Assessing the State of Craft and Specialty Beer Distribution Post-Covid

By: Becky Garrison

According to the Brewers Association, overall U.S. beer volume sales were down 3% in 2020, while craft brewer volume sales declined 9%, lowering small and independent brewers’ share of the U.S. beer market by volume to 12.3%. Retail dollar sales of craft decreased 22% to $22.2 billion and now account for just under 24% of the $94 billion U.S. beer market (previously $116 billion).

  According to their analysis, the primary reason for this overall sales decline was the shift in beer volume from bars and restaurants to packaged sales. Given this shift, how did craft beer distribution change during this ongoing global pandemic?

Half Time Beverage

  Half Time Beverage features over 4,000 craft beers and ciders from over 800 breweries across 50 countries. They sell via two New York based retail stores and their online business, a convenience that helped them during the worst of the pandemic.

  “The fact that we were able to deliver the best in craft beer to people’s doorsteps result-ed in an increased amount of purchases from both existing and new customers who ordered from Half Time during Covid,” said Jason Daniels, Half Time Beverage’s Chief Operating Officer.

  During Covid, Half Time had less availability in terms of seasonal releases such as Pumpkin Beer. “We had a lot of challenges in getting seasonal products this year as craft beer manufacturers are focused on making and distributing their core product releases,” Daniels said.

  Moving forward, Daniels does not foresee any changes to their marketing strategies, adding that Covid changed buying behaviors, specifically with a significant increase in online shopping. “We anticipate this will continue as things open up. The high availability of online goods and shopping amplified everyone’s ability to shop in different ways successfully.”

Tavour

  Tavour, a Seattle-based craft beer distributor, gets its beers directly from craft breweries. Once these products arrive at their facility in Washington State, they market and ship them to their members across the United States.

  During Covid, they implemented major safety modifications, including creating social distancing measures and increased sanitation for workers and the beers they distribute.

  Throughout the pandemic, Tavour ended up increasing its sales threefold. They attribute this growth to their SEO status increasing significantly, leading the company to be listed in the top five searches for craft beer delivery.

  They also observed that since people could not attend breweries or beer festivals in person, they were looking for new ways to try craft beer. Tavour filled this need with accurate tasting notes for all their offerings, capitalizing on their bevy of product samples and quality taste testers. These notes enabled their customers to have a better idea of what they were buying, even though they could not sample the beers themselves.

  While Tavour does not have any firm dates regarding when in-person events can happen again, they hope to resume them in 2022. Currently, they are working to help put on the Barrel and Flow Festival, a Pittsburgh-based celebration of black arts and artists.

Localized Craft Beer Distribution

  As the owner and sole proprietor of Packmule Beverage, Brian Balland buys from breweries that self distribute in Washington State and Oregon and then sells these beers directly to consumers. He delivers the orders to select breweries throughout Washington State, where customers can then go pick them up.

  He developed this niche, direct-to-consumer service for Pacific Northwest craft beer aficionados who want to sample beers from smaller breweries that only have these offerings available at their brewery but are too remote for them to visit on a regular basis. 

  Initially, Balland began this service by working with brewers within his circle. Later he expanded to include requests from customers for specific breweries.

  While he launched Packmule in September 2020, Balland conceived of this service pre-Covid. However, he said, “Covid made it easier to try new things and made consumers a little more malleable to trying new ideas rather than doing things the old way.”

  Since launching this service, Balland estimated he has pivoted twenty times, trying to figure out what will work best for the consumer. Moving forward, Balland plans to con-tinue offering Packmule’s services for consumers in the Seattle and Portland area.

DIY Beer Distribution

  Given that both owners of StormBreaker Brewing in Portland, Oregon, have experience working for a distributor or a logistics company, they chose to apply these skills in assessing how to distribute their award-winning craft beer during the global pandemic. After researching the cost benefits of various distribution models, they concluded that a self-distribution model worked best for them. So, they launched their self delivery ser-vice on March 17, 2020, right after Oregon issued a stay-at-home order, forcing bars and restaurants to close statewide.

  StormBreaker already had an active website for customers to order their beer and mer-chandise online, so they did not incur many logistical issues when launching their delivery service. They set up the ordering platform, and within days they were delivering to customers’ homes and establishments that remained open.

  According to co-founder Dan Malech, “The biggest advantage we have is complete con-trol of our product from inception to delivery. We have an amazing range of flexibility of what we sell, where we sell and when we sell.”

  This DIY model allowed them to deliver beer to their customers with very little notice. Malech cites an example where, during a bad snow and ice storm, the brewpubs around town that remained open were running out of beer. No one else was delivering.

  “We received a ton of calls, hopped in our vehicles, and made many new and lasting customers. I mean, we’re called StormBreaker!”

  While StormBreaker’s beers can be found in retail and grocery stores such as Whole Foods, New Seasons, Market of Choice and most regional bottle shops, some retailers won’t work with them. Also, they cannot approach certain parts of the United States without a distributor.

  “There were too many advantages to self distribution for a company of our size to ig-nore,” Malech said.

  Currently, Stormbreaker has dedicated staff to fulfill and deliver their online orders Mondays through Saturdays. They offer home delivery to the Greater Portland area, with their sales team doing periodic drops to Bend, Oregon and Seattle, Washington. Also, they can ship beers via UPS to those states that permit online sales. For all other out-of-state and greater Oregon sales, they partner with Bevv, Packmule, Drizzly and Tavour, which allows them to have a larger reach both regionally and throughout the country.

Merchant du Vin: Specialty Beer Importer

  Seattle based Merchant du Vin noticed that the distribution of their specialty beers increased in retail stores due to more consumers drinking beers at home during the pandemic, causing their overall sales to increase.

  On the other hand, bar and restaurants sales decreased when these establishments were closed due to Covid-19 restrictions. For example, Orval Trappist Ale is one of the most popular imported specialty beers Merchant du Vin represents in the U.S. While this beer is available in select stores, the bulk of its sales come from bars and restaurants that carry a small but carefully curated craft beer list.

  In addition, with the closing of on premise sales, there were huge losses of keg sales across the U.S. According to Craig Hartinger, Merchant du Vin’s marketing manager, “We actually fared better than some suppliers, but there were hundreds of kegs that we couldn’t sell.”

  Merchant du Vin also lost their ability for their beer representatives to present beers in person to potential outlets, as well as opportunities for in-person consumer tastings. “It took a while to get our online meetings up to speed,” Hartinger said.

  When regions open up, Merchant du Vin plans on continuing their online connections, resuming in person visits and reducing their keg options. Once events can be held in-person, they plan on exhibiting their wares as applicable, such as their Samuel Smith ciders, which they featured at Seattle Ciderfest pre-Covid.

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