Imperial Beverage, owned by the Cekola family in Kalamazoo, MI, was established back in 1933. “We were primarily a Pabst Blue Ribbon house, really from early after Prohibition,” notes President Joe Cekola. When PBR started to dwindle in sales volume back in the early ‘80s, the company started to shift their focus toward imports like Beck’s and Labatt’s. They soon got into distributing Frankenmuth, Arcadia, Samuel Adams, and Sierra Nevada.
“We’ve tried to transition… from the early ‘80s into the next 15 years or so… from the distributor that had the cheapest beer in the marketplace to the distributor that had the best beer in the marketplace.” Currently Imperial has 180 employees and distributes about 205 breweries. Their staff includes 28 Certified Beer Servers and the world’s first Master Cicerone, Andrew Van Til. In 2010, Imperial Beverage was named Craft Beer Distributor of the Year, nominated by Short’s Brewing Company and supported by other clients.
Cekola emphasizes the crucial role of distributors in educating their direct customers: the retailers ultimately responsible for offering the craft and specialty products to consumers. Like the efforts of Andrews Distributing, Imperial Beverage conducts monthly staff trainings and recently implemented a homebrewing competition. “I think 15, you know, 20 years ago, craft brewers had a hard time sometimes getting a distributor to be involved,” Cekola states, reflecting on the shifting market dynamics. “They were so heavily influenced by the big AB/Miller/Coors at the time that some, especially the AB focus with 100% share of mind, that they couldn’t get distribution. I think in today’s world, distributors in general want to sell craft beer—both from an imaging standpoint and a profitability standpoint. It’s good, and I know most distributors are really anxious to get the new, hot, trendy beer out there.”
When asked what he felt consumers frequently didn’t understand about the middle tier, Cekola responds, “I think sometimes they don’t understand that we are a locally owned business, we’re not owned by the brewery. We live in the community: we shop here, we have our house, we have our families here, and we’re clearly independent business people… Most beer wholesalers, they love the community that they live in and they want to support it.”
The Brewers Association maintains a generally up-to-date list regarding state self-distribution laws, suggesting that about two-thirds of the states currently allow breweries this option in at least some form. (There are often production or distribution caps in many states.) California allows self-distribution with no limits as to production size, and many breweries—including Russian River, Moonlight, Devil’s Canyon, Kern River, and Hoppy Brewing, to name a few—self-distribute some of their beer, though usually within a very limited geographic area.
High Water Brewing in Northern California self-distributes their beer throughout the Bay Area and to the Sacramento and Chico/Redding regions. They also distribute AleSmith and Devil’s Canyon beers in the latter two locales. For Southern California distribution, they work with an outside wholesaler. “You really want to pick the right distributor,” emphasizes John Anthony, High Water’s CEO and director of sales, who handles the distribution side of things with his son, Lane. Anthony previously ran a specialty distributor called Craft Brewers Distributing before partnering up with High Water’s Brewmaster, Steve Altimari. “For us, in the craft beer world, you really want to make sure that [your distributors] understand craft and believe in craft and want to sell craft, and that they’re going to sell it properly.”
For High Water, the ability to self-distribute has been particularly valuable, as it has allowed them to reconnect directly with retailers that had supported Altimari and Co. back when he was brewing at Valley Brewing Company. “There’s that personal level there,” says Anthony, “that I think was important for us as a very small brewery.”