08 Jan Guest Brewer Program from Brew Pipeline: A Chance to Increase Choice While Minimizing Pressure on Local Breweries
When it comes to craft beer, there is good and bad in having more choice. Getting to try beers you haven’t had can introduce you to breweries you didn’t know about and grow your appreciation of craft beer. However, choices you gain through the distribution of breweries from farther away means fewer taps and shelf space in your area for local breweries. There needs to be a balance between more choice and making sure local breweries are supported.
To this end, there is a new program from a company called Brew Pipeline to help bring new breweries to an area, by rotating different breweries in and out on thirty day basis. This is sort of a compromise – you get more choices, but it takes only small shelf space and a few taps, since the amounts and number of outlets will be limited. And since one new guest brewer leaves as another enters, the number of taps and shelf space taken will be static, not growing.
The program is called Guest Brewer, through which Brew Pipeline places breweries in states in which they don’t distribute for short stints (30 days or until the beer is gone). Brew Pipeline has a similar program for placing sour and barrel beers in new markets, and Upland Brewing and their sours are a new addition to this program. I talked to Steve Kwapil, CEO of Brew Pipeline, Clay Robinson, co-founder of Sun King Brewing, and David Mahaffa of Zink Distributing to get an idea of how the program(s) work and how they will affect Indiana craft beer.
Steve told me about the philosophy and aim of the programs. He said, “Local craft beer is king, and we support that. Our programs are to compliment the trend towards local. This has caused a side effect of less and less availability of national brands that can maintain a presence in a market. With a market that can handle maybe 200 brewers, and over 7,000 brewers in the US. It’s a statistical fact that 90% of the best beers in the country are not available to a given consumer. We bring some of those brands in for a very short appearance. Our programs brings super fresh variety to the consumer, that then exits before brand fatigue sets in.”
Sun King is a new guest brewery for Brew Pipeline, and Sun King’s Clay Robinson agrees that this is a unique opportunity, saying, “The beauty of this program is that it gives breweries an opportunity to enter new markets in a non-committal manner, all the while giving consumers the opportunity to try new things. If a market goes well, it doesn’t mean that Sun King would resonate there year round, but it does mean that there are likely more opportunities for one off distribution.”
The Beer Coming to Indiana. At first there were a couple of beers from Surly Brewing (Minneapolis) available in package form in Fort Wayne and just across the border in Cincinnati and Chicago. Those are the only places so far to access the program within 100 miles of Indianapolis, New Albany, or the Region. There are no outlets carrying Guest Brewer beers within a 100 miles of Terre Haute or Evansville. Also, the outlets now available in Indiana and just across the border toward Ohio are all package, no draft is available yet.
But that situation has changed. Guest Brewer has partnered with Zink Distributing in Indianapolis to bring in Axe Man IPA and Furious IPA from Surly as their first offerings in this area. David of Zink told me that Surly has now entered the Indianapolis market, and that the next rounds of breweries will be Figueroa Mountain from Santa Barbara) and Evil Genius Beer Co. (Philadelphia) for January and DC Brau (Washington DC), Captain Lawrence (Elmsford, NY), and Three Creeks (Sisters, OR) in February. He said that all the beers from these breweries will be available as draft and package options. Guest Brewer has other distributor partners in Indiana, including AALCO Distributing in Fort Wayne and United Beverage in South Bend.
Beer Going Out of Indiana. As for beer leaving Indiana to new markets, Sun King Brewing’s Grapefruit Jungle will be distributed to markets in 30 states in 2020, with a mix of draft and package beer going out. Just when the markets get GFJ will be staggered to meet production schedules, but rest assured that all markets will be getting fresh Grapefruit Jungle. Clay said, “All the markets are pre planned and pre sold allows for us to brew to order and deliver beer that is really fresh to markets that we wouldn’t otherwise have access to.”
So, will this change how much GFJ is produced for Indiana and when it is all made? Clay told me, “We are constantly working to beg, borrow, or trade more of the hops that make GFJ so delicious because they just happen to be some of the most sough after hops with limited availability… Thanks to some shifts in the craft beer world, like slowing growth and breweries over contracting hops, we have been able to get our hands on enough hops to make more GFJ! So, yes, we will be making more GFJ, but the timing of its release in Indiana will still line up with our Anniversary Party in mid-June. The beer we will be brewing for Brew Pipeline to send to new markets will line up with whatever they feel is best for any given market.”
Sun King has discussed doing other beers with Guest Brewer, but it is important to get the GFJ out since it is most the anticipated product. Both Steve and Clay hope this is a long and prosperous relationship, but Guest Brewer is definitely working with a lot of breweries around the country. As for working other Indiana breweries, Steve said, “It’s just Sun King and Upland at the moment…and we are just wrapping up selections thru March already.” He added, “We’ve just added the Upland Sours to the CELLAR Program which is a barrel aged variant of our Guest Brewer Program. So December is first full month for our work with Upland.”
How the Guest Brewer Program Works. Brew Pipeline is always on the look out for beers that have won regional, national, or international awards, or that have outstanding scores on the primary beer rating apps. Guest Brewer has brewery partners that they reached out to an partners who reached out to them. Steve said, “Most breweries reach out to us. Although often these are relationships we have built up over the years. I have known some of the people at Upland for over 10 years.”
Indeed, this was similar to how Sun King was contacted by Brew Pipeline. Clay said, “Brew Pipeline contacted Sun King because they identified SKB as a brand that makes great beer with a strong commitment to quality and consistency, a great reputation in the craft beer community, and a limited distribution footprint which therefore allows them good potential for finding opportunities. It also helps that several members of the Brew Pipeline team have longstanding relationships with members of the Sun King crew.”
After having selected a brewery and a beer, a price for the partnership is negotiated based on the range of distribution, beer, and type of agreement (presale versus buy beer from the brewery as they go. The brewery then receives a single payment, minus the Guest Brewer fee, but they do receive quite of bit for this fee – access, additional sales, and lots of customer service. Guest Brewer picks up the beer and delivers it to the distribution partners, does not warehouse it, provides cooperage (kegs and such), creates marketing and graphics, pays registration fees and does all the state compliance work. Clay says, “They take a lot of the hassle out of the process like compliance, kegs, etc. They presell the beer, and then purchase it from Sun King at our wholesale price. We do what we do best and they do what they do best.”
Brew Pipeline makes the different beers available to all their distribution partners in which the guest brewery is not available (within limits of availability), and then coordinates shipment to those markets. For instance, with Upland in the CELLAR Program, Brew Pipeline is dealing with 29 states, since Upland is already available in 21 states. Check the Brew Pipeline website for where and when different beers will be available.
The timing of shipments and putting product on the shelves or taps is very much dependent on the style of beer and the seasonality of the beer itself. Steve noted, “We are very careful to handle the style appropriately. Guest Brewer brands including all shorter code dated product are brewed to order…so they get to market just as fresh as your local brewery. We are anti-warehousing for the most part. Cellar brands of course are often better with aging…so these brands are based on each brewers cellar program…once we pick they also go straight to market.”
Coming up in future. It’s apparent that Brew Pipeline takes the beer seriously for its Guest Brewer and CELLAR Programs, but there‘s more on the horizon for them. Look for a COLLAB and CAUSE programs to ramp up in 2020. These are similar to Guest Brewer and CELLAR in activity, but they will focus on collaboration beers and beers that have connections to charitable causes, respectively. Steve said, “COLLAB connects a brewer with another brewer, or 3rd party collaborator. Together they create a unique creation….and our program gives these offers national exposure vs. the often limited footprint a brewer may have. It’s a great opportunity to reach new consumers, and the COLLAB and CAUSE programs could over lap when a collab. beer has a charity connection.”
Conclusion. The best indication that this is a winning set of programs comes from their partners, Clay told me, “Brew Pipeline is executing this strategy already with some great breweries and seeing really good results. They have done their homework and put together a good team and a good program. We talked with them for a long while and did our homework before we decided to jump onboard. The craft beer landscape is constantly changing and things are so different than they were even a few years ago, so programs like this create great opportunities for people who would otherwise never get to enjoy our beer at little to no risk to us. At the end of the day, we are in the business of selling beer, and that often means trying new things, and ultimately making smart decisions and of course making great beer.”