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Jul 05

Why do specialty beer stores place limits on beers?

Today we receive a rarities beer shipment. We will let our customers know how many bottles we have, allocate them at one per household. They will go on sale Saturday morning.

People will get mad at me because they are limited to one bottle. Not just one bottle per person, but one bottle per household. Yes, these beers are that rare. We will check IDs to confirm no duplicate addresses. We aren’t putting the bottles out the day received so that people who love the brewery can adjust their schedules to stand in line, waiting for us to open so that they can get their rare beer.

All I can say, “I’m sorry that I don’t have more;” this is how it works in the world of beer:

  • The brewery works with a state distributor.
  • The brewery trusts that distributor to sell their beers to retail shops and taverns.
  • The brewery trusts the distributor to represent their brand to the best of their ability.
  • The brewery entrusts that distributor to adequately supply the accounts with strongest sales, but to also get the beer to as many accounts as possible.

Sometimes the beer is so rare that only 40 cases, or 20 cases, or less, is shipped into the state. As a retailer, I can affirm that just because a your shop may be in the Top 10 accounts for the brewery in the state doesn’t mean you’ll receive any extra cases (or kegs).

The distributor is doing their job: Making sure the beer is adequately distributed throughout the territory. How do they arrive at this?

I cannot tell you how things work inside the distributor. I don’t have that insight. I can only tell you about what it’s like to be the retailer in this special relationship, providing rare beers to beer lovers.

Challenges for retailers

We have a huge fanbase for the brewery, but we don’t have the ability to get more beer to meet the demand. Who gets what is up to the distributor; sometimes the brewery gives input. But going over the distributor’s head is never recommended. It has consequences. Trust me. I have learned this.

Can fans impact the decisions? I don’t know. All I can do is to encourage my customers to contact the brewery and say, “I want to buy (insert beer name here) at 99 Bottles.” If they get enough requests, perhaps the brewery will realize how many of their fans shop with us, and direct their distributor to make sure we receive adequate supply. This is an experiment in progress.

Dogfish rarities draw the longest lines at 99 Bottles

What is adequate supply?

It all depends on the beer and the brewery’s fanbase. Twelve bottles don’t go far when you’re fielding nearly one-hundred unique phone calls, emails, and in-store requests for a rare beer. Two cases is a little better, at least that would meet nearly 25% of demand, based on 100 customer requests.

For a beer like Dogfish Head 120 Minute IPA, which is packaged 24 bottles per case, we receive pretty close to a thousand requests between shipments. I’d probably still limit to 1 per household if we could get four cases (10% of demand). That limit is just to spread the beer love as wide as possible. For that beer our allocation is just one or two cases. And I am satisfied with that; one or two cases is better than none. At least I can make some fans happy.

Competing for [limited] beers

What makes me a bit uncomfortable are the occasional artificial sanctions are placed upon small retailers like me, pushing us out of the Top 5 or Top 10, limiting us to a case or two a week of an “everyday beer” in order to edge retail chains or other businesses into upper-tier accounts. Yes, this happens. And it is frustrating. I have no idea if breweries approve of this practice or if they’re even aware that it is happening.

There are “everyday” beers that have been limited to my store. I get a bit frustrated when I walk into a chain grocery store and discover a six-case display of that same beer. Here I am, with such demand for the beer, but am imposing “per person” limits because I can’t get enough to meet customer demand…meanwhile, a big stack is just sitting there at the chain. I don’t know if these limits are coming from the distributor higher-ups, their sales representative, or the brewery. I have no insight. All I know is I can’t fill half- or full-case orders for one customer without shorting another. Grrr! I never knew the world of selling beer would be like this. I always imagined everyone wanted to help you sell beer, both breweries and distributors, that there would be no artificial sanctions on a small shop like mine. But there are. It’s the cold hard truth. And something I probably shouldn’t be writing about…

(If you’re one of my suppliers, please don’t threaten with “There will be consequences.” for me even bringing this up. I have named no names. But it’s hard to explain this to customers when I don’t understand it myself.)

…but if you’re one of the folks who’ve written me emails asking for advice on opening your own beer store, it is something you need to be aware of. Sh*t happens and life isn’t fair. It’s not all about the love of beer. Beer is an industry filled with politics. And if you’re looking to open a beer store in my state, you will be a competitor no matter how far your store is from mine…you will be competing with me for limited product that I need for my customers. My beloved customers, please know that we sometimes have to fight tooth-and-nail to get you your beer. It’s not always a rosy place to be.

Supporting the entire brand

It is true, some beers that are such commonplace, so highly represented in grocery chains, that they just don’t sell well at a specialty shop like mine. And some of these commonplace beers have really sought-after rare sister beers. The kind of beers sought after by beer connoisseurs who shop with us. I always hope to get at least a case, or two, or four, or more, but understand if I am shorted because the brewery’s fanbase hasn’t supported the entire brand line at my establishment. We are working to change that, but can’t do it without the beer shopper. We’ve seen some rare beer allocations severely cut because we dropped regularly available beers. Why’d we drop them? Because it was taking longer than three months to move a case of twelve or twenty-four beers. This is the drawback of the “mix” ability at specialty bottle shops. In a “mix your pack” scenario, it could take 24 people each buying one bottle vs. a grocery store four people each buying a six-pack. So, at a specialty shop, there are standard beers that may move a little slower. At my store, if it sells slow enough to spoil on the shelf, you won’t find it in store…it’s full-case preorder only. We’re not just about selection, but also quality! So, dear beer drinker, if you want to buy that limited beer from your local bottle shop, be sure to also support the brewery’s entire line-up. This will help your specialty shop attain limited/rare beers.

Looking out for beer lovers

Looking out for beer lovers is the primary reason there are daily bottle limits placed on rare beers. I try to look out for as many of the brewery’s fans as possible. Not all retailers do this. Many retail shops will put it all on the shelf, allowing one or two shoppers to come in and buy the entire stock. They don’t care to support the wide fanbase as a whole. This is frustrating to me; if I were able to get those cases as well, perhaps I could increase our limits from one bottle to two bottles, so people could drink one now and cellar the second, or drink one and give the other to a friend who was unable to make it to the release, or drink both!

But just because I try to look out for as many beer drinkers as possible by limiting beer sales to one bottle per household doesn’t mean I’ll get an extra case.

I will have people yell at me because they didn’t get any of the beer.

I try really hard to be fair.

I try my best to support the brewery’s fans.

Apologies for your wait, or if you didn’t get any

Sorry, shopper, I know this is not the most convenient way to sell/buy beer: For you to arrive early, stand in line before our store opens. To count the number of people in line, knowing in advance how many beers are available, so you know if you’ll be able to buy a bottle… or if all bottles are spoken for. But I will always tell you how many bottles are available so you’re able to drive up, count the number of people in line and make that choice to jump in line and join them, or drive on. I will do my best to look out for the brewery’s fans.

I will try to make it as convenient as possible for the majority.

I will do my best to keep my customers informed, via facebook, email, and twitter.

And, I’m sorry, I have no good answers to questions like: “Why does (other business) just put it on the shelf for unlimited sales?” or “Why don’t you get (beer name) on for growler fills?” I can only shrug my shoulders and be thankful that we received the case or two that was allocated to us.

So why the limits?

I can tell you why we place per person and per household daily limits on beers:

These beers have such low supply and such high demand. We’re making a concerted effort to get that special, rare, limited beer into the hands of as many beer lovers as possible.

Thank you, dear beer lover, for understanding. I’m sorry I don’t have any concrete answers other than, “There just isn’t enough supply to meet our customers’ demand.” We do our best. We try to share the beer love, to spread the rare beers to as many homes as possible. And I thank you for your support of the brewery and of my store.


Please note, this isn’t intended to be a flame or whine. It’s simply sharing how things work in the beer industry at the retail level, and why you sometimes see “daily bottle limits” on rare and limited-supply beers at specialty shops.

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