By Tony Giannasi

So many great breweries are popping up all over Tennessee. With the law changing to allow for 10.1% ABV and below to be brewed without a distiller’s license, and the palates of Tennesseans changing to appreciate more creativity in their beers, there’s a lot of buzz about new breweries opening. Granted, most of these have been in planning for years, but now is a perfect time to be in the beer business.

These ARE the good old days.

In the same vein as more breweries, we are getting more restaurants focused on craft beers, more growler shops, grocery stores adding growler stations and more beer festivals. If you like craft beer, this is a fantastic and very exciting time to be alive in Tennessee. People are more likely to ‘try something new’ than they ever have been, and the local movement is in full force. More farmers are planting hops and partnering with brewers to provide local, fresh ingredients for so many interesting takes on classic beer styles. Distributors have been picking up more and more craft brands. Even our big grocery stores are opening the doors to more craft and less macro beer. Do I really need an 18-pack if I can get a 12-pack? Nope.

Sounds great… Be careful what you wish for.

We all cheer on the underdog. Craft Beer. But with the big kids like AB and Miller getting into the game, the waters get muddied. Craft Beer is becoming an indefensible term. We pushed, we fought, we won. Craft is becoming commonplace. I respectfully request to bring the term “Microbrewery” back.

With all the success of craft beer, the friendly atmosphere between city breweries has become more competitive. Battles over shelf space and tap handles. Trash talking. Our cool little rebellion is becoming the new republic. Distributors are still reeling from the influx of product from the many breweries they carry. Some of the older distributors have closed the doors on new breweries. That’s one of the reasons we’re seeing more small distributors pop up around the state. The bad thing is, the volume of beer being drunk in our towns is not growing as fast as there is new beer to be had. “If you build it, they will come” does not apply anymore. What used to be a brewer’s choice market has become a distributor’s market out there. So how do we get the ear of a distributor?

First, do no harm.

  • Make great beer. Or good beer. Just don’t make bad beer.  Don’t trust your neighbor. Trust sales. Look at ratebeer and untapped with a grain of salt. Read through the lines. You can tell if your beer is generally received well or not. Don’t lie to yourself. You have to be your brewery’s biggest critic.  
  • Saturate your home market. Distributors don’t want a brewery that hasn’t yet worked through their mistakes. Most have a policy of not even talking to a brewery until they are at least 3 years old.
  • Develop your tap room. This is where you do your recipe development. Don’t send beer out into the market until you are 100% sure that the recipe is exactly what you want, and sales are great in house. Making the market pay full price for untested recipes is not fair to accounts, and will only hurt you in the long run. You can’t send a text to everyone who tried your beer 6 months ago, and tell them “Hey, the recipe is better!  Try it again!” You’ve got to get them on the first beer.
  • Have an in-house laboratory. No, just a microscope doesn’t count. Have a Microbiology major college student come in and do some mock ups. Listen to them. Change your process if they find a problem. They WILL find the infection before you notice it. This increases your quality, and will severely decrease the problems out in the market.
  • SPECIALIZE. You have a Cream Ale AND a wheat? Great.  Most distributors already have a fantastic version of classic styles. They are looking for something new and exciting to add to their portfolio. If a distributor has another brewery that specializes in the same thing you do, maybe look to another distributor. They are always going to have to look at your brewery as if it is going to grow their business, or if they have to do some robbing of Peter to pay you kind of stuff. If you specialize in something, there is a greater chance that you will fit into a distributor’s portfolio.
    • For Example: If you made sour and wild ales exclusively, and aged everything in a wine barrel, that is much more interesting than the Pale/Wheat/Porter/IPA lineup that we’ve seen since the late 80’s.
  • Chain Authorizations. These are CATNIP to distributors.  Tennessee is highly driven by chains. Grocery, restaurant, bar, you name it. If you work on getting authorized in chains, most distributors will listen to what you have to say.
  • Be a good person. I have this last, but it could very well be the most important of all. Being understanding and fair are fantastic qualities in any business relationship. If you make great beer, you might get away with being a jerk for a while, but no one will stick their neck out for someone who is hitting them on the head.  Be cool. It’s beer. If you can’t be cool and have fun in the beer industry, get out now. There’s a lot of great people out here, and we all talk to each other. I’ve seen great things happen with mediocre beer because of a charming rep, or an honest to goodness owner who is just a pleasure to be around.

Don’t get discouraged!

If a distributor tells you no, or you’re not getting any traction, stop reaching out. Really? Yup. Retreat, regroup, rebrand, rebuild. Hit these bullet points, grow your brand in your home market, and more than likely, the distributor will come to you. Chances are they’ve been watching you like the weird guy in the lunch line, just waiting for you to say or do one thing or another before the come over and ask you to go to prom with them. Hope this helps in your endeavors to grow!