The Evolution of Sales for Small Breweries

It's a disgusting Monday morning in New York City, so you'll forgive me if this particular post lacks my normal heap of hilariously upbeat aphorisms and subtle wordplay. It's one of those mornings where coffee is struggling to break through the crud...

But we'll try to forget all that misery because we're going to embark on a special topic to me. My recent slew of editorial musings have focused around marketing in the beer industry. Consumer behavior is fascinating to me, and in the delicious crucible of craft beer, it presents a great many number of topics to (literally) chew on. 

My question this morning is: How has the role of the salesperson or sales team changed in the past 25 years in the craft beer industry...or has it at all?

As stated, my enjoyment for this subject knows no bounds, and I'm inspired to talk about this now because of a recent conversation I had with a local brewery representative here in New York. Their ability to speak confidently and proudly to their product and brewery notwithstanding, they had an incredible knowledge of craft brewing practices, the history and evolution of global beer culture, and yeast incubation...freaking yeast incubation. Geeking out this hard probably isn't legal in at a bar in NYC.

In a previous post, I pontificated on the importance of the sales team in the craft beer success engine. I essentially posited that it's the only effective marketing for a growing craft brewery when you're looking at the bottom line. Steve Hindy, founder of the Brooklyn Brewery, laments in his book "Beer School" that a consequence of growth was the fact that he couldn't connect with customers for a personal sales experience the way he used to when the brewery was much smaller. He simply didn't have time anymore. But...he repeatedly states that a personal touch was needed to sell the beer. Even now, it's necessary. 

I'm not, however, debating the necessity of a sales staff. Rather, I'm discussing their approach to brewery representation. Even 10 years ago, the standard job description for a brewery sales representative was something like:

  • Needs a positive attitude and the ability to travel a lot
  • Has an enthusiasium for craft beer, or is willing to learn.
  • College degree or equivalent experience.

For a lot of the larger breweries out there, this is still the meat of their job req for their entry level sales staff position, and by it's very nature, it's totally fine. It's entry level after all, and the requirements are set thusly.

But smaller breweries (which is practically all of them at this point) seem to be employing folks with a prolific and highly nuanced view of the products and culture around craft beer. This "new breed" of sales employee seems to do everything now. They are certified cicerones and their distributor's best friend out in the trade. They can speak confidently to Brett, Belgian lambics, and Brewhouse operations as much as they can crack a joke and keep you falling off your bar stool in fits of laughter. As a former (and proud) brewery sales manager, I was unabashedly charmed by this entire experience. 

Is this sort of sales horsepower necessary for a brewery that doesn't have the brand equity of Sierra Nevada or New Belgium? It probably is now. And I think this is direct result of craft beer growth in this country. The more informed consumer (bar/restaurant owner, or generally beer buyer) demands a more informed sales staff. I was not nearly as good at being a brewery representative as this person was, and my current knowledge and experience notwithstanding here, this was impressive to behold. During a small sampling of their products, my most meaningful contribution to the conversation was "this tastes nice". But I didn't need to say anything more, because I was there listen and be informed. Well done. 

So we find ourselves raising the proverbial bar across the entire industry. More great breweries means more great beer and more great beer people. Everyone wins.

I should figure out what yeast incubators do at some point. That coffee just kicked in. Thank god.

- Chris