Our brewhouse is only 10 BBLs. That puts us way on the small side–a step above a nanobrewery–and with two busy taprooms we don’t have a lot of beer to distribute. I am incredibly thankful for this, because distribution is incredibly hard. If you are opening a brewery and are planning to distribute a lot of beer, you want to read this.
After four years of operating on a tiny system, sizing up has allowed us to finally distribute some beer. With good quality beer, some years in business, and not much beer to have to sell, things should be easy, right? Absolutely not. Since we’ve hired a new full-time brewer, I have been spending more time focusing on sales. I cannot emphasize enough how hard it is to sell beer in today’s market.
Generally, we send about 6-8 barrels of beer into distribution per week. That’s about two pallets of beer, really nothing for most breweries. It is a struggle to sell the beer. Three years ago, local beer sold itself. If you are opening a brewery and still believe this is how things will go, you need to rid yourself of this misconception immediately.
First, the market is over-saturated. Good accounts are getting hit by reps several times per day. With so many choices, many beer buyers prefer to constantly rotate. Most of the time, we get picked up once. If we do get picked up again, they want a new beer. This works OK for us since we only do one year-round beer and the rest are rotators. But this lack of permanent lines and dependable accounts makes it difficult to manage production. Fortunately, we sell the vast majority of our beer in the taproom, and can throttle back distributing if we need to. But I have a constant fear of having to buy back out-of-date IPA.
Second, good beer is not enough. There simply are not enough accounts with educated beer buyers. Time and again I sample our beer out and it does not get picked up. I do not mean to sound arrogant, but it is frustrating when a place is running an inferior beer to yours. Also, many times I want to tell people how quickly our beers will move once they go on tap. I can maybe understand a little bit of hesitation on running a new, relatively unknown brewery, but we are offering approachable, in-demand styles that really should not be a hard sell.
Third, every place wants samples. Chalk this up to the herds of reps roaming all over the place now. I really do want to tell people that if they’ve run our beer and liked it before, they should not need a sample of our latest IPA. But this is the norm, and if they want to try it first, you have to try to make it happen.
Lastly, we cannot compete price-wise against breweries 1000 times bigger than us. A lot of bar managers are not going to understand why a beer with higher hopping rates from a tiny brewery costs more than Lagunitas IPA. You can mostly avoid places that are all about cost, but there are some places I wish would pick us up because I believe they’d see the difference in increased velocity.
What can you do as a brewery to make distribution run smoother? Number one, brew styles that are not a hard sell. If you are new to the industry, let me make this plain and clear. You do not know something other people do not. Your ESB or biere de garde is not going to succeed just because no one else is making them. No one else makes them because they are not popular. If you want to make styles like that, keep them taproom only. We do a lot of styles we don’t distribute, and that works fine. I am not saying with enough work you might be able to get some momentum on an esoteric beer, or that you might stumble on something that does really well for some reason. I just believe in setting yourself up for success, and European styles are tough to sell.
Another important part of distribution is your relationship with your distributor. The industry is full of bad blood between breweries and distributors. We are lucky to have a really good relationship with ours. I’ve tried to be as easy to work with as I can be, being a small brewery that doesn’t make them very much money. Our value as a brand is more based upon the prestige we bring as a very good local brewery, rather than volume. Your distributor can really help sell your beer, or if things go south, potentially sink your business. I’ve tried really hard to go out with our distributor reps, introduce myself to everyone, and make sure people know how much I care about our beer and relationships with our accounts. I want people to know that I am there to support everybody that wants to sell our beer and will do whatever I can to help, and I think it has led to a lot of goodwill for us.
We are continuing to scale up, with a 40 BBL tank and canning line currently in production. I believe we can continue to grow, even if the market shrinks. I may sound pessimistic about distribution, but with hard work, good beer, and good marketing, you will eventually see a change. Last week, I sold all of our beer from my laptop. It takes time, but things are starting to move.