By: Brian D. Kaider, Esq.
Starting a brewery requires learning a lot of new skills and practices that have nothing to do with making great beer. One of the most confusing and frustrating is the issue of distribution. If their state allows, most new breweries initially distribute their own products and, if the brewery is content to be relatively local, that might never change.
But, in many cases, brewery growth necessitates working with a distributor. This is not a relationship to be entered into lightly. A distributor becomes an ambassador for the brewery’s brand and, once retained, the supplier may have little control over how its beer is marketed. Further, these relationships can be difficult or financially impossible to break once established.
Supplier/distributor relationships are governed by franchise laws in most states. In the absence of franchise laws, the relationship is defined entirely by a distribution agreement between the parties. But, even in franchise states, the distribution agreement can play a critical role, particularly in the termination of the distributor relationship.
Too often, however, breweries accept a distributor’s “standard” agreement and when the relationship sours, the supplier finds that they are stuck with no viable option to terminate. The best practice is to engage an experienced attorney to negotiate the terms of the distribution agreement. While even the best attorney cannot evade state franchise laws (which generally prohibit a distributor from waiving its rights), there are ways an attorney may help bring balance to the supplier/distributor relationship. Some of the key terms to negotiate include termination, territory, brand scope, and exclusivity.
The most critical section of the agreement sets forth the manner and circumstances under which a supplier may terminate the distributor. In a franchise state, the law typically says that a supplier may terminate for “good cause.” If good cause is defined in the law, it is paramount that the distribution agreement mirror the language of the law, because in many cases, a contract that contradicts the law will be held invalid, leaving the supplier in the position of effectively not having an agreement at all.
For example, the Virginia Beer Franchise Act states that good cause includes “failure by the wholesaler to substantially comply, without reasonable cause or justification, with any reasonable and material requirement imposed upon him in writing by the brewery.” Further, the Act provides, “good cause shall not be construed to exist without a finding of a material deficiency for which the wholesaler is responsible.” Tracking that language, a distribution agreement in Virginia should clearly define certain of the distributor’s obligations as “material requirements” and explicitly define certain actions as “material deficiencies.”
For example, the Virginia law identifies failure to “maintain a sales volume” of a brewery’s brands as being a reasonable and material requirement. But, the law does not specify what volume is required. So, the distribution agreement should clearly lay out specific minimum sales volumes (preferably on an escalating scale) and identify the requirement to hit those volumes as a material requirement of the contract.
When the law does not define good cause, and in non-franchise states, it is essential for the distribution agreement to do so. The contract should clearly set forth the distributor’s requirements that are critical to the business relationship and for which failure to perform will be grounds for termination.
Examples of common requirements include: meeting specified sales and marketing goals, maintaining appropriate records and reports regarding inventory and sales, transporting and storing the product under specified temperature and lighting conditions, exercising adequate quality control measures to ensure product freshness, and paying invoices within a specified time frame. It is also common to include termination rights if the distributor is declared bankrupt, enters a voluntary’ petition for bankruptcy, enters into a compromise or agreement for the benefit of its creditors, or fails to maintain in good standing all Federal and State licenses and permits necessary for the proper conduct of its business.
In some cases, sale of the distributor or even a change in the ownership structure may be justification for termination. In February 2019, Bell’s Brewery of Kalamazoo, Michigan completely pulled all of its distribution in the Commonwealth of Virginia. The issue was that its distributor in Richmond was sold to a subsidiary of Reyes Beer Division, the largest distributor of beer in the United States. Per its distribution agreement, the original distributor was to have provided Bell’s with certain information about the sale to Reyes, but it failed to do so and Bell’s believed that because it did not have the opportunity to properly vet the new distributor, termination of the franchise was warranted. To this day the dispute has not been resolved and Bell’s beer is not available in Virginia.
In most states, a supplier must compensate the distributor for the lost business even if the supplier is able to terminate for cause. Sometimes the law simply says the supplier must pay the distributor the “fair market value” of the distribution rights. There can be an expensive battle just to determine that compensation if fair market value is not defined in the distribution agreement. Often the value is defined as a percentage of the prior year’s case volume multiplied by some dollar amount per case. The “standard” contracts pushed by some distributors can be very severe in this section. In the beer industry, it is not uncommon to see values set at an entire year’s worth of profits times a multiplier that can range from 1.5 to many times higher. In practice, often a new distributor will buy out the distribution rights from the old distributor, but if the supplier wants to return to self-distribution, this buy-out provision may be cost prohibitive.
While the beer franchise laws in most states were written at a time in which large beer manufacturers had significant market power over small distributors, those roles have substantially reversed. Slowly, state laws are being revised to accommodate this change. In Maryland, for example, the law changed on January 1, 2020 to eliminate the “for cause” provision of termination for suppliers who manufacture fewer than 20,000 barrels per year and the termination notice was shortened from 180 days to 45. However, the manufacturer still has to give the terminated distributor fair market value of the franchise.
Depending on the size, experience, and reach of the distributor, there may be an opportunity to creatively carve out different territories. Territories are most commonly limited to certain states. However, a supplier may be able to limit a smaller distributor to certain counties or even specific types of establishments (grocery stores, but not restaurants, for example). One of the clearest breaches of the distribution agreement, that may constitute good cause for termination, is for a distributor to make sales outside of its contracted territory.
Generally, when a distributor is hired to carry a brewery’s brand, it has the right to all of the products in that brand. But exactly what constitutes a ‘brand” is unclear both in the statutory language of most state franchise laws and in many distribution agreements.
In Maryland’s beer franchise law, for example, “brand” is not explicitly defined, but the law appears to favor the distributor in terms of brand scope. Specifically, section 105 of Maryland ‘s Beer Franchise Fair Dealing Act prohibits a brewery from entering into a beer franchise agreement with more than one distributor for “its brand or brands of beer” in a given territory. One might argue that the language “or brands” means that the first distributor has the right to all brands of the manufacturer in a given territory.
In fact, that very’ issue was litigated in the 1985 case of Erwin and Shafer, Inc. v. Pabst Brewing Co., Inc. and Judge Couch, writing for the panel of The Court of Appeal of Maryland, disagreed. The court held that if a brewery retained a distributor to handle one or more of its brands within a territory, it could not then contract with a second distributor within the territory for those same brands. It could, however, contract with a second distributor to carry a different set of brands.
How far the court would take its interpretation of what is a “brand” is unclear, however. In the Pabst case, the first distributor was given the right to distribute Pabst brand beers, but Pabst later merged with Olympia Brewing Company and gave the second distributor the right to sell its newly acquired Hamm’s brand beers. Whether the court would have allowed the brewery to contract with one distributor for Pabst and another for Pabst Extra Light it did not say.
Even if rights under a distribution agreement cannot be divided by brand (as in the case of the beer franchise law in Maryland), some states may nevertheless allow a supplier to contract with more than one distributor within a territory. If permitted in their state, a brewery should ideally enter into all of its distribution agreements for a given territory simultaneously, providing notice to each distributor. At a minimum, the brewery should ensure that the first agreement entered into is explicitly designated as non-exclusive. Otherwise, the distributor may view the agreement as giving it exclusive rights to the territory and could sue the brewery for diminishing the distributor’s business if it were to engage a second distributor in that territory.
Whether a brewery is in a franchise state or not, it is critical that it review and negotiate its distribution agreements carefully, with the assistance of an experienced attorney. It is also important to remember that the supplier’s diligence does not end when the agreement is signed. No matter how well the terms of the distribution agreement are negotiated and drafted, they are effectively useless if the supplier cannot back up its claims for good cause.
Accordingly, thorough documentation is essential. If a distributor is not meeting sales goals, mishandling product, or failing to provide adequate reports, they must be given written notice of those deficiencies each time they occur.
There are great distributors out there who become essential partners in a brewery’s business. But, sometimes those relationships can sour and signing an agreement without anticipating complications down the line can make it virtually impossible to sever those ties. A little forethought and planning and a lot of diligence will go a long way toward a successful termination of a bad relationship.
Brian Kaider is a principal of KaiderLaw, an intellectual property law firm with extensive experience in the craft beverage industry. He has represented clients from the smallest of start-up breweries to Fortune 500 corporations in the navigation of regulatory requirements, drafting and negotiating contracts, prosecuting trademark and patent applications, and complex commercial litigation.