I received this question via my “Contact Me” link. Cody from Illinois asked this, to paraphrase “ I was wondering if you knew a good way to go about becoming employed by a craft beer company?“
I thought I’d answer this question in two parts and divide it based on the two main ways (other than retail; a bar or a shop) one can be employed in the beer industry: at a beer wholesaler or at a brewery. In the first part, we’ll look at the most common career track at a Beer Wholesaler or Distributor.
To understand how a distributor/wholesaler works, you have to understand the system they operate in and how that system started. Wholesalers are the middle tier in the 3-Tier System that was created after the end of Prohibition. The 3 tiers are: Brewery, Wholesaler, & Retailer. The brewery sells to the wholesaler who in turn sells the beer to the retailer (bars, restaurants, groceries, etc).
The goal of the 3-Tier system was remove the complete ownership of the entire distribution chain from the powerful hands of the large breweries. Prior to Prohibition, the brewery owned every aspect of the beer chain and used it to (if they didn’t own the bar themselves) force the retailer to do their bidding to sell as much alcohol as they could in increasingly shady methods. This system, which was designed to part working folks from their money, gave rise to a lot of the ills that allowed the Temperance Movement to flourish.
The second reason for the design of this system was to try to remove the influences of organized crime from the alcohol distribution system. During Prohibition, organized crime stepped up to meet the needs of a thirsty public and to make huge profits from the illicit trade in beer, wine, and spirits. The high profits and the nefarious characters that chased after it created a massive system of graft, violence, and murder that permeated nearly every aspect of life in Prohibition-era America. Although the 3-Tier system was designed to remove organized crime from alcohol, it wasn’t quite as successful on this front, many of the earliest distributors were started by folks who “went legitimate.”
Today, we see massive consolidation of wholesalers into large, multi-billion dollar corporations. We see AB-Inbev once again buying wholesalers in order to own as much of the supply chain as possible so they can forestall the steady decline of “Big Red” and domestic beer sales in general. However, with the ever-increasing Craft Beer scene, some distributors, new and old, are changing their business models to embrace this new high-profit, high-excitement market segment.
Working for a Wholesaler
If you’re interested in working for a wholesaler, there are a whole host of jobs available from merchandiser, driver, sales, warehouse, and more. What do you want to do? The next thing you should decide is what kind of distributor do you want to work for? There are small, craft distributors popping up specializing in small and unique breweries. You can work with some really cool products, but the pay and benefits will be correspondingly small. A larger distributor will have far better pay and benefits. They also have more jobs to offer, making it easier to get in on the ground floor and work your way up. However, you will probably have to work with Macro Lagers and Macro Imports along with the craft/specialty portfolios.
The “sales track” is probably the track that directly impacts and interacts with beer on a day-to-day basis (obviously EVERYONE interacts with it, but not on the intimate “taste” level of sales). In most distributors, if you’re not coming in with sales experience, you’ll want to start at the Merchandiser level. Merchandisers are considered the entry point into most distributors. A merchandiser is responsible for going to the stores and unpacking the beer boards, stocking the store’s shelves, building displays, and rotating the beer to keep it fresh. Merchandisers tend to be younger folks looking for a solid paying gig. However, for those looking to make a career out of the beer business, it’s often your first stop.
The next stop is “relief sales.” This is the training level sales position where you’re largely responsible for covering for full sales reps when they go on vacation. You’ll get to see all aspects of the sales force from Korean grocers to large national chain grocers to 7-11s to the swankiest of restaurants and dirtiest of dive bars. If you do well here, you’ll have the opportunity to move into your own route. Usually they’ll move experienced and successful reps into the high volume, high dollar routes and you’ll get the “starter” routes which are great to learn on because if you screw up and make mistakes, you’ll not cause too much trouble financially. As you succeed and develop, you’ll be able to choose your path. If you want to make a lot of money, high-traffic grocery stores may be your choice. If you want to work with bars, on-premise may be your choice.
And what’s most exciting, many wholesalers are creating “specialty” divisions to deal with all the new, small products that need to be sold to specialty retailers and beer bars and restaurants. If you succeed and spend your time learning about beer on an intimate level, you may have the opportunity to move into this channel where you’ll be able to work with some really tasty beers and some cool retailers.
From here, you can go anywhere. Often people choose to leave the wholesaler and go work for a brewery and help sell their beers. Often wholesalers consider and encourage this as part of your career path (assuming you want to go work for one of the breweries your wholesaler represents). Or you can start your own bar or store, this is another path people have taken. Really, once you’ve succeeded and worked your way up the wholesaler’s “food chain” and earned a lot of industry experience, your opportunities are pretty varied.
(You can read other questions and answers in the Q & Ale section of this blog, or ask your own questions!)