Strolling down the liquor store’s craft beer aisle, my eyes are quickly drawn to shelves of vibrant packaging, towering displays, and enticing posters and signage indicating a sale on my favorite IPA. As a craft beer enthusiast for several years running—as well as having photographed, filmed, and written about an array of craft breweries for my line of work—I can speak confidently on flavor profiles, the brewing process, and the ever-changing trends of beer styles. Only recently, however, did I become fully aware of the inner workings of the middle tier in this industry: the local beer distributor.
Over the last month, I’ve been asking brewers, distributors, and retailers about the role of the distributor in day-to-day operations, and its overall function in the three-tier system. My inquiry started simply enough, with a tour of North Florida Sales, a distributor in Jacksonville, FL. I had already understood that distributors were responsible for creating beer routes and driving the delivery trucks, but I soon discovered I was only aware of the tip of the iceberg in bringing a new beer to market; it is not as simple as picking beer up and dropping it off.
Fred Forsley of Clearwater’s Shipyard Brewing Company partners with Great Bay Distributors in St. Petersburg, whom he believes is a crucial bridge between his brewery and the stores, bars, and restaurants where his beer is sold. “Distributors not only have relationships with all the retailers we can get our beer into, they provide the support retailers need,” Forsley said. Great Bay’s salespeople keep retailers up-to-date on any new beers Forsley produces, so he and his team can focus on the brewing itself.
As the liaison between the brewer and retailer, distributors handle a lot of tasks I had never considered. For instance, distributors organize tastings, festivals, and other promotional events to help grow brewers’ brands. Retail owners also rely on their distributors for shelf stocking, display building, and other duties that help to free up time for running their businesses. “We pride ourselves on customer service here,” Jennifer Goddard, manager of Total Wine in Clearwater, explained, “Without the help of the distributors, we wouldn’t have the chance to actually interact with our guests, and that makes a huge difference for us.”
Distributors also keep track of how much of each beer is sold in order to replenish it. In the case of a product re-call, distributors have data of where their beer is located, down to the case. In fact, a recall might be accomplished in as little as two days.
“I consider my distributor a business partner more than I consider them to be a vendor of mine,” Christian Harms, co-owner of Clearwater’s Bait House told me. “This morning, we were very low on supply. Sure enough, Great Bay was here within 90 minutes to deliver it, by hotshot, before we opened for the day.” The more businesses I interviewed from each tier, the more stories I heard about distributors providing customized, efficient, and fast service.
In addition to this type of short-notice problem solving, distributors provide bars with regular draught line maintenance, protecting the safety and integrity of the beer. Great Bay’s Team Leader, Travis Justen, explained, “Draught beer is designed as the purist form of the product available, so it’s only as good as the lines it flows through. By taking care of their maintenance, we ensure that the consumer gets the best quality beer.”
Caring for the products themselves is just as important to the distributor’s role as caring for their brewers and retailers. To ensure the beer tastes exactly as the brewer intended, it is protected from both sunlight and heat. As I walked row after row through Great Bay’s warehouse, I was overwhelmed by the tens of thousands of beer cases, representing hundreds of brands, stacked neatly to the ceiling. I was even more impressed to learn that all of this beer was only about a two-week supply. To be honest, the logistics with which a distributor handles its operations are even more complex than I originally imagined—Especially considering the volume and variety of product in its portfolio.
Another responsibility, previously unknown to me, rests with a distributor’s graphics department. When I visited Great Bay’s office, several designers were busy developing artwork for posters, displays, tap handles, and other custom projects. “We will do any kind of signage at the store level,” designer Bryan Lopp said, “Cooler stickers, case cards, you name it. If a bar has an event coming up, we’ll do some window signs featuring the brand they want to promote.”
Thanks to several large format printers and other professional equipment in the sign shop, no job is too big or too small. “3 Daughters Brewing is a perfect example,” Lopp said, pointing to a large wooden shelf covered with custom graphics. “3 Daughters needed some display racks and came to us for graphics to put on them. We created custom art for each panel and adhered it to the racks.” This service is certainly economical for Great Bay’s brewers and retailers, who would otherwise need to hire outside artists and printers each time they changed their signage—an expense that adds up quickly.
A large, well-organized team is needed to carry out these numerous, diverse services. The benefits distributors provide to brewers and retailers are impressive. The average beer consumer is not aware of how important distributors are to the prosperity of Florida’s beer industry—I sure wasn’t. So, if you happen to crack open the latest Red Rye IPA from Shipyard Brewing Company, take a moment to think about that beer’s journey from brewer to retailer, and the process that makes that first sip possible.