In the 1970s, it was common for most medium to large size cities to have a local beer wholesaler association, in addition to their state association. There were even some strong regional beer associations, including the Rocky Mountain Conference of Beer Wholesalers Assoc. Most wholesalers had only one supplier. Most markets would typically have an AB, Miller, Pabst, Schlitz and Coors distributors along with regional houses, like Lone Star and/or Pearl house, which was the case in Texas. In the northwest, the regionals might have included Olympia, Rainer, and Henry’s. Other parts of the country had their own regional houses, as well. There could have easily been six or seven wholesalers in any given market. All of these associations turned to the National Beer Wholesalers Association for a national presence. As the years went by, however, and the consolidation of the beer industry became a way of life, most of the local and regional beer associations disbanded, leaving only the state associations and, of course, the NBWA.
In the 70s, the national NBWA convention’s political focus was on fighting deposit legislation, while the convention show concentrated on vehicles and delivery equipment. At the time, convention conversations often centered on Coors’ eastward expansion. Interested wholesalers would locate Coors wholesalers who could provide them with information to assist with their Coors distributor applications.
By the 1980s, the convention moved to highlighting imported beers, mostly European breweries, who were interested in expanding into the U.S. Wholesaler consolidation had not yet impacted the overall attendance at the convention, the suppliers conducted wholesaler meetings during the NBWA. Because wholesalers typically had only one vendor, many major breweries hosted their national golf tournament and other events during the convention.
By the 1990s, Pabst and Schlitz were almost gone and the rise of crafts and the Corona “miracle” became a national topic of discussion. Multi-brand beer houses became the norm which resulted in more hospitality rooms and dinners, thus enabling the vendors the opportunity to entertain their wholesalers. Some vendors, like Diane Fall of Warsteiner, invited key volume wholesalers for a private limo pub crawl across Vegas. At each casino Diane handed the wholesaler a $100 chip and a Warsteiner. The evening typically lasted until sunrise. Many other vendors also had their own unique evenings.
The NBWA frequently featured a beer segment that was particularly popular during the given time frame and provided that segment with a special section on the floor during the convention. The NBWA created the craft beer sections which enabled craft breweries to feature their respective beers while, at the same time, enabling conversation with current and potential wholesalers. This style of presentation was popular for years.
This year’s recent convention was a real eye opener for those who have attended the NBWA for decades. The massive three room exhibition hall featured seltzers, ciders, CBD, Hemp, and alcoholic infused waters. It seemed as though one had to really look for the beer segment. In one seminar, the presenter graphed the number of suppliers a beer wholesaler represented. This graph illustrated that the average wholesaler had 61 vendors, but a mere 30 were beer vendors.
The question is: does this indicate the direction the industry is taking or does this indicate the reason that beer sales have been losing share of stomach to other beverages?
Perhaps it is time to call the NBWA, the National Beverage Wholesalers Assoc. and drop the word “beer.” Some people seem to think so.