Screwed Up Beer Week (vol 15) - The Dysfunction at Beer Junction

Written By: Kevin Patterson on 04/24/2014
A middle-man walks into a bar, and boy did he get an ear full!
(For those who aren't familiar with the alcohol industry, since prohibition the federal government set up a "three-tier" system to prevent the monopoly of "tied-house" bars as those that existed prior to the movement. The three tiers are made up of the manufacturer (brewer), the retailer (bars, restaurants and beer stores) and the wholeseller who buys beer from brewers and sells them to retailers.) -and that's the guy who caught the brunt of my frustration this week.
Why would I get so upset the with the guy who brings me beer? That's because he lied to me! See- there's a brand new beer that is to hit the area and I had prior knowledge of the brewer's release schedule and their market entrance plans, and I knew this beer would be a big hit. So I did what any good manager would do- I attempted to order a lot of it.
But I get, "Sorry man, the state only got (doesn't matter) number of cases and kegs but I'll do what I can... just for you." Forced to go along with him, I reluctantly accept his rations.
Fast forward one week and we get exactly what he said we could order. Of course we're proud of the beer and want to get the word out to our customers. But as we turn to our social media accounts, we receive posts from every beer-centric hot-spot in the tri-state area sharing their same intentions. The distributor's customers, who he was trying to diplomatically help, had ratted him out!
Of course I would have given him a hard time if he had been up front and told me how much he had received, and that he needed to spread the wealth to make everyone happy. But at least I couldn't call him a liar and I could go on naively trusted him. Though this demeanor seems harsh, this is the cat-and-mouse game that all industry parties play with the new and coveted releases of beer that come in such limited quantities.
But to his defense, distributors are placed in "must-lie" situations- told to say one thing by their superiors while simultaneously acting on other agendas. Their problem is that all the better beer spots out there need to promote their cache in order to capture that illusive dollar in that small time frame when that beer is red friggin' hot. And they do so on the internet almost entirely, thus exposing all that the wholesellers are trying to hide. So their efforts are for naught.
But distributors are an absolute necessity and are a helpful entity in the beer industry. There's simply no way that any one brewer or any one retailer could cover so much ground to make sure that all the variety of beer arrive in such vast volume, in such good condition and in such quick turnaround without them. Even with their essential mark-up, the middle man is equally as essential to making the craft beer movement do just that- move!
Those guys have an impossible job- not only to they get the verbal tongue-lashings from guys like me when I don't get what I need, but they suffer greatly from being the most invisible part of the tiered system. Think about it- retailers have a highly hands-on relationship with customers. When things go wrong, we point the finger upward- the the seldom-seen wholeseller. And the brewers have taprooms and representatives where their personnel engage the public regularly and are happy to point the finger downward to that same distributor. Since no one sees them, who cares- right?
But this attitude is to devalue to massive benefit that distributors provide to the overall beer scene. They are highly skilled and efficient at moving product from point 'A' to point 'B' in seemingly effortless manner. And that could be the achilles heel to their whole operation...
To many of them, beer is just that- "product" and they rarely understand the culture, the flavor, the art or the people of craft beer. The folks who represent the distributors are so consumed with moving stuff around that few of them actually care about what the stuff is. Not caring if the stuff is ink pens, cotton swabs or dixie cups- much of the personnel of distributorship simply could care less about that they are moving around.
Brewers, of course, know what they are selling- they are the artist, the craftsmen and the passion behind the taste. Retailers care because of their love of the beer, or at least the love of their customers money- so relating to them is a must to their own personal welfare. But those middle men are out there just connecting dots.
Don't get me wrong- I value the job of distributors desperately. But I just need them to care as much about the culture of what they sell as much as the folks who sell it to and buy it from them. Yet even if they don't, I need them to stop lying to me- the store down the street will tell on them anyway!