Previous key positions: President/CEO Krombacher USA 2010-2012, President/CEO Warsteiner Importers Agency 2006-2010, Corporate Director of Malt Beverages Glazer's 1999-2006, Regional Sales Manager Gambrinus 1996-1998, VP Marketing and Distribution Texas Brewing Co. 1996, President Distributor Investment Group 1991-1995, General Manager Coast Distributors (Columbia) 1988-1990, Distributor Development Manager Coors Brewing Co. 1987, President Texas Beers Inc., 1981-1987, Executive VP and GM Coors of Kansas 1978-1981, VP Sales Coors NE 1976-1978, others were sales manager Mid-State Beers, District Mgr. Lone Star Brewing Co and route sales Willowbrook. Active member of many industry associations such as NBWA, WBDT, Oregon Beer, Washington Beer, Utah Beer, Kansas Beer and Louisana Beer assoc. Nominated or won: Inner Circle, Founders, Proud Lion and other awards. Named industry expert in US Bankrupcy, Federal and many state courts.

Jan 052021

Just when I thought I had seen it all, after my many years in the beer industry, along came 2020! As we all know, a myriad of things changed last year, and not for the better. There was, however, a year I recall that was worse than 2020.

When I first began working on a beer truck during college, one of my goals was to purchase a Schlitz distributorship. That goal became a reality in 1981 when I bought Texas Beers, located in the Rio Grande Valley of South Texas, then the seventh largest Schlitz distributorship in the country.  Unfortunately, 1981 was not the best year to buy a distributorship. That winter, the area was hit by a 100-year record-breaking cold front that froze 95% of the citrus and agriculture products in the Valley. Because takes seven years to grow a fruit-bearing tree, most of the migrant workers left Texas and moved to other states for work. The Rio Grande Valley is located on the Mexican border and a large part of the economy at that time was based on the number of Mexican consumers coming into Texas to purchase products. The peso exchange rate, which was initially 12-to-1 when I purchased the Schlitz distributorship, dropped to an astounding 2200-to-1! Combine that with the jump in oil prices and the market in South Texas experienced an unemployment rate of 50%. Retail sales were non-existent, house prices crashed resulting in a collapse of the housing market, and by the end of 1982, the size of the beer market had decreased by 50%. To add salt to the wound, the Jos. Schlitz Brewing Co., facing sliding sales due to the changes in their brewing process, sold to the Stroh Brewing Co. of Detroit.  In 1981, there were 10 beer distributors servicing all or part of the Rio Grande Valley. Once the smoke cleared, only two were left standing. Yes, that was a year I would like to forget. Compared to 1981, 2020, for me, was a piece of cake!

I remember two years in which the events that took place changed the beer industry forever. The first year was 1969 when Philip Morris purchased the Miller Brewing Co. Until that time, the industry had not marketed to professional sports, but Philip Morris changed that by purchasing consumer marketing spots during sporting events.  This innovative marketing, along with the introduction of Miller Lite, forever changed the industry. Fifty years later, light beers are still the largest selling segment in the industry.

The second year that forever changed the beer industry occurred in 2008 when InBev purchased control of AB. InBev’s culture was diametrically opposite of what had been the culture of AB and even that of the U.S. The result was that InBev’s culture has forever changed all three tiers of the beer industry.

2020 is the third year of dramatic changes which will join 1969 and 2008 in permanently changing the industry. While many breweries closed, many breweries not only survived but grew, some by a great deal. Industry pundits think that the culling of the heard was necessary as many of these small breweries were simply hanging on by a thread. Thousands of retailers are now gone and many of the survivors have changed their business models forever. The on-premise accounts may never be the same again.

The middle tier seems not only to have weathered this year but appears to have emerged in a much improved position. Has there been a wholesaler who was forced out of business due to the virus? Wholesalers streamlined their portfolios, either by their design or by their vendor closing. Off-premises sales soared while their on-premises sales, coupled with the high costs of maintaining that on-premises segment, disappeared. The costs of destroying or picking up beer from the closing of accounts, in most cases, was shared with the brewery. Many breweries and wholesalers lost more than 50% of their keg sales. Then there are those Zoom sales meetings. Enough said. Many wholesalers have experienced a record financial year.

As the vaccines are distributed, the hope is that the world will slowly return to normal, but will the beer industry return to what it once was? Probably not. Time will illustrate that in 2020 the virus changed the industry, just like the industry was changed in 1969 and 2008.

In 50 years, I do not think you are going to look back on 2020 and say: “The good old days!”

 Posted by at 7:00 am
Dec 222020

Looking back on the beer industry over the past decades, it is difficult to grasp the number of changes that have taken place. Changes which have affected all three tiers. One change that has become an almost daily function is the importance that lawyers play in navigating the business. While it is quite common for large, multi-state wholesalers to have in-house counsel, many smaller wholesalers and craft brewers must employ outside legal help. This has created an added expense since many lawyers are unfamiliar with the federal and state laws, coupled with a lack of knowledge of the inner workings of the beer industry.

I met Steve Goldrainer in 2006, when starting as President of Warsteiner Importers Agency. At that time, Steve was the compliance attorney for the agency.  Even then, Steve was part of a vanishing breed in the beer industry. He had begun his professional career on the docks at Hudepohl-Schoenling Brewery in Cincinnati. He started working at the brewery loading trucks, sweeping, and washing the brewery floors. Over time Steve was able to work his way up thru the ranks to become the Import/Export Operations Manager. As the brewery grew and expanded, Steve became more involved in the legal requirements of each state and realized that there was a true need for in-house counsel. He applied for and was accepted into law school and after graduation and started the legal department at Schoenling. Because he had worked in many facets of the brewery, Steve had an increased understanding of the industry’s inner workings. This was obviously created a win-win for both parties.

When Schoenling Brewery closed, Steve set out on his own and in 1998, founded, Keldon Consulting where he specialized in compliance law for importers, brewers, craft start-ups, spirits, and wineries. With his background in the beer industry, coupled with his law degree, Steve established strong relationships with the TTB office and was frequently able to expedite or even hand-walk label approvals, as necessary. His guidance proved invaluable to his clients. Steve’s business expanded quickly, and today Keldon employs 11 professionals who handle the legal requirements for states now including states that have legalized marijuana.

Unfortunately, Steve’s life took a dramatic turn while driving home one day. At an intersection, he was hit by a car speeding from a Dollar store robbery. Though he survived the car crash, Steve’s injuries were catastrophic and resulted in severe bodily injuries. While eventually able to return to work, the crash injuries have taken a toll on Steve’s overall health and he has decided to begin the retirement stage in January of 21.

Outside of the beer industry, Steve and his family have a long history of military service and his family has work tirelessly in supporting veterans. Beer and veterans are Steve’s passions.

Steve’s understanding of the beer industry and its inner workings were the key not only to Warsteiner success, but that of many other beer companies in the industry.  Though he is retiring, Steve will keep his finger in the industry. This is a good thing. It is rare to have someone with Steve’s experience helping the many beer companies in need.

Steve Goldrainer, the legal eagle!

2020 – Steve Goldrainer – Hudepohl-Schoenling Brewery/Lawyer

2019 = Jim Cline – Rogue Ales

2018 – Ray Teutsch – AB Distributor

2017 – Charles M. Duke, Jr. – Coors Distributor

2016 – Carter S. Huber – Schlitz/Miller

2015 – Albert Jaenicke – Hops

2014 – R.D. Hubbard – Coors Distributor

2013 – George Henricksen – Royal Imports

2012 – Diane Fall – Warsteiner


 Posted by at 7:00 am
Nov 242020

By the mid-1980s, as the Coors Brewery continued their territorial expansion plans, they were no longer appointing non-beer distributors to become new wholesalers. Non-beer potential wholesalers, however, continued to apply for distributorships with the company. Coors Brewery had learned that it was more beneficial to have an established distributor than to take a chance on a new start-up distributor who had no critical beer mass.

When Coors announced it was expanding into Oregon, Coast Distributors (now Columbia), applied to Coors for their multiple operations. Initially, Coast was offered Coors for all markets, apart from the Salem market. Stuart Durkheimer, Coast’s owner, told Coors that the appointment had to include Salem, or he would not take any of the markets. Coors relented and gave Coast the brand for all their markets. What would have happened to Coast had Coors gone with another network? Stuart sold out in the early 1990s but might have sold out much sooner had he not acquired Coors.

By the early 1990s, it became apparent that Corona was destined to be a major player. Wholesalers who had previously turned down the brand in the 1980s were now making attempts to purchase it and many were successful because sellers did not understand Corona’s future potential. By acquiring Corona through acquisitions in central and east Texas, Glazer’s was able to add the brand to their West Texas markets previously awarded. The AB houses in those markets combined and approached Glazers with an offer to purchase the Modelo rights for $25 per case. This was the reported amount that the AB San Antonio wholesaler had paid for the Modelo rights. Glazer’s countered with a price of $50 per case and AB wholesalers refused. Now, almost 30 years later, it is a good bet that if the AB wholesalers could go back in time, they would have agreed to that price. Glazer’s did eventually sell Modelo to some AB houses in west Texas where the Glazer’s did not have a MillerCoors operation.

While there are many examples of wholesalers who, in hindsight, regretted not signing up for a brand that later became a heavy-weight, there are many more examples of wholesalers getting burned with brands they acquired, and later those same brands failed.  Key retailers are telling vendors to appoint established AB or MC wholesalers who have the critical mass for needed service and merchandising; both of which are imperative for start-ups and new vendors. This means there are only two options available for these vendors. If both refuse, then there may not be any remaining options for the vendor.

Vendors will tell you that not all AB or MC wholesalers are equal. Even those wholesalers with multiple houses are not always the same. Many times, it becomes a chopped-up territory that causes issues where one house might be offered the brand and another house loses because of an overlapping footprint. A wholesaler will be offered a brand in one of their markets but not in another. Wholesalers are saying all or nothing. The question is now: if that brand were Corona or Yuengling, would that wholesaler turn it down?

With only two major wholesalers in most markets, the opportunity is slim to buy or trade down the road for a brand they once refused. There are, of course, instances where a brand may not be in the wholesaler’s future, therefore, it is preferrable that they refuse the brand or just trade it to a wholesaler who does want the brand.

Just as there are many vendors who regret appointing a certain wholesaler, there are wholesalers who regret acquiring a certain vendor. If the industry structure remains as is, this situation will continue.

Good judgement comes from experience, and a lot of that comes from bad judgement.

 Posted by at 7:00 am
Nov 172020

This month, the Coca-Cola Company announced that it will eliminate almost half of its 500 brands to ensure room for future offerings. This includes the elimination of Tab, the industry’s first diet cola which now occupies less than a one percent share of the soft drink market. Why has it taken Coke so long to make this move considering the successes of Diet Coke and Coke Zero?

The irony of Coke’s decision to trim its portfolio is the opposite of what is currently happening within the beer industry. Not a day goes by without an announcement of a joint venture between a major beer supplier and another non-beer beverage company. It seems there is a rush-to-market by many suppliers within the beer industry to expand and develop new products. Even more unique about these deals is that the JVs are frequently with a major vendor, where in the past, many non-ALCs simply worked a deal with the beer network. Typically, many of those arrangements ended poorly with the vendor leaving the beer network hanging. Now that arrangements are executed directly with the breweries, the wholesalers have an added sense of security and contract protection tied to the breweries. Such arrangements are a game-changer for wholesalers.

In addition to the various JVs, the industry should take a step back and look at what more the breweries are doing. The breweries themselves are creating teams of professionals who are executing the expansion of new products, many, though not all of which are line extensions. Something will have to give in the middle tier. How will wholesalers structure their companies to handle this volume expansion? Can, or will, wholesalers create departments, divisions, or teams to market and develop all the new products? Will it hurt their core business?

Reyes, Columbia, Glazer’s, BEK, L&F, and others have the funding and structure in place to go to market with the new products. Other medium and smaller wholesalers, however, might not, or cannot structure their companies to accommodate the increased volume. Some major brewers, once lagging in new products, are now offering a slew of new or JV products and pundits are asking if it is too much.

Before Covid-19, the industry had started a slow and methodical move from beer to beverage companies. While that transition had been evolving over time, the virus expediated the shift. It is no secret that many wholesalers have reduced or eliminated suppliers, brands, and SKUs during this time, and many crafts have simply gone out of business or been reduced to strictly brew pub status to remain in business.

It is impossible to project how the beer industry will look in the future, but one thing is certain, it will certainly not be your father’s beer business!

We really cannot forecast that well, and yet we pretend that we can.  But we really cannot.

 Posted by at 5:00 am
Oct 132020

In the early 1960s, Coors began its expansion from West Texas into the North Texas area, including the Dallas/Ft. Worth market. As new distributors were appointed, they were expected to exclusively distribute Coors. This required a change of operational plans as many of the new owners had previously been wholesalers for other brands, including Jax and Falstaff. While the new houses were initially successful, they were by no means dominant during the early years. The AB strikes of 1969 and 1970 changed that trajectory, however, and immediately propelled Coors upward. By the mid, to late 1970s, Coors had become the number one brand in all Texas markets. 

The same development pattern was followed when Coors grew into South Texas, but as history has shown, this expansion failed, unlike that in other parts of Texas. The family political issues, of Coors, coupled with the increased marketing of AB, Schlitz, and Miller, had Coors on the ropes. As Coors expanded eastward, they continued their previously used stand-alone distributor plan, but the results were disastrous.  After numerous failures, Coors began to appoint established, successful beer operations.  Fortunately for Coors, under this new plan, sales began to turn upwards.  The venture with Molson, which occurred 12 years ago, coupled with the acquisition of the Miller brands, has ensured a successful future for Coors.

Just last month, Yuengling Brewing, once referred to as the “Coors of the East,” announced a JV with MC. Yuengling, America’s oldest brewery, has historically been available only in eastern states, but recent expansion has enabled the beer to be available in 22 states. Yuengling, a family-owned business, has benefitted from the long growth of crafts. In addition, the company has made some key sales and marketing decisions. Yuengling’s brands, like many crafts, skews heavily to the on-premise accounts which, as we all know, have taken a beating this year.

Again, following crafts’ trends during the past months, Yuengling’s off-premise sales have done well.  Like many other breweries, however, obtaining the right flavors and packaging have resulted in limited growth. Add in the rapid growth of the seltzers’ market, and Yuengling is now looking at a crossroads for their future.  Expanding into new states is always an option but given the infrastructure with which the brewery needs to invest, the JV with MC does make sense. Yuengling can, however, access the MC distributor network and leverage MC’s chain and marketing capacity into states that they have previously not had access to.  MC can provide the brewing capacity enabling westward movement, thus making freight and delivery more efficient and economical.

To MC’s credit, the industry knows that Yuengling will head west, so why not work with Yuengling to make the MC distributors even more competitive in their individual markets? It is fair to believe the Yuengling appointments are the MC distributors’ appointments to lose? This is not to say that some AB houses will be appointed, but one would imagine said appointments will only come if Yuengling has no other choice. One can only wonder how the AB houses in the west took this announcement, most especially those houses situated in states along the current Yuengling distribution area. If truth be told, many AB houses were probably disappointed with the announcement.

This will play out over time, but this seems to be unfolding into a perfect scenario for both companies and might be the future playbook for other viable, but regional strong breweries.

It is going to be hard, but it does not mean it is going to be impossible!

 Posted by at 6:00 am
Sep 142020

It took several years after Miller Lite rolled out that it would sell as almost everyone doubted that it would. Once it became apparent that Miller Lite was the real deal, all the other breweries jumped on the bandwagon.

The big nationals went all in, first it was Budweiser Light, which as we all know, struggled to gain traction until the name was shortened to Bud Light. Coors Light, in their test markets, also struggled but only because the can color was similar to Coors and confused the consumer. Coors Light went to a silver can and the brand took off. Finally, Schlitz, had numerous issues with a light beer having to reintroduce it over and over. Schlitz could never gain any traction even though this was in the 1970s, years before Schlitz’s QA problems sunk them.  By now all the national breweries and almost all regional breweries brought out their version of a light beer. Almost all of these lights were line extensions of the brewery’s core beer.

By the end of the 1970s, light beer was flying as retail cold boxes all changed to reflect the category.   In the 1980s, as the imports became a factor, most of those brought out light beers starting with Corona Light. These imported lights had a struggle in getting traction, but it did happen. Even Heineken, years later, finally had a hit with Heineken Light. Many imported lights disappeared as their brewers and imports did not have the resources to compete.

The success of Michelob Ultra also has created a market for low carb beers and with the possible exception of Corona Premier, most low carb beers died. This is especially true with those breweries who choose not to line extension their low carb beer with their core brand but to create a new label. This is true with Coors’s effort along with Heineken. Seltzers, this decade’s light beer, is now going through the same steps as it took several years to see that seltzers were not a fad but here to stay. A recent Labor Day visit to a local Total Wine, showed that seltzers owned all the end caps however unlike last year, the number of different and new seltzers was incredible.

Around 5 years ago, one could shop a Total Wine and be not only amazed at the number of crafts, one could never guess who most of the breweries were or where they came from. Today is the same with the seltzers. Every week there seems to be more and more new seltzers hit the market.

AB, MillerCoors, Constellation, Boston, and Mike’s along with some other large brewers and regionals will survive. As with all the light beers, soon many of the new seltzers will die as their resources are limited and they are not able to separate themselves from the masses. How are these seltzers being able to get through the clutter and to the consumer?

Crafts might take a step back and look at the big picture. If seltzers eventually hit a market share of 15% and as big as that is, that means that 85% of the business is still beer!

In this business you can’t make any plans!

 Posted by at 3:46 pm
Aug 182020

Finding and purchasing a beer distributorship forty years ago was not that difficult. Though many of you may find this hard to believe, during the 70s one could frequently find an AB, Schlitz, or a regional distributorship advertised for sale in the Wall Street Journal. In addition, there were brokers, Pohle Partners being one of them, who represented distributorships that were for sale. If one qualified and could be considered a distributor by a brewery, then the broker would assist with locating and purchasing a distributorship. Those days, however, are long gone.

Now, because of the near impossibility of acquiring a distributorship, those who had once dreamed of being in the beer business, have moved their focus to building their own craft breweries. The relatively low cost of entry into the craft brewing business is peanuts compared to that of purchasing a major distributorship.  And, as a brewery grows and expands, it becomes capital intensive. This, combined with the fact you are truly your own boss, and that there are no franchise fees in building and owning one’s own craft brewery, makes ownership in the craft brewery business even more popular.

Many, if not most of the startup craft breweries first go to market with kegs as this is easiest and least expensive way to market. Keg sales require no bottling or canning line, nor is there the need to purchase/lease additional space. Even using mobile canning lines can extract a heavy cost for a small craft brewer.

The question at start up becomes one of deciding to buy or leasing cooperage? Typically, most brewers decide to lease in the beginning as this is most cost effective. Many crafts have signed with MicroStar, the industry leader, only to learn that leaving their contract would then be difficult due to a seven-year commitment. This contract, along with the overall growth of the craft industry, produced opportunities for cooperage companies with shorter terms and lower costs. GlobalKegs was one of these companies.

GlobalKegs’ largest customer outside of the U.S., is AB; and until December 2019, GlobalKegs’ largest U.S. customer was Pabst.  This relationship, however, ended last November. Lagunitas Brewing Company, once a client, sued GlobalKegs last February for not returning over 5,000 kegs.  Over the last couple of years, GlobalKegs started to slow-pay distributors for their keg deposits. Distributors would return the kegs to GlobalKegs yet GlobalKegs would not pay the distributors. After Pabst left GlobalKegs in late 2019, the keg company stopped returning deposits all together.  GlobalKegs reported that their financial troubles were largely attributed to small crafts not paying deposits for the leased kegs. This, coupled with a two-million-dollar internal accounting issue, resulted in the CFO of GlobalKegs being terminated.

With the virus closing on-premise accounts in March of this year, the keg business dried up. The early reopening of the bars in many states in June gave GlobalKegs a ray of hope. That, however, ended with the resurgence of the virus and the repeat closure of the on-premise accounts. At that time, Global quit returning all calls and on July 23rd, GlobalKegs filed for liquidation in Florida. Although this is not a surprise given the history of GlobalKegs, it has created issues with cooperage in the U.S. Many distributors who have inventories of GlobalKegs now have no way of recouping their deposits and distributors are viewing their breweries as responsible for returning that deposit money. This now becomes an issue with the bankruptcy court.

Holding the brewers responsible for GlobalKegs’ demise might be considered a stretch, as had the brewers known they would be held liable for the cost of the kegs, they would not have retained them. GlobalKegs’ management is to blame, but the damage has been done. The question now is: can the industry get through this?

A bankruptcy judge can fix your balance sheet, but he cannot fix your company.

 Posted by at 6:00 am
Jul 212020

Over the years, many of the articles posted on this site have been designed to illustrate that history does, in fact, repeat itself. Much of what has just taken place in the beer industry has roots in the past. In other words, the industry has “been there and done that!” Recent articles within the industry have interviewed beer veterans, and many have had similar comments: “In all my years, I have never seen the industry in this situation.” This is true based on the fact that most of these individuals were not around in the late 1960s or early 1970s. The Covid-19 crisis has created shortages of brands and packages. Imports, especially Mexican imports, have had shortages created by the shutting down of breweries. The pandemic ramped up so quickly that wholesalers and importers did not have time to build their inventories.

In the summer of 1969, AB brewery workers decided to go on strike, and in just a matter of days, the market was out of Budweiser products, both packages, and draft. Remember, there was no Bud Light at this time. While in college that summer, I worked for a Coors distributorship. Coors, which was not on strike, dominated the market share in the 10 other states where they were selling. Because Budweiser had been depleted of their inventory, and the demand for Coors became greatly heightened, they, too, were running low on inventory and had to allocate beer.   Employees would arrive at the warehouse each morning to find the place empty; similar to what is occurring in today’s warehouses. Trucks filled with Coors, having been loaded the previous night as the train cars were spotted and then unloaded, were ready for delivery. Each retailer received only 10% of their previous year’s order. The amount of product was noted on a computer printout obtained by the driver/salesman. Needless to say, many retailers were upset that they could not get the supply of Coors that they had requested. In protest, some retailers covered their windows with butcher paper while others simply told the D/S to leave, thus making things easier on Coors as that allotment of beer could then be sold to the next retailer.

In 1969, Pearl was the largest selling beer in Texas. It was Schlitz, however, that took advantage of the Budweiser strike and soared to the number one sales position in the state. The subsequent summer, AB brewery workers again went on strike and 1970 became a repeat of the previous year. While the summers of ‘69 and ‘70 were not like today’s pandemic-created environment, both situations created out-of-stocks.  This is especially the case in bars where kegs have virtually disappeared, just as they did 50 years ago when we could sell every case on the truck and not have to rotate stock as the stores were consistently out of beer.

Following the summer of 1970, many regional beers went out of business. The same is happening today in the craft market. Fifty years ago, those breweries that were able to hang on, lost market share to the national brands and when AB’s strike ended, the monster brewery returned aggressively.  In our current environment what is accelerating is the seltzer segment, and like the situation with light beers, which were testing in 1971, once that new segment became a hit, sales skyrocketed. We can see a similar situation in today’s seltzers.

We can make the case that this period in history is not the same as the AB strike in 1969-1970, however, just as happened after 1970, once the virus is conquered, the industry will be changed. Count on it! Maybe we will relive another beer shortage 50 years from now, but I am pretty sure I will miss that one!

Everybody has a plan until they get hit in the mouth.

 Posted by at 6:00 am
Jul 162020

This writing begins the ninth year of BeerBusinessUnplugged posts. For the past eight years, the posts were a weekly occurrence, but as of January of this year, they became monthly.

Needless to say, this year has produced more disruption in the industry than in any year past. In 2019, despite the tremendous growth of the seltzer segment, concerns proliferated over whether or not seltzers were simply a seasonal summer beverage, or would the surge in popularity be more of a spike and crash occurrence. Fast forward to 2002 and the seltzer segment continues to grow at a phenomenal pace. It seems there is no ceiling.

A screenshot of a cell phone

Description automatically generated

And now, of course, we are dealing with the Coronavirus. Though each state is handling business openings differently, several large beer-consuming states, including Texas, Florida, Arizona, California, and Illinois are either pushing back their openings or totally closing bars and restaurants. As we saw this spring, such action causes massive issues with kegs and on-premise accounts. Although the industry is attempting to get a handle on the future of beer sales, the rules are constantly changing, thus making it almost impossible to develop such plans.

A close up of a device

Description automatically generated

The most-read post to date, Success and Failure are Both Part of Life. Neither are Permanent, was written on February 19, 2019. Despite moving from weekly to monthly posts, the number of reads is now close to 170K. Your comments and thoughts are greatly appreciated. I will write and post when a topic is of importance.

Thank you for reading and stay well.

Following is this year’s nostalgic Schlitz commercial.

 Posted by at 6:00 am
Jun 162020

Decades ago, the term partnership in the beer industry meant something.  There were a number of national exclusive houses that were single brand wholesalers, predominantly AB, Schlitz, and Coors.  The same was true for regional beers. For example, many Pabst-only and Hamm’s-only houses were located in the mid-west and exclusively carried those brands.  Chicago had Old Style distributors and both the east and west coasts had their own key houses.  At one time, a partnership existed between both the brewer and the distributor. This relationship was critical as the success of one was dependent on the success of the other. There was nothing else to fall back on for support.

We all know, however, what happened:  the onslaught of AB, the rise of Miller, and the expansion of Coors, coupled with multiple mistakes by regional breweries caused a massive consolidation, first with the wholesalers, and then later with the brewers. Along came the rise of key imports, and soon crafts started to become a factor. Wholesalers quickly represented 20, 30, or more vendors. The industry had changed.

AB, with close to 50% share of the market, used an incentive to keep its wholesalers exclusive, a move which was successful. By 2008, when InBev took over AB, more than 70% of the AB wholesalers were exclusive in the U.S. This program benefited both tiers of the industry. Many AB distributors’ owners were loyal to Augie Busch III, as he had made them rich; while the brewery also benefited from the fact that these wholesalers were exclusive. Obviously, there were exceptions to this exclusivity, predominantly in rural parts of the country where a wholesaler had to have multiple brands to survive. But this was frequently the exception rather than the rule. Soon after InBev took over ABI, the wholesaler incentive program ended, which basically opened the door for all AB houses to begin adding new beers. This continues even today.

These changes over the decades have altered the meaning of the word partnership and the definition of a partnership between a brewer and a wholesaler in the 1960s is much different than the meaning in the 2020s.  A longtime beer industry executive said many years ago that there is no longer a partnership between wholesalers and brewers, that the relationship now is purely business.

Multi-brand distributors, protected by self-induced state franchised laws, are in the position to squeeze out many of their vendors. The beer wholesalers today are diversified and are not as dependent on only one brewery as they were in the past. If a brewery developed a strategy that conflicted with that of the main supplier, the wholesaler might not execute the breweries’ strategy. This could aptly apply to a supplier’s pricing strategy.

Leegin Creative Leather Products, Inc. v. PSKS, Inc. 551 U.S. 877 (2007), is a U.S. antitrust case in which the United States Supreme Court reversed the 96-year-old doctrine that vertical price restraints were illegal per se under Section 1 of the Sherman Act.  The aforementioned case replaced the older doctrine with the rule of reason. Resale price maintenance (RPM) is the practice whereby a manufacturer and its distributors agree that the distributors will sell the manufacturer’s product at certain prices: at or above a price floor, or, at or below a price ceiling. If a reseller (distributor) refuses to maintain prices, either openly or covertly, the manufacturer may stop doing business with the said wholesaler. This marked a dramatic shift in how attorneys and enforcement agencies addressed the legality of contractual minimum pricing and essentially allowed the reestablishment of resale price maintenance in the U.S. in most commercial situations.

As the economy slowly returns to a new normal, many of the surviving breweries will be aggressively ramping up their marketing and sales efforts. The continued existence of these breweries will depend on the success of the aforementioned efforts, but breweries that put their trust in wholesalers will also put their survival in those wholesalers’ hands.

Partnership is the way. Dictatorial win-lose is so old school.

 Posted by at 6:00 am