Advice from Beyond the Grave: Distribution for Small Breweries

By: Eric Myers

When Mystery Brewing Company closed in 2018, it was difficult to articulate to people outside the company where things had gone wrong. We looked like a successful company from the outside; we had a well-attended pub and restaurant, we frequently won awards for our beer in both local and national competitions, and in general things looked great.

  We made the mistake many small businesses – particularly small breweries – make in having a debt load that outsized our resources. We were stretched too thin. It took months of introspection after the business closed for me to understand where things had really gone awry.

  What you’re missing in that picture is distribution. At our peak, we were distributed throughout our state of North Carolina to hundreds of grocery stores, convenience stores, bottle shops, bars, and restaurants. When we closed, we were self-distributing mostly draft beer in a 75-mile radius from the brewery.

  I now put the blame squarely on my own basic misunderstanding of what to realistically expect from my distributor, as well as their fundamental misunderstanding of what we needed and, what’s more, their misunderstanding of what they were actually offering us – or anyone.

  With the help of our distributor, we saw success in distribution into large grocery store chains in our state. Unfortunately, as a small brewery, we couldn’t handle the demand from those grocery stores. We picked up a loan to help meet that demand, but before we were able to put the pieces in place, we lost our placement in those grocery stores. We were weighed down with debt without a market to sell the expanded volume we had put into place. We could never recover those lost sales and ended up closing our doors in the face of rising costs – in ingredients, rent, and the cost of distribution – when we got to a point where we could no longer service our debt.

  It all tracks back to our relationship with our distributor.

Distributors As Sales Companies

  For years after Prohibition, beer was sold exclusively through the three-tier system: the mandated split of manufacturing, delivery, and retail sales of alcohol. The role of each tier was very clearly defined, and as beer manufacturers consolidated through the 20th Century, the role of sales could be taken on by distribution partners whose portfolio was primarily comprised of one brewery’s products. Distribution partners could essentially function as a brewery’s sales force: a mid-sized middleman industry built to act as logistics handlers between a large manufacturer’s output and the thousands of widely distributed small retail outlets.

  Enter the craft beer industry – a ragtag gaggle of creative innovators that disrupted traditional sales channels. From the first brewpub in the country, Bert Grant’s Yakima Brewing Company in 1982, to changes in distribution and franchise laws around the country, to the onset of the current popular “taproom-only” model, small breweries have been in the business of changing how beer is sold almost constantly.

  When Mystery Brewing Company opened in 2012, we were on the early end of the “taproom-only” trend. Because our local laws allowed it, we opened on a plan of self-distribution in our local area and selling what we could through our own taproom. At the time, I considered it a hybrid model between Production Brewery and Brewpub and it worked! We saw distribution success that quickly outgrew our ability to deliver on our own given our level of resources, and so before long we started looking at distributors to help shoulder the load.

  When I was contacted by the first distributor I worked with – an independent distributor (ie, not affiliated with either Anheuser-Busch or MillerCoors, primarily imported beers either from other states or other countries) – the title of the person that I talked to was “Statewide Sales Manager.” Her previous job was “Southeast Regional Sales Manager,” and she later went on to work for another distributor as “General Manager of Sales and Marketing”. After Mystery closed, I would often wonder how I was so confused about the role of distributors in the beer marketplace, but looking retrospectively suggests to me that the distributors were equally as confused.

  Later, when the relationship with that distributor soured and I moved onto the next, much larger distributor, we frequently met with the Sales team to train them on our products. We had Sales Goals in place. We had brewery reps on staff that would interface with those Sales Reps, but we weren’t allowed to do our own sales. We were required to turn over any potential customers to the distributor for their reps to handle and close the deal.

  Here’s the problem. Distributors don’t do sales. They do logistics.

Distributors are Logistical Experts

  According to the Brewers Association and the National Beer and Wine Wholesaler’s Association, over the course of the last 40 years the number of breweries in the country has gone from just over 70 to just over 7,000. Over that same time, the number of distributors has fallen from just over 4,500 (64 distributors per brewery) handling, on average, around 100 – 200 SKUs each to around 3,000 (.4 distributors per brewery) handling, on average, well over 1,000 SKUs each. The idea that any distributor rep working could know and sell any more than a small percentage of their portfolio is laughable.

  Distributors, on the other hand, are incredible logistics companies. Our primary distributor, through most of the life of our business, was a statewide distributor that handled thousands of SKUs across North Carolina and in most cases (ie – except for really rural customers), would perform overnight delivery anywhere in the state. They had one central warehouse that stored the majority of their products. That warehouse would send trucks to each of its 7 branches every single night based on orders put into the system each night. Those trucks would arrive at each location and loads would get broken down into individual delivery trucks that would go out from those branch locations and delivery every day of the week. It was breathtakingly complex.

  Distributors are experts at off-premise sales. Over the course of the past 70 years, grocery store chains have come to rely on distributors to both stock and manage their beer sections from product selection to daily stocking of shelves. Distributors don’t so much sell to grocery stores so much as they ensure that the grocery stores always have something on the shelves to sell. It is incredibly difficult for self-distributing breweries – small business partners that only represent one product – to compete with the efficiency of a distribution company in a grocery stores.

  If not for distributors, it’s hard to imagine the national craft breweries that we have today even existing. A startup in the 1980s, building a brewery out of cast-off dairy equipment had no way of possessing the knowledge, much less the resources to create or satisfy demand for its beers over the breadth of the country that was required at that time.

  It’s why it’s so seductively simple for small breweries to fool themselves into think that distributors inhabit the same role they used to. It’s the way they’ve been taught to think of distributors – and it’s the way distributors think of themselves.

Breweries Drive Sales

  This all might seem obvious to large breweries with wide distribution networks, but the majority of breweries in this country are small – they are 400bbls annually on average. Many are undercapitalized and understaffed, stretched thin, barely making payments on outsized debt. It’s easy to look to a distributor for relief, to take work off of your hands, but that’s not what they’re there for.

  In my current role, managing Tavern Operations at Durham’s Fullsteam Brewery, I work with 7 different companies to manage cider, guest beers, wine, and other non-alcoholic beverages. The only ones that sell to me – that approach me with new products and attempt to make a sale – are self-distributing breweries, cideries, and wineries. The distributors are order-takers and delivery-makers. That has become their role as their portfolios are too large to know and as their customer base is too wide to service personally.

  Learn from my mistake: As a small brewery, you are your own best asset when it comes to representing your brand. Use a distributor to increase your reach, but do so knowing the extra cost – that they will take a portion of your income AND require extra brewery staff to manage sales. More than that, set that expectation up front with your distributor so that you both agree what their role is, and yours. Distributors can manage off-premise and chain accounts for you in a way that can be transforming and positive, but they have no incentive to manage your supply, only deplete it, so be sure that you can handle the demand – or grow safely to meet it – before you take that step.

  Distributors are not your friends and they’re not your sales force. They’re a tool in your toolbox. Use them wisely.

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