Craft Distribution and Marriage Advice on Display at CBC

Maintaining a healthy marriage requires more than having a ring, a few kids and a suburban paradise.

You have to go out, attempt elements of surprise and remember that the second syllable in wedlock isn’t literal.

The three-tier system, according to a passel of craft beer industry veterans, is pretty much the same. You’ve got to care about your business partner, even if you’re not the type to bring a bouquet home.

“Before you get married to somebody, I think you want to meet their in-laws,” said Joe Cekola, president of Imperial Beverage, a craft beer distributor based in Kalamazoo, Mich.

Sure, a brewer can succeed with a distant distributor without ever shaking hands, he said, but getting to know your business partners can further establish your relationship and ensure mutual, persistent attention.

On Thursday at the Craft Brewers Conference in Washington D.C., Cekola and a panel of his fellow distributors, including Bob Sullivan of Andrews Distributing in Corpus Christi, Texas, Randy Truitt of The Best of Beers in Hickory, N.C., and Paul Pisano, senior vice president of The National Beer Wholesalers Association (NBWA), shared thoughts on maintaining a healthy three-tier system and the marriage between distributors and brewers.

When Cekola mentioned in-laws, he suggested that distributors should go out of their way to meet the people of the brewery, from the founder to the late-shift brewmaster. He also recommended that brewers should visit the distributor warehouse and understand how their beer is represented off-premise.

While moving beer is certainly easier in a craft-loving city, Truitt said that the local identity of breweries has developed in the marketplace and provided the industry with a wider scope. He added that Hickory could be regarded as one of the least craft-centric regions, but he’s still able to sell beer because of strong brands and consistent availability.

“You don’t have to be in a big city,” he said. “You don’t have to be in D.C.”

Rather than relying on a big-city market, Truitt said that innovation in an increasingly competitive and creative industry and steady product quality can serve as a sturdy foundation.

However, mistakes are often inevitable within an industry that isn’t yet fully mechanized. Cekola said he informs retailers that there will be times when Imperial isn’t stocked with a certain brand. By revealing this truth in an honest and forthright manner, he avoids angry retailers and preserves a solid working relationship.

Sullivan said that while he would love to represent more breweries, he only takes on business that he knows he can properly represent and distribute. He said that he aims to treat every client equally, preferring moral business over playing favorites.

“This business is about a couple of fundamental things,” Sullivan said. “Good beer and relationships.”