At the National Beer Wholesalers Association’s (NBWA’s) annual convention in Chicago this past September, there was a big focus on the importance of local knowledge and relationships when it comes to distributor success. In today’s fragmented beer environment, populated by a zillion different outlets with unique demographics and customers, there is no one size fits all solution. Rather, successful wholesalers adjust to changes in their markets to find the right beers for the right stores and bars.
That local education is key, so is a commitment to independence and craft brands when it comes to choosing a wholesaler. In January 2015, Eugene’s Ninkasi Brewing Co. announced its commitment to partnering with like-minded, independent wholesalers in Oregon and Washington. At that time, the brewery transitioned from Western Beverage, owned by Anheuser-Busch InBev, to Eugene-based, locally owned Bigfoot Beverages as its wholesale partner covering downstate Oregon.
Just recently, Ninkasi announced that Bigfoot Beverages will even begin distributing its bottled beer to grocery and convenience stores in Eugene in January 2017. Originally facilitated by Ninkasi’s own Local Distribution team, the expanded partnership will allow Ninkasi Local Distribution to focus its efforts on maintaining and growing Ninkasi’s draft business at on-premise establishments, restaurants and bars throughout Eugene.
Distribution is easily one of the most important factors in a craft brand’s success on store shelves, grocery coolers and bar and restaurant taps. Getting out of a distribution agreement is very difficult, so it’s essential to take your time when picking and choosing a partner. Like Ninkasi, finding someone local-focused and craft-centric is essential. The Brewers Association has a great article on the process and offers these tips.
Things to consider for your distributor commitment
- Is the portfolio growing at a rate commensurate with the local craft growth trends?
- Are they selective in the craft brands they choose to distribute, or are they brand collectors?
- Is there a dedicated craft manager(s)?
- Does the distributor actively educate/train sales staff in the craft segment?
- Does the distributor give due attention to the craft brands in its portfolio? Do they make key
account presentations in support of craft brands?
- Are they receptive/flexible when it comes to adding seasonal/”one-off” craft SKU’s?
- Have there been any craft brands that have left the distributor in the past three years?
There are a lot of other factors (read some of those here), and some of those factors are even pushing some brewing businesses to start their own distributorships (local laws will play a big part in that). It’s what Boston’s Night Shift Brewing did. Night Shift Distributing will be offering craft brewers friendlier contracts, personal attention and fresher beer deliveries. The goal is to add as many as 25 craft brewers to its portfolio to ship to retailers across the state.
“Craft brewers have been able to come up with new ideas, new ways to exist as a business, fresh takes on beer styles, and so on,” said Night Shift president Rob Burns. “But these distributors have been around for decades. They love the status quo. There hasn’t been anyone trying to reinvent the distribution side of the beer business.”
Burns said Night Shift Distributing will distinguish itself by not engaging in practices he and other brewers claim are common at existing distributors: favoring some brands over others, blocking unhappy breweries from switching to another wholesaler, and paying off bars to put certain brews on tap. He also touted Night Shift’s large network of existing retail customers and its quality-testing lab.