Language Shows Changing Power Relationships in Beer Distribution

Many states have protections for distributors, including some that require a brewer to renew its distribution agreement with the distributor unless the brewer can show “good cause” for ending the relationship. This of course interferes with a brewer’s freedom to choose how its beer will be handled, marketed, and placed for retail sale. The interference, historically, was justified by the power differential between large manufacturers with national presence and the small, independent, family-owned distributors that operated within particular geographic areas.

The three-tier system is now faced with breweries who are the smallest fish in the pond, with distributors being large and powerful (in many cases), and many retailers, too, being quite muscle-y: BevMo, for example.

Language itself can reveal a lot about how power dynamics have changed. One sentence in particular spurred this post:

@CraftBrewingBusiness sent out this tweet:

Stone Distributing takes Mother Earth Brew Co. under its wing http://www.craftbrewingbusiness.com/?p=11460.

Stone is no giant in wholesaling and craft brewers sign with them because they too are craft brewers and have a reputation for working well with fellow, smaller breweries. But the statement reveals a lot about a small brewer’s decision for the first time to cast a wider net and use distribution channels to sell beer. The language also reveals a lot about perceptions of Stone’s distributing business: it conveys the perception that Stone has a benevolent (if gargoyle-y) wing in the first place.

There are other examples as well (also happening to show that positive perceptions of Stone are long-lived).

When The Bruery signed with Stone in 2008, Patrick Rue posted on his company’s blog:

“This last Tuesday I … signed a distribution agreement! I cannot express in words how excited and happy I am about this.”

Now, taken out of context, if that statement were made in a traditional setting, with powerful manufacturers and small, independent distributors, who would be making that statement? Landing a contract to distribute Coors, Miller, or Bud would mean the world to a small company (I’m sure it still does). Now, such agreements can mean the world to small brewers who want to take the next step in growing their business.

A common usage to report a distribution agreement between a small brewer and a distributor seems to be “signed with.” For example, “Santa Clara Valley Brewing, which has been serving up some of the South Bay Area’s best brews, has just signed with California Craft Distributors™ to bring its golden goodness to the Golden State” (link). This phrasing is commonly found in pro sports, to report an individual player signing with an (obviously larger) organization. California Craft Distributors describes itself as “a  boutique distribution company which focuses on hand selling craft beer statewide in California.” This example further highlights the importance of distributor choice for a small brewer–since the laws add protections for the distributor, using other craft brewers or smaller distributors who will focus their time and energy on understanding and promoting smaller brands is key.

It bears mentioning that in CA, small brewers can self-distribute. Thus, they can get away with on-site sales and self-distributing to the local area for a while before they have to make the decision to use a distributor for the next step of growth. Not all brewers have this privilege, or to the extent that CA small brewers have it. Brewers Association has begun collecting information on the various self-distribution rights (or lack thereof) here.

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