There’s this commercial on TV a lot right now. I don’t know what it’s for, (maybe beer-based Viagra? Maybe beer credit cards? Beer insurance?) but it’s got this chubby, middle-aged white dude that owns a brewery or a tap room or something, and it has all the hipster trappings of cool, with light fixtures and industrial chic, and with the help of whatever the advertiser is advertising (probably beer-Viagra), the brewery becomes full of people drinking the brewery’s brews. And yeah, just like that, we have a very successful entrepreneur.
And even if the beer-Viagra works, and even if middle-aged white dude can brew some good beer, the beer industry is a lot more complex and intense than TV or even my little worker brain can understand; it’s so much more than just brewing. There’s this whole other part of the industry that I rarely talk about, the third tier in the three-tier system. It’s the most regulated part, where all the money actually changes hands. It’s the part of the system where people talk about SKUs, placement and incentives. It’s the part of the system where there is actual, fierce, cutthroat competition: Sales and distribution.
This is also the part of the industry that I know the least. I have gone on a few beer runs here and there, and I have leaned in when salesmen come by a bar I’ve been working at, and I’ve worked closely with sales reps fulfilling their duties out in the public, but it’s never been my primary duty to sell or deliver beer. I’m around it enough to know I’m pretty turned off by the culture. It can be a shady, underhanded world.
I’ve seen reps throw in extra cases on orders, and if anyone asks, it’s “Oh, this is our new seasonal. You want this.” I’ve seen taps switched out in exchange for massive discounts: “I’ll give you four kegs for the price of one if you pull that handle right now.” I’ve seen reps kowtow to distributors: “They want to distribute us, but they’re only going to take the one brand and only pick up 800 cases, once every other month.” Hell, I’ve even seen beer unnecessarily and disastrously rushed, because the distributor has a truck parked waiting for the beer in the loading dock. Most of the shadier stuff is with the mega brewers, but there’s the occasional shifty craft rep, too. And this is just what I’ve seen in and around the craft side, I can’t even imagine what the big beer companies do to each other (snorting lots of beer-Viagra and cuddling in piles of money I bet).
Don’t get me wrong though, I love my sales reps. Most of the time, they love beer and beer drinkers more than anybody. They also know more about the flaws and f-ups that their own beer has, because they work more directly with the customers. If the craft beer revolution has a battlefield, the reps are directly in the shit, day in and day out.
Some of this shady stuff comes from breweries themselves. They want to be far and wide. They don’t really think about depth. They’d rather be in bottle shops in Seattle, San Francisco or New York, than in every gas station or liquor store in every little town for 50 miles. They’d rather get a corporate deal to have their beer on some commercial airline or some shitty celebrity-themed restaurant chain, than have it served at the dive bar across town.
This alienation from where and how the beer gets out into the world after I make it is pretty frightening to me. I know other brewers that have mostly worked at brewpubs are usually as equally shocked and frightened as I am when we hear sales reps tell their horror stories. It actually downright disgusts me most of the time (I do not envy the shit you guys go through). I’ve always wanted to dabble with the sales/distribution side, for a change of scenery if nothing else, but I always get the same words from brewers that have done the sales thing: It will kill your love for beer. And that would be the worst thing ever. At some point I’ll have to dive into that world more, but till then, I’ll plug my ears and close my eyes.
Robert Alan Wendeborn is a former cellar operator at Ska Brewing and current lead cellar operator at Tin Roof Brewing in Baton Rouge, Louisiana.