor really does care about craft beer and will give craft brands solid representation and won’t let product waste away on pallets in the warehouse then brewers need to hear that from the distributors.

I closed out my presentation by reminding the distributors there that you and the craft brewers are both after the same things. You care about beer, you want to get a cold, fresh product out in a timely fashion and you want to make money doing so. So why work against each other if you’re all after the same thing? It doesn’t have to be “us versus them.” Maybe this forum will be a step towards beer solidarity between brewer and distributor.

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About the Author



Equal parts beer nerd and policy geek, Ryan is now the curator of the Guys Drinking Beer cellar. The skills he once used to dig through the annals of state government as a political reporter are now put to use offering unique takes on barrel-aged stouts, years-old barleywines and 10 + year verticals.

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