Appropriately called “The Last Prohibition Bash,” Craft Brewers Guild — L. Knife & Son’s craft-focused wholesaler that services all of Massachusetts — invited upwards of 4,000 restaurant owners, bar managers, off-premise retailers and media members to a lavish rollout party complete with 1920’s-style flappers, casino games, live music and ice sculptures.
If the party was any indication, L. Knife — which reportedly picked up the tab for the event — is planning to flex its muscles and dedicate significant resources behind a Yuengling brand that will finally begin flowing through tap lines across Massachusetts on Feb. 24.
“Anytime a brand is launched in a new state or marketplace, there are four groups that really invest in the brand,” said Bump Williams, a beer industry expert who attended Tuesday’s launch.
Williams, highlighting the four tiers of the industry — brewers, distributors, retailers and consumers — said that Yuengling and its distributors are investing heavily behind the Massachusetts rollout.
“There are millions of dollars being invested from the breweries and distributor partners to make sure that this brand is viable,” he said. “When you think about all the brands that are left to expand across the U.S., there are two or three big game-changers with this kind of volume and Yuengling is the biggest game-changing brand when it comes to volume and penetration.”
Craft Brewers Guild, which only has rights to distribute the brand in the greater Boston area, isn’t the only wholesaler throwing its weight around. Yuengling executives have been on a week-long tour of the Bay State, launching the brand to on-and-off-premise trade members in markets like Worcester, Cape Cod and Springfield.
So what are retailers saying about the brewery’s coming out party in Boston?
“Whoa,” said Suzanne Schalow, the co-founder of Craft Beer Cellar.
Schalow, who attended the rollout event on Tuesday said she was “blown away at all of the bells and whistles.”
“I’m sure it wasn’t cheap,” she said. “They have definitely got some media attention in this area and I felt compelled to be there. Craft (Brewers Guild) is a very important distributor to us and this is a big thing for them.”
Craft Beer Cellar made headlines last year when it called on the Brewers Association (BA) to update its definition of craft beer following the ‘craft versus crafty debate.’ At the time, Schalow and co-founder Kate Baker had opted not to sell “crafty” products that weren’t included in the BA definition. But after a conversation with Narragansett CEO Mark Hellendrung, Schalow and Baker decided to make some exceptions.
“Suzanne and I kept going over the BA’s definition of traditional—we just couldn’t fully accept why they wanted to exclude brewers like Yuengling and Narragansett,” Baker had said at the time.
The company — which has expanded to seven locations via a number of franchise operators — said that after many internal discussions, it will sell Yuengling when the beer finally arrives to the off-premise trade on March 3.
“We aren’t going to build a campaign around it, but it will be there and we will be educated about it,” Schalow said.
Other Massachusetts retailers seem a bit more anxious to get their hands on the product.
Aaron Aykanian, the beverage director at The Vin Bin, which has two locations, said that while his store services mostly craft-centric customers, shoppers are excited for Yuengling’s return — it hasn’t been sold in the state for more than 20 years.
“People from all walks of life are going to grab a six-pack in the first few months,” he said. “The key will be if they come back and buy another one.”
Aykanian believes that large domestic brands like Budweiser and Coors will be most impacted by Yuengling’s entrance, but also thinks that local lager producer, Narragansett, will feel some pressure.
“We carry Narragansett and I think they will be hurt by this big time,” he said. “I think people who are drinking ‘Gansett now will probably try Yuengling, and that will hurt.”
“There was a lot of energy in that room,” said Tom Junod, Yuengling’s regional sales manager. “I think it brings a lot of excitement back to the beer landscape. This is becoming a complex industry. Anheuser-Busch and MillerCoors are taking a lot of the fun out of the business with big demands and a brand like Yuengling is not corporate America. We just want to go out and sell beer.”
Junod and Craft Brewers Guild general manager, Mike Bernfeld, said the rollout party was designed to create retailer awareness and excitement for the product.
“I have heard a lot of feedback and I think people are extremely happy with the event itself,” said Bernfeld. “There were a lot of smiles. We definitely opened up the eyes with a lot of retailers we do business with.”
But not all of the chatter surrounding Yuengling’s return to the state is positive. Amongst local craft brewers, there are negative undertones which suggest that Yuengling is somewhat a “big bad wolf” coming to steal their tap handles.
It’s not true, said Bernfeld.
“There is plenty of business to go around,” he said. “Our entire craft beer portfolio will now be showed to some of these accounts that we didn’t have access to before. Yuengling will definitely open the doors to some of these accounts that weren’t buying craft beer from us in the past.
“We get that question from wholesalers a lot,” he said. “I think the nice thing about [Brewers Guild of Boston] is that we will be opening a lot of doors for them. There are still a lot of accounts that want domestic beers and they didn’t have that in their arsenal. Now they have a weapon that they can go in and compete with.”
Many of those accounts are on-premise, which Junod said is a major component of the company’s initial rollout plan.
Nevertheless, the addition of Yuengling means that competition for tap handles and shelf space will heat up in Massachusetts.
“I don’t want to sound like Michael Douglas, but competition is good,” said Williams. “Greed is good. If the small nano-brewers are going to feel pressure from a brand like Yuengling, they must not have a whole lot of confidence in their own business. Is it going to change the landscape? Sure it is. It is going to cause a little bit of pain? Yes, but it will cause more pain to bigger brewers. They (small brewers) will be much less affected than folks like Anheuser-Busch, MillerCoors, Heineken, Corona and Boston Beer.”