No-Li Brewhouse Partner on How Small Brewers Can Stay Relevant

How do you earn wholesaler attention if you’re a small craft beer brand trying to compete in today’s crowded marketplace?

“Elbow grease and shoe leather,” says John Bryant, a partner at No-Li Brewhouse, based in Spokane, Washington.

Make that axel grease.

Bryant will put about 50,000 miles on his truck this year, driving all over the Pacific Northwest to hand-sell his company’s portfolio of craft bombers and four-packs to wholesalers and retailers in Oregon, Washington and Idaho.

“If there’s a jump ball out there, we want it,” he told Brewbound. “My mantra for our distributors and our team is — don’t mail it in. We are a small brewery, so the numbers aren’t huge and in this competitive industry, you have to be leading from the front.”

That means 5:30 A.M. wake-up calls to help build grocery displays, routine ride-alongs with wholesale partners, constant assessment on what makes the brand meaningful to consumers and plenty of windshield time.

“We are doing it the hard way, there is no doubt about it,” said Bryant. “If there is any kind of magic formula or alchemy to this is, it is going old school and talking to the customer. It’s a humbling experience and you learn a lot.”

The approach seems to be working. In the latest IRI multi-outlet and convenience (MULC) scans, No-Li boasts the no. 1 selling 22 oz. portfolio and the no. 1 selling 12 oz. four-pack portfolio in Eastern Washington and Northern Idaho.

Meanwhile, in larger markets like Seattle and Portland, the company’s numbers are skyrocketing.

No-Li’s distributors are undoubtedly (“no-doubtedly?”) pleased with the higher gross profit dollars — wholesalers earn approximately $11 per case, Bryant said — but that doesn’t mean they aren’t also asking for a volume play.

“We get a lot of pressure to drop pricing and chase volume,” said Bryant. “We are just trying to endure in this model that we have, which is steady, profitable growth with a higher priced trade-up brand.”

No-Li will make about 8,000 barrels this year, up from 5,500 in 2013, but the brewery is capacity constrained and Bryant is now tasked with figuring out his company’s next step.

“Capacity is somewhere around 11,000 barrels,” he said. “We are looking at whether we can expand on site or if we’ll need to go somewhere else.”

Those moves could alter No-Li’s model just slightly, Bryant said, but don’t expect the company to complete change course anytime soon.

“We have some tough decisions to make,” he said. “We have a lot of niche brands but not one that is a main play. Can we offer the customer something new that doesn’t undermine our other brands? Do we add 6-packs? If so, what does that look like?”

Those are questions that Bryant expects to answer in the coming months, as he looks to grow production capacity to about 20,000 barrels. In the meantime, Bryant said that he’s keeping No-Li competitive by strengthening relationships with wholesalers.

“We are focused on doing the basics with our distributors really well,” he said. “Being a part of their business and being on the street with them is going to be a big part of how things will work moving into the future.”