This may come as a shock to my many fans and admirers, but I’m not the smartest bear in the beverage business. Or even the beer business, as long as we’re qualifying. Nor am I the best-looking, or the richest, or the tallest, or have the whitest teeth. But there’s one metric I suspect I can safely claim: I’ve been to more beverage industry corporate conferences than anybody else currently alive, and maybe more than anybody who has ever lived.
I know, it’s not exactly a monster claim. Put down the phone, Matilda, no need to ring up the Guinness World Records people. But it’s something, and I’ll take whatever glory I can get at this point in my career.
To those who have been gunning for this distinction, I regret to report that I’ve had several unfair advantages. My mother, father and grandparents on both sides were soda bottlers and beer distributors, so I started attending both soda bottler and beer distributor conventions while still wet behind the ears. Pepsi convention in Orlando, Schweppes in Vegas, 7-UP (owned by Philip Morris at the time) in Richmond, Lone Star in Houston, Cerveceria Cuauhtemoc in Grand Cayman, S&P (now called Pabst) in Los Angeles, California Cooler in Chicago, etc. etc. Yes, at a Pepsi meeting I met Joan Crawford, and though I was a child, for the record she didn’t beat me with a wire hanger. And yes, at a Lone Star meeting I met Willie Nelson. And got my picture taken with Sonny and Cher, curiously enough.
Upon graduation from college and being cast into the cold cruel world by my wretched parents, I went to work for a Miller beer distributor in Houston, which also sold a myriad of other beers, fizzy waters, teas and juices whose parent companies—all vying for the fleeting attention of their distributor—threw elaborate shows for us to attend. Again I was on the distributor convention road. Then I started Beer Business Daily, which eventually afforded me the invitations of most all brewers and importers to attend their national distributor meetings each year. Anheuser-Busch and MillerCoors even took to having two meetings a year. Plus the National Beer Wholesalers Association’s two meetings a year, plus the Craft Brewers Conference, plus SAVOR, plus the GABF, plus the myriad state distributor meetings I attend each year. I wasn’t allowed at first to attend the annual Beer Institute meetings since August Busch III blackballed me. But the late Beer Institute president Jeff Becker would sneak me in. “Don’t worry, pal,” he said with a smile and a wink. “He doesn’t even know what you look like. Just don’t draw attention to yourself.” I sat in the back and never made eye contact with anybody.
Then I started a wine and spirits trade publication and started attending all of their conventions, seminars and confabs as well. Meetings meetings meetings. Sometimes I’d go to the restroom and accidentally board a plane heading to an industry conference. Sometimes I’d kiss my wife, Lulu, on the cheek good night, lay my head on my pillow—and wake up on stage at the Craft Brewers Conference in San Diego.
Pretty soon I achieved Executive Platinum status on American Airlines, which allows me to board the plane before others and sit in the front where there are no chickens, pigs or, most importantly, human babies. And the beer is free. Being from San Antonio—not exactly a hub—I naturally have to fly to Dallas to fly anywhere else. I fly to Dallas so much that sometimes I forget myself and fly to Dallas just to pee and then fly back home. I’m not certain, but I may have a second family in Dallas. I think they live under the bar at the Terminal D Admirals Club, and they might be Vietnamese. If you see them, tell them I love them, and green cards and cash are forthcoming as promised.
The golden age of beer company distributor conferences, I fear, has come and gone. In the old days, the big brewers’ conventions held for their distributors were a spectacle to behold, although the degree of spectacle depended largely on market share. Anheuser-Busch, which had 50 percent of the market, threw the best parties. Lobsters piled up a mile high on ice, free Dove Bars (don’t go well with beer, though), those giant shrimp people call prawns, George Strait playing in one room and Elton John in another, August Busch III arriving dramatically on the putting green self-piloting his jet helicopter; his son August IV arriving much more modestly in a fleet of armored black Suburbans piloted by mercs in the employ of Blackwater, later to ferry him and his entourage late night to clubs. Those were the days.
Miller Brewing Co.’s distributor meetings were only a little less extravagant. I remember one in New Orleans. They recreated Mardi Gras and put us on floats that glided down Bourbon Street as we hurled beads at startled tourists. It wasn’t Mardi Gras, so you can understand their confusion, but that doesn’t stop a big brewery from making it Mardi Gras for its distributors. I recall one feature the floats didn’t have was stopping, as I suspect the driver was deaf, so to disembark we had to leap off in the direction of bushes and tuck into a roll.
Other conventions didn’t go so well. There was the time August Busch IV arrived late to speak at a legislative conference in Washington, DC. He finally took the stage, slurred a few words about partnership and family, gave a nod and a wink to the good senator from Missouri in attendance, dropped his microphone, finally got the hook from his handlers. Cold medicine the culprit there, you see.
Or the time I was verbally attacked in a gondola in Vail at a Beer Institute meeting by several Heineken execs for something I had written. Or the time I was harassed in Aspen at the Caribou Club by every distiller in the room for suggesting that Europeans don’t understand our system of alcohol regulation. Or the time I showed up at a Miller meeting wearing a branded Fat Tire jacket (that’s not so bad. Miller chief Norman Adami actually asked if he could have it, and wore it the rest of the convention). Or when I showed up at an A-B meeting a week early and wondered why nobody recognized me at the hotel bar. One time at a Coors convention in Houston, the tall Pete Coors knocked his head so hard on the door jamb in his hotel room that he emerged the next day with a gash on his head.
Diageo-Guinness USA put me in a Cliff Clavin postal service uniform and allowed me to heckle executives from a makeshift bar on the stage (drinking Guinness the entire time). That was weird, but fun. Yes, I am not above being a monkey on a chain.
And I don’t mind being the scapegoat. I’ve occasionally been harangued at meetings from the stage by brewery executives who perhaps didn’t know I was in the audience—or more likely they did but didn’t care. It’s usually execs at companies whose brands aren’t doing so hot or have a legal conflict going on with one or more of their distributors. It’s a game of blame the messenger. “Don’t believe a word that no good SOB hack Harry Schuhmacher writes about” XYX issue plaguing brewer. “He doesn’t know what he’s talking about.”
Well, that’s actually probably true. But regardless, I don’t mind playing the villain. It used to bother me, but like most things that don’t matter, I grew out of it. It’s the one benefit of getting older—as you get closer to death, other people’s business issues cease to matter, and the things that used to distress or terrify you suddenly and inexplicably become funny. Besides, playing the straw man for an entire industry is an important and well-paying job. The job was open and I stepped into the breach. As long as they renew their subscriptions, I’ll be Genghis Khan, Attila the Hun and the Wicked Witches (of the East and the West) all rolled into one. Learning to have a rhinoceros hide is important in any career. (There’s a little nugget of wisdom for you young people reading this meandering column. Free of charge. Don’t mention it, really.)
Ten years ago I decided we didn’t have quite enough meetings in the beer industry, because we only had 50 a year and that left two weeks of having nothing to do, twiddling our thumbs. So I started my own beer conference, called the Beer Summit. And we’ve had our share of moments. Most recently, in fact at our Summit last week, Tony Magee of Lagunitas Brewing dropped about five F-Bombs and managed in his 30-minute allotted time to insult almost every other brewer in the room. Very efficient use of time, actually. It was fantastic. Even August IV would be impressed. You gotta love that. Now that August IV is retired, I’m happy to report that we have new characters in the craft beer world to keep the industry entertained for many years to come.
Harry Schuhmacher is the publisher of Beer Business Daily, an insider industry trade journal. He tweets @beerbizdaily