RYAN: As you read this I have most likely already begun my presentation; talking about breweries, farm-to-table brewpubs and why guys that have trucks with “Budweiser” on them should give a damn.
Today, I am speaking before the Associated Beer Distributors of Illinois.
A number of people will be speaking after me. They’re experts, consultants and attorneys. They know their stuff. So what am I? Well, I’m a guy that likes to drink beer. And about every 16th review or so I manage something that appears well written. I also like to follow beer politics, which may be what landed me here in the first place. Whatever the reason, I am in a room full of beer distributors repping you – the craft brewer and the craft beer drinker.
Instead of spouting off about what I think I know in the world of craft beer, I decided to reach out to new and experienced brewers alike to shape my presentation and find out what they thought of the three-tier system, self-distribution and distributors in general. It seemed logical, they’re the ones in the trenches each and every day.
Patrick Jensen, co-owner of Argus Brewery, was one of my first phone calls. He is one of many brewers that didn’t have the luxury of getting a distributor right off the bat. Hell, when he and his dad opened their brewery two years ago they couldn’t get a distributor to return their phone calls. “If we had the opportunity to hook up with the distributors we have now, we would have, but we had to grow to get someone’s attention,” said Jensen. Now they are expanding their brewing capacity so they can, in turn, expand their distribution base. In fact, Argus has almost tripled in size in the last two years.
Next up was Jesse Evans, one of the brains behind New Chicago Beer Company.
He and his brother Samuel started a brewery in California a few years ago and went the self-distribution route there. As good of an experience and as humbling as it was, they just recently announced they were signing on with River North to distribute New Chicago’s beer. Why? Because he thinks distributors are starting to get it; starting to get craft beer. That wasn’t the case five years ago, according to Evans, but it is now. And even though River North primarily distributes Anhueser-Busch InBev products, “It doesn’t define who they are,” said Evans.
Matt Gebhardt, at the start-up 4Paws Brewing, is on the opposite end of the spectrum from New Chicago.
While the latter is looking to max out at over 10,000 barrels of beer in its first year, 4Paws is looking at a more manageable – for him at least – 300 barrels. Matt and I talked about his self-distribution plans and how he hopes to reach a point where he needs a distributor so he can get back to basics. “When the time comes that we are spending more time selling beer than we are brewing it and creating new ones – then it’s probably time to have somebody come in and help so we can get back to what we really want to do,” said Gebhardt. His words of wisdom to distributors; be willing to take a chance on the little guy – because not everyone wants to be big – and that’s okay.
At the time she was working on opening a brewpub outside of Carbondale. Today, she and two other homebrewers have set the wheels in motion for Scratch Brewing Company. Unfortunately, brewpubs got the short end of the stick when it came to the self-distribution legislation last year. They are now required to have a second facility in order to be considered a “craft brewer” in Illinois and, therefore, have the right to self-distribute. I have a hunch that the likes of Revolution Brewing and Haymarket were on the minds of the distributors and lawmakers when they pushed back on a brewpub’s right to self-distribute. But Scratch Brewing couldn’t be further from those two brewpub’s, which are nestled in an urban neighborhood in a major metropolitan area.
Scratch Brewing is located in the small town of Ava, outside of Carbondale. Essentially, the brewpub is going to be out in the country. And it’s shaping up to be the very definition of a small business; one that is scraping together money from friends and family to get off the ground. One that aims to create a network of local farmers to draw from for ingredients, on top of the crops they’ll be harvesting on-site. The end-goal is to have every ingredient that goes in to their beer come from just down the street, if not from their own backyard. This kind of farm-to-table brewpub is signalling the start of something truly great in Illinois.
But why should Marika be able to self-distribute? Why should the distributors care? Easy. Getting Scratch’s beer on tap at a few bars outside of the tiny town the brewpub will be located – the more money Marika and the two other homebrewers that started Scratch can make. That means they can pay back those friends and family quicker and subsequently hire a distributor and expose the ENTIRE state to a southern Illinois farmhouse ale. Argus co-owner Patrick Jensen said something I am sure would be echoed by every small brewer in the state, if not the country, “Every small brewer should have a chance to make a name for themselves.”
With that in mind I am going to implore the ABDI to consider drafting legislation revising the Illinois Liquor Control Act and easing the restrictions on brewpubs either in this legislative session or in future legislative sessions. Is it a long shot? Probably. But I feel that my time before the organization would be wasted if I didn’t at least plant the seed.
In closing; I am going to leave you with the same thought I am leaving the distributors with today:
“If distributors wrap their arms around what is locally brewed, they will be very successful.”
– Patrick Jensen, co-owner Argus Brewery