31 Jan Tapping the Industry: Interview with Monon Beverage Brokers
Started by Sean Webster, Monon Beverage Brokers focuses on sales, events, and distribution management for breweries, wineries, and distilleries. Essentially, Sean acts as a sales representative for companies who might not be able to afford a full-time rep.
After spending nearly eight years in the alcohol industry in different capacities—bartender, sales rep, Director of Operations, etc.—he saw an opportunity and decided to take a chance.
Monon Beverage Brokers has been officially operating for four months now, correct?
Yes, since October 2016, that was my official launch. I’ve been doing stuff for it since July of 2016, though. Just kind of getting prepped.
Where did the inspiration come from?
It was one of those things that I was drinking one night and talking to a bar manager. I asked him, “Would you buy more beer if you knew half of these [breweries] up here?” He was like, “Yeah, of course, I would!” And then it’s just like a light bulb went off.
I started talking with a few different people and feeling it out a little bit, and I thought you know, maybe it’s actually a thing. There are brokers who operate, but they are typically the ones who are like, “I’ve got two pallets I want to unload to Big Red [Liquors], do you want them?” With my brokering, I do the one-on-ones, I do the events, and I do distribution management. I’d like to think I’m much more personable than other brokers that have been operating in the past.
I started with People’s Brewing Company out of college and that was a nice year of learning how to do sales and learning what not to do when doing sales. Then I worked for another brewery as the Director of Operations, and I learned a lot..um, I learned a lot. (laughs) More what not to do, but that’s beside the point. But it was actually a really good thing because it was the push I needed to kind of do what I am doing now.
What was that push?
I was just really unhappy. I was very stressed. I, just, was not happy with where I was in my life. A lot of people, they would just keep going through that…I think, or they would just not care; they’d go through their nine-to-five and continue on. I’m not going to say I dreaded going to work, but there were days where it was like, “oh, not this crap again,” and that’s just not a good feeling.
That was kind of it, really. I wanted to better myself. I wanted something more and that’s really where I kind of started running at that point. I go the name registered—I think July 26 is when I registered the name with the state—and little things ever since then. It was a lot of background work, but relatively easy.
Your career started as a serving trainer for Buffalo Wild Wings. Now, with Monon Beverage Brokers, you offer serving training for bars, restaurants, etc.
When you go to BDubs [Buffalo Wild Wings] or Hooters or any of those wing joints, do they know beer?
Exactly. So, because they don’t know beer—I know they don’t because I used to work for them years ago—it was never stressed, it was never mentioned, and they have a great draft lineup for the most part. But because I know how these restaurants operate, I know their servers don’t know what things are the way they should. The more knowledgeable a service staff is, the better they can sell it.
I’ve told these restaurants I’ll do the server training free for them, as long as they carry one of my products. Whether it’s Moonlight Meadery, Scarlet Lane, or Indiana Whiskey, I’ll do it for free. I’ll give them an hour of my time, only because I know that they’ll talk about my product more, but they’ll be able to talk about everyone’s product better.
And at the end of the day, if there is a bartender that knows their shit, I’m going to stay longer. I’m going to be able to take care of them better; financially I’ll tip them better. I’m at the point where if I go somewhere and ask, “What Dorian is on?” and if someone shrugs their shoulders, then I’m completely turned off. I don’t even want to drink there because if that beer is not good enough for them to care about, then I won’t care about it.
Clients have to meet your standards. What are those standards?
I think they were kind of loose when I started because I more wanted a client base, but in the same breath, I never let go some of my core ideals. The cookie cutter answer is, “Monon Beverage provides sales, events, and distribution management for breweries, wineries, and distilleries ethically producing quality and consistent products.”
I mean that’s the cookie cutter answer and I do want people working with ethical standards. I don’t want someone to say they are all local and find a receipt showing they buy grain from New York, that’s not right.
Or if they aren’t consistent producers—I’ve been through that—and everyone has consistency issues, but there’s a point where it’s just rough. If someone made a beer that went bad and they just called it “sour x”, that’s wrong. Consumers aren’t stupid anymore; the average consumer is more knowledgeable than they were five years ago. The average consumer is a lot more intelligent now, which is awesome and I love seeing it.
What’s your standard vetting process for new clients?
I’ll ask them to tell me what they’re doing, what problems have they had, have they messed up anywhere? It’s all transparency. I’m as transparent as I can be for my clients too. I make sure that they are doing everything they say and then I talk to my circle of people, whether it’s wholesalers I work with closely and other producers I currently work with—I truly value what the people I work with think.
If I’m looking to bring in someone from Michigan, I’m going to talk to Arcadia [Brewing] and say, “Hey, what have they done? What have they not done? Are they doing good work?” At the end of the day, is the alcohol good? What’s right? What’s wrong? If I was looking at an out-of-state brewery and Scarlet Lane said “no”, I would find out why they don’t want them in the portfolio. And normally it’s going to be a legitimate reason.
It takes just a lot of background; looking at what their doing, looking at what their taprooms are doing—that’s important—and even asking some of my good buddies who work at bars and liquors stores. “Scale of 1 to 10, where are they? Where’s their potential? Is it the marketing that’s bad or is the juice bad? Is it a drain pour product?”
Everyone has their own voice, so it’s figuring out who’s voice is stronger, who has good juice, who’s going to be sustainable.
Why get the BJCP Certification?
It goes back to credibility. When I meet new clients and I don’t think their beer is the best, I want to be able to justify why it’s not the best. I want to learn why it is what it is and same with doing the Cicerone, Sommelier, and the Certified Specialist of Spirits…it’s just pieces of paper but you don’t let a doctor operate on you without a med school degree, so why am I going to try and tell you how to make your beer, when you’re a brewer, if I don’t have a piece of paper that says I know what I’m talking about.
My background, my history, and my experiences in this industry don’t mean anything, but that piece of paper and the pin I can put on my lapel, it just adds that credibility.
What are the goals for 2017?
I’m talking to a few people in different states to grow my brand outside of Indiana. That’s a weird and scary thing, but it’s a really cool opportunity. In Kentucky and Ohio, I may have reps out there by the end of 2017, handling their own separate portfolio of brands.
I think the biggest thing is I want to have my brands to start playing a little better together. Like, Indiana Whiskey floating Scarlet Lane a barrel to age a beer. I think that would be awesome. I want to get to know my producers a little bit better. It’s those relationships that make me love this industry. I love beer, I love spirits, and I love wine, I love all of these things, but it’s the relationships that I have, it’s a very cool thing.
Building stronger relationships. When I go to visit Moonlight [Meadery], let me put on a jumpsuit and go clean your tanks. Let me make mead with you. Let me see your process. The same with distilling, either with Broken Beaker or Indiana Whiskey. The knowledge is a good thing to have.