Reflecting on the beer blogger – beer retailer connection II
In preparation for the Networking with Local Breweries, Distributors, and Retailers panel at the 2012 Beer Bloggers Conference in July, I’ve been reflecting on how citizen beer bloggers could better network with a beer retailer like me.
This brings to mind:
What questions do my customers ask most frequently?
“Why don’t you have (insert beer name here)?” is likely the most common question. My first challenge: For beer bloggers to share how the beer supply chain works. Why don’t certain beers come to your area? Why are some beers limited? Why do breweries craft some really delicious beers only once? Why is this beer only available seasonally?
How does the beer industry work?
How does the beer business work? Like comrade beer merchant, Julie of Bruisin’ Ales says, “It doesn’t always make sense.” So, together, we put out the call: “…let’s educate! Beer drinker to drinker, beer blogger to blogger.”
I used to dream of a collaborative, unified beer industry. A place where beer suppliers wanted to sell beer, so they provided retailers with any beers in their portfolio, in the quantities demanded by customers. I dreamt of small retailers, owners of beer stores like mine, coming together to promote import breweries (beers made outside our state are considered imports). I dreamt of local brewers meeting my customers at in-store tastings. I imagined happy beer-loving customers. After all, with a delicious product like beer, what’s not to make one happy?
Then I became co-owner of a beer store and reality hit me in the face.
So, dear beer blogger, do you want to stick with beer reviews and event coverage, or are you curious to explore new — and sometimes controversial — topics in the world of beer?
I hope you don’t take this personally, but after reading both posts I’m still a little unsure of what exactly you want from the beer bloggers. … It just seems there were many issues there, and I wasn’t sure which, exactly, the bloggers should help with. Explaining about distribution channels? Why limited beers aren’t often available?
My answer, a resounding “Yes!” And “Yes!” My beer blogging friends, we need your help. There are a lot of topics to cover. The beer topics are endless. It’s about the beer; it’s all about the beer.
At the 2010 Beer Bloggers Conference, Greg Koch challenged citizen beer bloggers,
“With great beer blogging comes great responsibility … and part of that responsibility is understanding our industry and … if you’re not in it, there seems to be a pretty wide gap understanding how it works.”
…and I’d add “Even if you’re in it, you don’t always understand how it works.”
Like Koch, I challenge you: Dive in!
Explore how this industry works. Talk to government officials. Read the laws. Talk to breweries. Talk to wholesalers. Talk to retailers. What challenges do they have? What prevents them from offering the beer you seek? Or branding a beer how they’d like it to look? Why does some import beer cost a lot and others a little? Why do we pay sin tax? The questions are endless. Your blog is at your fingertips.
So, dear blogger,
Do you want to understand how the beer industry works?
Are you brave enough to touch upon controversial topics?
Do you have the wherewithal to delve in, to interview, to dig?
Can you engage, inform, and entertain?
Can you help me, and other beer providers, answer our customers’ questions about beer?
Taxes and laws.
There are so many laws. Things that are written and published in State and Federal publications. And things that are guidelines, meant to be treated as law. And every state has different Alcohol Control laws. Are you familiar with the laws in your state? Do you know why a brewery/pub, bar/tavern, beer shop, or chain grocery is doing things a certain way, even though it may not be ideal for you, the consumer? Did you know you pay taxes for the number of bubbles in your hard cider or wine? Do you know how much you are paying in sin tax on that beer?
Beer drinkers in Washington State pay some of the highest sin taxes in the U.S. Two years ago, I found myself explaining to customers why the price of their favorite beer increased $10-15 per case, after our legislators passed new laws that nearly doubled a beer sin tax from $8.08 to $15.50 per barrel.
Today, though we’re unable to sell liquor under new laws enacted from I-1183, I am answering customers’ questions about new liquor taxes. So many Washington voters supported I-1183, believing it would bring them cheaper liquor. Now, they find themselves paying more for so many brands. They are disillusioned, not knowing what just happened. The result of their vote, not what they intended.
I love hearing stories about label approval challenges. A few brewery folk have told me stories that leave my jaw dropping, some I can’t help but chuckle at. They tell me, “We can’t put [censored] on a beer label.” Another explained how sometimes they can put things on the cardboard container (exterior, removable packaging) that is disallowed from labels that are adhered to the bottle. At this time, the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB) requires the bottle/can label (or keg collar) to contain specific, approved information. With the amount of bureaucrazy (mis-spelling intended), who knows? Maybe some day they’ll add exterior packaging. Consumers do judge a beer by its label; but few think about what goes into the label.
And more laws
Oh, and all the laws. The alcohol laws differ from state-to-state. In Washington State, the laws for alcohol fall under RCW Title 66. But that’s not all. Anyone who produces or sells alcohol in Washington State are also subject to the guidelines of the Liquor Control Board. Any beer that’s sold here has to go through a licensed provider. As a merchant of beer, I’m responsible for selling a controlled substance. This means checking I.D.s and not selling to anyone underage, intoxicated, or even of age with an expired license. It means compliance with laws that are publicly available and guidelines that I can’t necessarily find on the State’s website.
It also means changing business practices if someone files a violation report against your business. (If you’ve been in my shop at closing time and you see me ushering customers up to checkout, like a hen herding her chicks, this is because of a complaint against my business for selling after-hours. The result: Our agent instructed us to have all sales processed prior to the closing hour; those neglecting to check out before the closing hour must to leave their items in-store and leave the premises. Yes, I know that other beer stores may sell you beer after their posted closing hour. I can’t. Sorry!) I am told that the liquor board basically leaves your business alone unless a sting was failed or a complaint has been filed. We have experienced two complaints; both from another small beer store owner. I probably shouldn’t say more about this, so let’s move on…
How beer comes to be.
There are many challenges faced by breweries: ATF label approval, State & Federal taxation, legal limitations — and things that get in the way of doing business and reaching beer lovers more effectively, experimentation, successes and failures of crafting beer, the art of maintaining reputation — coming to the decision to dump thousands of dollars down the drain should a batch not be up to par vs. releasing something not quite as intended, why some brewers don’t read online reviews, how they are able to bring beers to market — navigating State, Federal laws, the challenges of self distribution vs. working with distributors, and so many other topics that I’m likely not even aware of because I’m in the business of selling this wonderful product called beer, not creating it.
There are a lot of blogs on homebrewing, but can you point me to some blogposts about the challenges of changing from homebrewer to brewing professionally? How about the growth pains of going from nano to small to medium to large? As a retailer, I can tell you how bummed a new brewer, or even a seasoned brewer, can get when they get their first bad review online. It sucks. Especially when there’s nothing wrong with the beer; it follows style guidelines. The beer was ripped up in words just because wasn’t to that drinker’s liking. Please, beer reviewer, be gentle in your comments. Brewers are people too. Don’t be mean. They worked hard on crafting that beer. It’s a labor of love.
How beer is disseminated.
The challenges faced by suppliers: My insight here is quite limited. Though I have little first-hand knowledge of the challenges faced by beer importers and distributors, I am quite aware of my challenges with suppliers. The 2012 Beer Bloggers Conference will include a panelist from a distributorship, plus a dinner/tour of World Class Beverages. I am looking forward to both.
The long journey of an import beer
While stocking imports in our beer shop, I look at the prices and think, “Wow that’s a good deal, considering where this beer traveled from.” And I begin to imagine the travels of each beer: The country, its brewing practices and laws, sitting in warehouses, exportation, container packaging, over-sea travels, importation, sitting on docks awaiting clearance, moving to warehouses, over-land travels, sitting in warehouses, moving by truck (or waiting for us to come get it), and here I stand, unpacking the box of beer. A bottle lost here and there, I wipe off it’s dust from a foreign land before placing them on the shelf for my customers to buy. And I think, “My little bottled friend, you have traveled so far.”
Why don’t you get enough beer?
When my customers are asking me for certain beers, I sometimes don’t have answers. I can’t tell them why my specialty shop may only get a case of a beer, to sell out in hours, while a major grocery chain receives several cases, to still have it setting there weeks later. Beer lovers are calling me, emailing me, and coming to me daily in search of beers, saying, “If anyone has it I know you would.” While this is a complement; it also sometimes stings.
I don’t know much about the inner-workings, the conversations and agreements, between importers, breweries and distributorships. I’m not supposed to know that there are deals going on in the background to keep corporate chains supplied with beer for scheduled ad runs, or just to keep other beers on their shelves — these are things that we are not meant to talk about. So, I tred lightly. A salesrep may tell me, “If you have a problem, contact the brewery.” We may not. We may. We do. We have. It doesn’t always fare well, sometimes there are punishments by having other allocations cut or being put second-tier for priority. I can’t speak of many things. All I can say is sometimes it is a very frustrating place to be, like sitting between a rock and a hard place… well, not really, there’s only one decision to be made and it is to take what they will sell us. And smile. Even if it’s not enough for our customer demand. And I will have customers yell at me, in my store, because I am limiting them to one bottle per day of that very special beer. So, there it is. There are allocations from wholesaler-to-retailer. If you want to carry the beer, you have to take what you can get, and be happy with it. Or get none. I do what I can to be fair, so in turn, as a specialty beer shop, I place per-day bottle limits on highly sought after and rare beers, in effort to share the beer love with as many beer drinkers as possible. And I endure anger expressed from customers who make the trip to buy one bottle. And I think, “Please, dear customer, be happy with that. My allocation is limited. I try to be fair.”
Don’t all breweries need distributors?
Breweries can license to self-distribute in Washington State. This isn’t true for all states. Working with distributorships requires contracts. And I have read that getting out of brewery-distributor relationships can be more expensive than getting a divorce. And even this varies from state-to-state. How are your breweries making their beers available? Is their distribution supply chain everything they dreamed it would be? Can a brewery self-distribute in your state or are they legally obligated to work via distributorships?
When will the beer reach our market? Trucks can be late. Anyone who brews beer knows fermentation takes time; yeast aren’t always cooperative. There are times where our beer has been sent to another business. Once it’s there, paid for, it’s theirs. Or so you may think… we have had to re-sell beer back for it to go elsewhere, leaving our customers stranded with less…or none. This is something else I probably shouldn’t talk about.
I, as a beer store shopkeeper, must tread lightly. It is likely in this post, I have passed into the “no talk zone,” so I will add: I love you all, my beer suppliers! Without your delicious beer, we are nothing.
But you, dear citizen beer blogger, “Please, dive in!”