Beer enthusiasts frequently say that part of the enjoyment they derive from today’s better beer culture is the social aspect of having a beer with someone they like or find interesting. Socializing over a pint or three is, and has always been, the best part of a beer drinker’s day.
In the past three decades I’ve shared many a beer with interested (and interesting) beer drinkers at scores of beer festivals and food festivals, beer dinners, golf tournaments, NASCAR events and community celebrations. I’ve poured many a sample and bought many a round in bars big and small.
First off, you have to understand that I’m a “lifer.” No, I’m not serving time for something nasty and illegal. I’ve been in the beer business for 53 of my 57 years on the planet, starting when my parents opened a beer distributorship in Philadelphia when I was just four years old. It was a neighborhood “D” distributor—a license type unique to Pennsylvania—that supplied beer to local bars, clubs and restaurants, and as a by-the-case retailer to the public. It’s a system that survives to this day.
The beer store was where I grew up—it was where I went when school ended each day. My mother ran the retail cash register and kept the books while my dad called on the bars and delivered cases and kegs, along with the three or four neighborhood guys who worked for our family’s business. The store was where I did my homework while waiting for Mom and Dad to finish, close up and head home, just three blocks away, for dinner. It was where I played stickball with my friends and watched the Golden Age of TV on a little black-and-white set behind the counter. I would even get picked up and dropped off at Little League games by one of our beer trucks.
When I got big enough, I sorted empty bottles that came back from the bars, as most of the business was returnable bottle-based back then. The green Rolling Rock and the clear Miller High Life empties had to be pulled from the brown bottle cases, mostly Schmidt and Ortlieb’s. I helped stock the walk-in cooler every night and stacked and un-stacked the basement with hundreds of empty cases every week. I carried cases of beer to customers’ cars and loaded their trunks for tips.
In college, I was a campus rep for Miller Brewing Co. and the local Miller distributor. When I finished college, I took over the family business for four years until I joined the Philadelphia-area Miller wholesaler, where I worked for 22 years as a sales rep, in marketing, as a sales manager and brand manager. In the 1990s, during that decade’s craft brewing surge, I had a four-year stint running the company’s specialty products division. That job definitely enhanced my beer knowledge and turned me into a better beer enthusiast and proud beer geek.
Ten years ago, I joined Kramer Beverage Co., a New Jersey Coors wholesaler, as a brand manager, marketing director and now I am the manager of our newly formed Specialty Products Division, promoting the glorious variety of styles, flavors and experiences offered by the craft beer movement.
Beer drinkers may wonder what famous or historical person, if given the chance, they would like to have a cold beer with. Along the way I’ve had the opportunity to raise a glass with some pretty interesting and well-known people. Some have been luminaries in the brewing business; others were celebrities I worked with while promoting the brands I represented.
In my Miller days, there was Bobby Allison and Rusty Wallace—I even got to announce the famous phrase “Gentlemen, start your engines!” at a NASCAR race at Pocono. Local appearances by the Miller Lite All Stars from the classic commercial series had me working with Bubba Smith, Dick Butkus, Marv Throneberry and my favorite, Lee “The Doll” Meredith.
Beer business notables have included Pete Coors, Jim Koch, Dick Yuengling, Alan Newman, Dick and Jake Leinenkugel, Derek and Andrew Oland, Eric Molson, Sam Calagione and Pierre Celis. And then there was spending time with the incomparable Michael Jackson during his many book tours and visits to Philly beer events. I was even on hand when Britain’s Prince Charles pulled a pint in the pub at the Shepherd Neame brewery in Faversham, Kent, during their 1998 celebration of 300 years of continuous operation.
Unfortunately, the beer business entrepreneur I would have most liked to have a beer with was lost to me when he passed away just after my 13th birthday. I think my Dad, also named Lionel, would have been proud that I followed him into the beer business. He died just eight short years after he started his business and never knew that his only son would make a career of delivering good beer to thirsty customers.
So join me in a toast to family, and friends and good beer. And remember to take every opportunity to sip a cold one with someone famous, or interesting, or, especially, someone important in your life. Cheers.
Lionel Schnell has spent his life working in and around beer. Since 1999 he has been the director of marketing and is now manager of the Specialty Products Division at Kramer Beverage Co. He writes a beer and food column for a South Jersey entertainment weekly.