Stone Brewing Co. operates a significantly larger self-distribution network, carrying 32 craft and specialty brands in addition to their own to Los Angeles, Orange, Riverside, San Bernardino, and San Diego counties. Outside of that self-distribution area, Stone works with over 100 wholesalers in the 37 states they currently distribute to, including more distant parts of California. They have about 60 employees focused on the distribution side of things.
“We have a pretty firm delineation,” say Greg Koch, Stone’s CEO and Co-Founder. “When all the beer gets packaged, bottled or kegged, it moves immediately from the brewery building to a building about a mile and a half away, where we have a 24,000-square-foot cold box that we keep not only our beer in but all the beer of the brands that we represent.” The operation of course started out much smaller when Stone opened in 1996, and that ability to self-distribute was particularly crucial in the fledgling craft-beer landscape 15 years back.
“Stone would not exist without that, period,” reflects Koch. “No wholesaler wanted to carry our brands, or carry our beers. We were told no by every single wholesaler. In fact, we were told no by every single wholesaler more than once.”
Koch is outspoken in his defense of the three-tier system (particularly California’s version thereof), and, like others, he recognizes that there is still significant work to be done in improving the level of understanding between craft breweries and distributors. Koch and Arlan Arnsten, Stone Brewing’s Vice President of Sales, started the Craft Beer Wholesalers Conference back in 2004, which drew only a few dozen participants the first year.
“Today, at that same conference, we have several hundred wholesalers showing up. And, you know, the number of wholesalers that now are believing in the craft beer segment has continued to grow, just as craft beer has continued to grow.” The 2012 Conference was booked to capacity weeks in advance. “It’s focused in improving the way that wholesalers are able to operate their business,” remarks Koch. “We’re all in the room together to share best practices, to share insights on how to be successful… There’s everything covered from ratios of warehouse size to number of trucks to delivery area.” If there’s any firm conclusion to be drawn from the shifting state of U.S. beer distribution, it’s that there’s still plenty to learn.