Selling in the Shadows
If you can’t offer the connoisseur every beer in existence, give him or her something that nobody else is pouring. That’s the idea behind the “tap takeovers” that have become an increasingly important promotional tool for craft breweries.
At Rustico, a multi-tap in Arlington, VA, Peter Egleston, president of Smuttynose Brewing Co. in Portsmouth, NH, is chatting up the clientele. Mike Harbin and Chuck Matthews of Specialty Beverage, Smuttynose’s Virginia distributor, set up the meet-and-greet and supplied Rustico with a half-dozen strong, scarce, limited-edition beers from the New Hampshire brewery. They include Homunculus, a Belgian-style strong golden ale, and a 2009 vintage of Gravitation, a quadrupel brewed with 200 pounds of pureed raisins.
“Fifteen years ago, this was a business where you sold a large volume of product at small margins,” reflects Egleston. The distributor dropped off kegs and cases of Bud, Miller, Heineken and their ilk and the beers leapt off the shelves and out the taps, aided by the millions that the large brewers invested in advertising.
Increasingly, though, the industry is about hand-selling. He adds, “For an account like this, it’s a feather in their cap to offer a bunch of beers that nobody else has. It gives them bragging rights.” Whereas brewers used to cultivate brand loyalty, today they practically reward brand disloyalty by releasing a steady stream of new and innovative brands.
Later this year, Specialty Beverage’s Harbin says he’ll travel to St. Louis to visit another of his clients, Schlafly Brewing Co. There he plans to help formulate and brew a beer that will only be available in the Virginia market.
“We do a big part of the work for them,” says Harbin of the breweries he works with. “We’re the fingers of their hand.”