And then you had the cultural differences. If distributorship owners were from Mars, craft brewers were from Venus. Distributors tended to be old-fashioned, buttoned-down, wearing ties, Republican. Craft brewers wore sandals, ironic T-shirts, and were Communists. Exceptions are to be seen on both sides, of course, but stereotypes help bring order to our understanding of the world.
Add it all up, and it’s any wonder Sam Adams and Sierra Nevada ever got to market.
My how times have changed. As the big brands’ growth has stalled out and craft and imports have grown, distributors have been obliged to open their doors and seek out new brands to carry, big brewers be damned. Almost overnight, craft brewers went from begging for meetings with distributors to being actively courted by distributors. In addition, there’s been a generational change at distributorships as Gen X and Millennials are taking over the management and ownership. And while they may not wear ironic T-shirts, at least they get the jokes.
First, Miller and Coors distributors started adding craft brands like gangbusters, seeing that they were not only growing and increasing in popularity, but they also brought larger margins to their coffers. As for A-B distributors, a few eschewed exclusivity. But then in the fall of 2007, A-B’s largest distributor, Ben E. Keith in Texas, decided to forgo exclusivity to take on craft brands. After that, A-B distributors broke out of jail in droves. And there was an added benefit: Distributors were starting to talk about the beer again, instead of just “boxes.”
The dynamic had changed forever. The industry was now more aligned with satisfying demand. Craft brewers have arrived.
But the narrative that craft brewers were held down by large brewers is an old and well-worn story (see the movie “Beer Wars”). But, as with most narratives, it’s more complicated than a simple David and Goliath story. In fact, the big breweries did craft brewers a very important favor when they not only did not oppose, but also actively supported the small brewer federal excise tax break. This tax break was and is crucial in giving craft brewers a start. So even while big brewers did much to attempt to thwart small brewers, they also did them a good turn early on. And today, the relations between large and small brewers are much improved from in the 1990s. While small brewers still view big brewers, and their brands that appear to be craft brands, as tremendous threats, all brewers big and small are working closely together for common goals.
But make no mistake: Even as craft brewers have broken the glass ceiling of acceptance among distributors and retailers, it’s still a tough road to market. Distributors today carry so many beer brands that it’s sometimes difficult for small brewers to get the focus they want on their brands. Consider this: A wholesaler may carry brands from 15 craft brewers. When a salesman from that distributor goes into a bar with six taps, of which he gets only three, which beers does he put on tap? That’s a harder question that you would think. And the answer often depends on which brewer has built the best relationship with the distributor, or has provided the most selling materials, or has already established a relationship with the bar owner, or a myriad other factors. That’s why they say it’s much easier to sell your beer locally, because at least you have the home-field advantage and probably have local relationships.
So when my son comes of age in Austin in a few years, he will enjoy a wide selection of quality craft beers. It’s been a long hard road to get to this point, and the industry still has challenges ahead. But I look forward to that day when I can take my son to the Saucer, order a nice Imperial Stout, and tell him the story of how craft beer changed an industry.