Blog Entries

Three-Tier System: Keep the Baby in the Bathwater

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Category: General Blogs  |  Tags: beer, spirits

It always amazes me how quickly people are so ready to throw the baby out with the bathwater when something doesn’t quite work in a manner entirely favorable to them. I’ve been hearing/reading a lot of chatter, particularly in the blogosphere, where folks are taking to task the three-tier system, going so far as to say it should be eliminated. Excuse me?

Look, I am a strong proponent of franchise law reform. In some states it’s next to impossible for a craft brewer or other small alcohol beverage producer to get out of a draconian contract when the supplier/distributor relationship isn’t working out. Now that there are more than 3,100 U.S. small brewers, whose influence continues to grow, I’d like to see them effect real change at the state and federal levels.

But too many people—particular badly informed, one-sided bloggers—equate franchise law reform with dismantling the three-tier system. The two are mutually exclusive.

Ask most successful craft brewers (or distillers and wine makers for that matter) and many likely would admit—albeit sometimes grudgingly—that they would not have grown to the level they’ve achieved without the three-tier system and the work of distributors. Does that mean they shouldn’t be allowed to self distribute? Of course the should. Small producers that operate in states that permit self-distribution have been able to bootstrap themselves to a point where they got on the radar of wholesalers that have been able to help them expand to the next level. Most self-distribution has been out of necessity and once someone else is willing to take it over, the majority of small beverage alcohol suppliers are happy to be out of the distribution business. (Having said that, the three-tier system is far from perfect—at best a necessary evil.)

And about that 3,100 figure. There would only be a fraction of those brewers thriving in the market if there was no three-tier system in place. One need only look overseas for what could have become of the modern U.S. market (and actually had before Prohibition). Walk into an average bar in many European cities and your choices are limited, for the most part, to the products from one brewery. That’s the tied-house system still at work in those countries. The 21st amendment forbids that in the U.S.. And I think we’ve started to take for granted the diversity that our system has allowed us.

Our system is the envy of the rest of the world, by the way. And the U.S. craft movement has sparked revolutions around the world where small brewers are starting to squeeze their way into the market. It’s a little tougher for them to get into existing tied-house bars, so specialty pubs have started to pop up showcasing those small European brands. But those are still the exception and not the rule and still have a long way to go to achieve broader market exposure.

I’ll leave you with this thought. Just imagine an America where an AB InBev or SABMiller got into the pub and retail business and started buying up local watering holes. Then imagine what the array of tap handles would look like. Where’s that diversity now? 

There’s an App for That

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Category: General Blogs

I was having breakfast with some friends and the conversation drifted to how the emerging so-called “sharing economy” is changing our lives. We started discussing apps like Uber, which can locate a driver when you need a ride, which I had heard about.  My friends also filled me in on some I never even heard of, like TaskRabbit, which apparently enables you to get help with any kind of chore you have around the house. 
 
Being in my 40’s, I guess I am right on the cusp between those who are open to all these new sharing-economy options and those who would reject them outright. Let’s face it, I’ve lived most of my life hailing yellow cabs, staying at Holiday Inns or Hiltons, and yes, doing my own laundry. To suddenly have a wave of internet-enabled service providers come along offering entirely new ways of doing these things is a little disorienting. 
 
Anyway, back to my breakfast conversation and how it ties into beverages. One of my friends began insisting that home brewing was tied into the sharing economy as well. The idea seemed to fall on deaf ears in the crowd, including my own. On first thinking, I just couldn’t see how people brewing their own beer could possibly become a sharing economy service. 
 
But the idea has stuck with me ever since. Not so much about its particular viability, but about what the sharing economy might mean to the beverage industry in the future. After all, the Internet has been around for a while now and yet it appears that just in the past few years the sharing economy is really getting off the ground. Who’s to say what other industries—including, yes, beverage—might soon be impacted by it?
 
So far, the closest the beverage business seems to have come to this new economy is when it comes to crowdsourcing. Companies like MobCraft use input from users to decide the next beer they’ll brew. It’s still quite different from having thousands of home brewers making their own beer and then using an app to sell or even trade with each other. But is it too far-fetched to think that in the not-too-distant future that actually might happen? Sure, there would probably be some major quality issues, but it would be a lot of fun, no?
 
And then what would come next? Could household kitchens the world over suddenly be selling and/or trading fresh-squeezed juices? What about home-brewed coffee? 
 
If you want evidence of how technology can revolutionize a beverage category, then just consider how SodaStream managed to upend the soda business—for a time, anyway. And that was kind of old-school technology, if you think about it. Plug it into the internet and who knows what the future holds?  
 

The Heart of the Business

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Category: General Blogs

 
I find it difficult to resist the intrigue surrounding the biggest companies in the beverage business. I’m drawn to the big stories, and what big companies do make for big stories. Sometimes what they do reverberates across the industry, like when the Big Three soda makers pledge to cut the calories consumed from their products, or when the biggest beer producer is rumored to make another huge M&A deal. And sure enough, both of these stories are covered in-depth in this issue.
 
But I’m also drawn to the stories of the individuals who come along with an idea and a lot of heart.  The beverage business is full of these stories and more come along every day. 
Fourteen years ago Seth Goldman worked out of a storefront in Baltimore, with a van outside painted with logos touting a bottled tea made from fair-trade ingredients. These were the days when Seth literally peddled door-to-door to get someone, anyone to try his tea.  Today Honest Tea is a featured business of  The Coco-Cola Company, but Seth still steers the business, still drives the van so to speak.
 
Jim Koch started brewing Samuel Adams in his kitchen at a time when the number of breweries in the U.S. were at an all-time low and way before there was a clamor for craft beers. Now Boston Beer is 30 years young, Sam Adams is distributed nationally and overseas, and Jim is the dean of craft brewers.
 
Here are some of more recent vintage, and who knows how these stories will play out:
Brothers Shawn and Aaron Grose are set to open Windmill Pointe Brewery in a Detroit neighborhood that was once the home of the Stroh Brewery Co. They want to produce good beer and be a part of a Detroit turnaround.  They’ve also come up with a novel way to, ah, “pedal” the venture: they intend to outfit the brewery with stationary bikes wired to produce the energy needed to brew the beer. “We’ve been talking about this [for] seven years, and there comes a time when you either keep on dreaming or bring that dream to reality,” Shawn told The Wall Street Journal.
 
Adam Gayner is a self-professed anti-sugar crusader, which is the basis for Fred Water, which he co-founded. Fred’s been marketing its water in a hip, flask-shaped bottle, but now is selling the bottles empty. Gayner says, “We get a lot of questions about our business model with this mission of promoting water, refilling and now Empties…We innovate around consumer desires and know that we’re creating affinity and tremendous brand value with Fred.”
 
BeatBox Beverages founders Brad Schultz, Aimy Steadman and Justin Fenchel recently appeared on the ABC show “Shark Tank” to pitch their line of bag-in-box, fruit flavored wines. Their pitch resulted in Mark Cuban investing $1 million for a third of the company. “We knew Mark was our guy all along because he’s a genius and he gets that we’re not just selling drinks, we’re selling fun,” Fenchel told Austin Business Journal. “Since then he’s been way more hands on than I ever would have dreamed of.”  
 
 

Some Choice Words

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Category: General Blogs

Full disclosure: I’m a devoted craft beer drinker. (Big shock).

I more than eagerly seize every opportunity to tout how beer consumers live in a time of unprecedented choice. That’s never more apparent than at the Great American Beer Festival (GABF) and this year’s edition was no different.

But it’s not just craft brewers that sample their products, as the likes of Pabst, Anheuser-Busch and MillerCoors tend to have tables and the awards competition features categories like the macro-friendly American Style Light Lager.

Of course, the big guys have been putting out craft-like brands, much to the chagrin of the small brewers.

I’ve tried to be Switzerland on the “craft” versus “crafty” debate, primarily because it’s really just semantics. I know what I like to drink and I know what I don’t like. I also believe that whatever brands I personally choose not to drink have a right to exist so other consumers have a chance to choose whether or not to drink them. (Having said that, I also believe in brands being upfront about their origins, enabling consumers to make informed choices.)

One of my more eye-opening experiences as GABF last month actually involved one of those large brewers playing in the craft sand box (or Sandlot in this case), Blue Moon—the MillerCoors brand that’s been singled out as a macro in craft’s clothing. Blue Moon invited me to its booth for a tasting and meet and greet with brewmaster John Legnard. I sampled some of the brewery’s latest, little-known limited offerings including First Peach Ale, a brown ale with a slightly tart peach note;  White IPA, a hybrid of a Belgian-style wit and an India pale ale; and Cinnamon Horchata Ale, which very closely mimics the taste of the Latin American beverage it emulates. Some of my fellow craft-devout might unfriend me for what I’m about to say, but so be it: They were actually quite flavorful. Blue Moon may not be everyone’s choice, and that’s okay. But it has a right to be a choice. If I had let geeky biases get in the way, I would have missed out on a fairly memorable malt-and-hops moment. Score one for cognitive dissonance.

You know what else has a right to be a choice? Macro-produced, corn-and-rice-filled light lagers. Celeb chef David Chang recently got lambasted by many in the craft community for a GQ blog entry in which he declared, “I love cheap, watery, swill.” Hey, to each his own. Time and place for everything, right? One of my own fond beer memories involves sitting on a rickety plastic stool in Vietnam, eating cockles grilled  on the sidewalk and drinking the local mass-produced adjunct-laden light lager…over ice! I wouldn’t make a habit of it, but, you know, when in Saigon…

Back in the states, the breadth of available choices is what makes the beer market here the envy of the rest of the world (at last!) The argument against the multinational brewing behemoths has been that for decades they’d limited the options available to consumers. I think it’s critical for those of us who champion the underdog (and yes, I include myself among those champions) to not do the same by begrudging someone a selection that might not quite mesh with our own sensibilities.