At its best, the beer distributor and craft brewer relationship is a beautiful partnership in which both sides contribute to achieve their goals and meet the needs of thirsty consumers. Successful craft breweries couldn’t be globetrotting the way they are today without that third tier working as it should, and at its annual conference this week the National Beer Wholesalers Association (NBWA), which represents America’s 3,000 independent beer distributors, recognized a few their craft beer success stories.
The big winner of the day, taking home the NBWA Brewer Partner of the Year Award, was Bell’s Brewery of Kalamazoo, Mich. Now in its third year, the Brewer Partner of the Year recognizes brewers for building strong partnerships, providing valuable education and growing their brands through supportive partnerships with beer distributors.
“There were three brewers that really stood out in this year’s submissions, and I’m thrilled to be able to recognize each of them for their accomplishments,” said NBWA President and CEO Craig Purser. “Bell’s Brewery is the perfect example of a homegrown business turning into a brand name we all recognize, in part because of the relationships it has built with distributors over the years, and is very deserving of the Brewer Partner of the Year Award.”
Founded in 1983 by Larry Bell, Bell’s Brewery started as a homebrewing supply shop and became a commercial brewery by 1985. Beer was first brewed in a 15-gallon soup kettle, and by 1985, Bell’s was producing 135 barrels a year. Bell’s has remained an independent, family business since its inception and now produces more than 370,000 barrels a year.
Bell’s partnered with its first distributor in 1989 to help it establish itself and grow its reach across Michigan. Since then, it has partnered with more than 100 distributors to sell craft beer across a 32-state area, as well as Puerto Rico and Washington, D.C. Bell’s also has a history of incorporating its distributors into the company’s culture. It once hosted a Seinfeld-themed dinner where brewery representatives dressed up and acted like characters on the sitcom and paired beers with food featured in the show.
“As we expand into new territories, one of the key aspects of our process it to meet with potential distributors to provide them with education about Bell’s, and in turn, learn about them,” said Laura Bell, CEO of Bell’s Brewery. “We feel that making strong decisions about our relationships right from the beginning leads to future success. We enter into our partnerships with commitment and the intention of being in business together for as long as we can be.”
Shawn Gary, president of Alliance Beverage Distributing, added, “We have watched this company methodically grow into our number one supplier based on their go-to market structure, brewery culture, overall industry support and most importantly, quality of their products. Bell’s has always invested heavily in their brands, providing both training for our staff and sponsorship opportunities for their brand. Their sales culture is one that provides positive guidance and true market help and assistance to wholesale partners.”
Sales and Marketing Award winners…
The other two breweries Purser alluded to were Catawba Brewing Co. of North Carolina, the Brewer Partner Sales Execution Award winner, and Titletown Brewing Co. of Wisconsin, the Brewer Partner Marketing Innovation Award winner.
“Catawba Brewing Co. and Titletown Brewing Co. have great successes to share since they partnered with distributors, and we’re excited to see what else is in store for these two great brewer partners,” Purser continued.
Catawba Brewing Co. received the Brewer Partner Sales Execution Award in recognition of the growth the company has experienced since partnering with distributors. In five years, Catawba has built more than 20 distributor relationships across five states and is now 17 times larger than it was as a self-distributing brewer prior to that.
“We know to our core that wholesalers make possible what we do,” said Billy Pyatt, owner of Catawba Brewing Co. “We treat them as true customers, and we work together to solve problems and capitalize on opportunities before us.”
Catawba has spent years working with distributors and consumers to enhance its brand in the market. Recently, distributor representatives, retailers and Catawba consumers helped to design and implement the new CLT-IPA. Everyone collaborated on the beer’s attributes, label and recipe tweaks until the final product was unveiled at a multi-stop pub crawl.
Titletown Brewing Co., the recipient of the Brewer Partner Marketing Innovation Award, recently changed to a brewery with statewide capabilities after 20 years as an 1,800-barrel-per-year brewpub. Since making the conversion two and half years ago, it now produces 7,500 barrels per year.
“The selection of a network and development of a distribution strategy was a challenging process,” said Jim Kratowicz, CEO of Titletown Brewing Co. “We have a great product, a great brand story and tremendous upside; however, we would not be where we are today without the advice, guidance and partnership of our distributors.”