There is a lot more to the success of a brewery than just making beer. When a beer is ready to leave our four walls, we rely on on a number of people from areas including operations, sales, marketing, beer buyers, bartenders, wait staff, and consumers.
We create strategies for new and old products and communicate with our sales team. We devise a plan and get after it, knowing that we’ll need to constantly adjust to ensure that the beer that reaches you is of the highest quality and as fresh as possible. It takes an army to do this. And in Chicago, Wes Phillips devises the plan for infiltration.
Serving as director of business development at Windy City Distributing, Wes’ expertise in this field is well known throughout the industry, as is his need for speed (give some thought to getting in a car with him). If you don’t know who Wes is, he is one of the pioneers of craft beer that has been fighting the big guy since some of you were still in diapers. Wes is a heavyweight. Here in Chicago he has played an expansive role in the market successes of breweries you love like Stone, Lagunitas, Two Brothers, Allagash, Three Floyds and more. I invited Wes to share with us some of his thoughts and insight on craft.
How did you get started in the distribution business?
It started on the day shift at Hopleaf, working closely with Mike Roper. When he hired me, I thought I knew a fair amount about beer, but he is obviously a PHD level education in all things beer. Not just the history and culture, but the business aspects as well. It was an invaluable education.
Representatives of great beer everywhere made their way in to the Hopleaf at some point. So, I tasted A LOT of beer and met a lot of people in the industry. Distributors, Importers, and of course Brewers were always around. That’s how I met people like Rob Tod, Sam Calagione, Lanny Hoff, and of course Jim Ebel. For some crazy reason Jim thought I might be a good fit at Windy City. So, they gave me a phone and a list of accounts and I hit the streets of Chicago.
What was one of the proudest moments you have had at Windy City?
A lot of great moments so it’s hard to pick one: Working with Jason Ebel on Cane & Ebel. Passing the Certified Cicerone™ exam. Working with Paul Kahan’s team on the first Beer Dinner at The Publican with Tomme Arthur. I euthanize a lot of brain cells for a living, so those few come to mind.
To steal a phrase from Tim Marshall… I’ve had a “metric butt load” of incredible opportunities to be surrounded by great brewers, chefs, and seasoned industry professionals on a regular basis.
What was one of the worst moments you have had at Windy City? And don’t say signing Solemn Oath.
Everyone at WCD had to wear a lot of hats over the years, and we were all stretched pretty thin. We constantly outgrew our infrastructure, so it was pretty damn painful. If I had to give you just one incident, it would have to be our database failure in the summer of 2012. It made me want to kill people. Dead.
What would you say is the biggest hurdle you and your team face on a daily basis? How do you overcome it?
Chicago is a large market and therefore a very big target for a lot of breweries. The team we have on the street every day truly crusades for beer. They are a pretty special group. To put it simply our goal is to sell beer on its merits. Not everyone does that, so therein lay the challenge. We try very hard to cultivate a culture focusing on the community we work within. It’s not just a bunch of slam-dunks and high fives, to say the least. Bob Collins and I like to say we can teach people the business but we can’t teach them to care.
The passion our sales team has for beer, our breweries, the bar industry, and the community overall is absolutely essential. They are an important component for maintaining our company culture while reaching the bigger goals. We’ve been very lucky; as we’ve grown our sales team over the years we’ve maintained a very strong level of talent.
Have you had that “Fuck yeah!” moment in this industry?
It has been an embarrassment of riches. Getting a job at the Hopleaf was the first step on a career path I didn’t expect, or even really know existed. When I moved to Chicago in 1995, I moved a block away at Winona and Glenwood… because you might as well live as close as possible to the Hopleaf, right?
When I joined WCD, there was already a solid portfolio of great breweries to work with, but there were a few additions along the way that were pivotal. Adding Lagunitas in the summer of 2006 was a huge coup for us, even though very few people in Chicago thought so at the time. Tony Magee appreciated our humble beginnings so Lagunitas helped put us on the map with their strong partnership. Over the next three or four years we added Port Brewing, Lost Abbey, Green Flash, Surly (the first time around for Chicago), Dark Horse, and on and on.
We don’t try to cram beer all over the place or just collect brands. Honestly, we’re just not the best fit for everyone.
Early in 2010, Stone signed with us as we were preparing for the Craft Brewers Conference. It was a time when other distributors were more aggressively competing for new brands, and I think we were probably the last choice anyone thought Stone would make. We launched Stone on April 1st, 2010, and then CBC started.
CBC put a big spotlight on Chicago and our craft beer community. It was the first time Chicago hosted the premier conference for our industry, and it gave us the opportunity to showcase how our beer culture was evolving. With all of that came a lot of pressure, especially as the Host Distributor. We worked really hard to pull it off, but at the end of that week there was definitely a big “FUCK YEAH!!!”… And then some sleep.
It takes a very strong partnership from all sides, all the time; from the brewery, the distributor, the retailer, and the consumer. Nothing happens in a vacuum by any stretch of the imagination.
What do you see for craft in Chicago?
That depends on a lot of factors. One of the most important is the access to market retailers provide. I like to say I took the job at Windy City because I wanted to drink great beer at the places where I was already hanging out. It’s a joke, but not without some truth. Growing our industry will only happen along side the retailers in our market. When you look around at the expanded access to great beer we have now in comparison to 10 years ago, it’s almost unbelievable.
Craft beer thrived along side other progressive American concepts… Slow Food, sustainably focused restaurants, overall environmental awareness in our industry, a re-birth of small business culture, and more people paying attention to where the things they buy come from, etc., etc. Craft beer is a natural and essential part of those concepts. Beer used to be the last thing on the mind of any sommelier. In 2014, anyone not taking their beer offerings more seriously is simply missing the boat. Nonetheless, we’ll try to keep pulling the boat up to their dock.
The right beer, in the right accounts, with the right quantities.
I’ll say it again, nothing happens in a vacuum. Adam Avery has been making great beer for 20 years, but without the bars, restaurants, liquor stores, bartenders, servers, brewery reps, and distributors out there educating anyone who would listen… Avery wouldn’t have started construction on a destination brewery in Boulder Colorado. Tony Magee wouldn’t be building a new brewery in his hometown. Dale Katechis wouldn’t have built a second Oskar Blues brewery in North Carolina. Allagash, Left Hand, Great Divide, Anderson Valley, North Coast, Smuttynose, Victory, Two Brothers, and Three Floyds wouldn’t have expanded exponentially over the years… And on and on. It has evolved dramatically for all those breweries with 15 years or more under their belt, but it wasn’t just magic.
Hopefully, as so many new breweries open their doors they appreciate the landscape that exists. A lot of seasoned breweries spent a lot of time just trying to survive and keep the lights on because that landscape simply wasn’t there. It had to be built from scratch over the last 35 years. There wouldn’t even be a WCD without Jim and Jason Ebel. They forged ahead when the laws changed and nearly pushed Two Brothers Brewing out of business fifteen years ago.
There are a few things that will halt us in our tracks. Approaching the market without any respect for it. Self-proclaimed beer experts with a pretentious attitude toward “non craft drinkers”… Do we want to educate people, or just make them feel stupid because we might know something they don’t? Some people will inevitably just use the industry for their own gain with no understanding of it, no education within it, and only selfish goals. They will act like they invented it, and no one else ever helped them along the way. For them, I say, don’t be like the rookie coming in to the NBA who’s never heard of Michael Jordan. That just makes you look like a douchebag. Go away already.
Another big hindrance will be people who think of craft beer only as the “newest” or “rarest” thing out there, and not about the quality and integrity that got us here. Someone posted an article recently that they see Allagash White too much on draft lists. Really? So you’re seeing too much of a high quality draft option? Allagash White is the best White beer being produced in the U.S., if not on planet earth. That’s not an opinion, that’s a fact based on multiple, consistent gold medals from GABF, World Beer Cup, and many others in the industry. A brewery founded on a vision to produce only Belgian style beers, at a time when most people didn’t even know Belgians made beer. Not rare enough? How about the fact Allagash is only available in Chicago and L.A., outside their East Coast markets. Rob Tod pioneered American made Belgian styles and produces some of the best beer brewed on any planet, but it’s not good enough for you because it’s not “new” or “rare”?
Outside of well-funded visionaries like Fritz Maytag, how the hell could anyone start a brewery? Imagine wanting to become a chef, but it was illegal for you to cook at home?
I guess those people will never drink a Tripel Karmeliet, a Bellhaven Scottish Ale, or a Krombacher Pils either. I’d recommend they check out the BJCP style guidelines and get half an education on beer before jumping in to the fray. Writing about beer seems to be like a YELP review for some people. No expertise necessary. People with that approach to beer should change their focus to Fashion or Pop Music. Maybe those industries will be new enough all the time.
Neither “new” nor “rare” always equals “good”. Throughout the history of modern human civilization we should be thankful that plagues have only been “new” or “rare”.
Chicago has come a LONG way, but until we’re talking about the kind of market share for craft beer they have in Portland, Seattle and parts of California… we’ve got a lot of work to do before we’re talking about the 40% – 50% of the market they enjoy. We have one of the best and most unique markets in the country. WCD works with breweries from all over, and we constantly get comments about how unique the beer culture is here.
The more we change people’s minds about what beer can be, the closer we’ll get to a West-Coast-like market share. So, hopefully we’ll get closer to at least a 20% market share in the next three to five years.
What do you see for the future of craft worldwide?
A lot of American Craft Breweries are already exporting to the U.K., Sweden, Belgium, Germany, etc., etc. The movement has certainly been impacting the Old World a great deal. Fifteen years ago, the Belgian IPA didn’t even exist. In fact, back then, good luck finding a Belgian brewer interested in hops as a forward flavor component.
It has evolved dramatically for all those breweries with 15 years or more under their belt, but it wasn’t just magic.
The access to market for breweries is much more difficult outside the U.S., so the landscape of those markets is changing more slowly. If you were in London six or eight years ago, good luck finding beers from the Meantime Brewery outside their own bar. When a brewery owns the bar (the “tied house” concept) they sure as hell aren’t going to put someone else’s beer on draft. We’ve come a lot farther by having access to more independent retailers.
Ironically, some of our advantages developed through post-prohibition laws, including the creation of the three-tier system. Access to market was the biggest hurdle small breweries had to overcome. Post-prohibition laws discouraged brewery ownership of retailers in the U.S., which was rampant prior to prohibition.
Prohibition was obviously devastating to the brewing industry. Coming out the other side provided some advantages, even though it took until 1978 to repeal the home brewing ban. Outside of well-funded visionaries like Fritz Maytag, how the hell could anyone start a brewery? Imagine wanting to become a chef, but it was illegal for you to cook at home?
So, I guess part of the answer to this question is really the same as the previous one. Having access to and developing alongside pioneering & visionary retailers is a key component to any further growth in our industry, both here and abroad.
What styles of beer do you think are a great gateway for turning non-craft drinkers over to craft and what styles do you prefer?
The “approachable” styles are pretty obvious, but it depends on the person AND how you approach them… as in don’t be an asshole when someone asks you a question about beer. People tend to drink with their eyes, but sometimes you have to describe Left Hand Milk Stout in a context they can relate to, i.e., it’s like a chocolate vanilla swirl milk shake with less sweetness… Added bonus, there’s a bit of alcohol.
When someone came in to the Hopleaf with a wine background, I tried to introduce them to a Lambic, a Flanders Red, an Oud Bruin, a Farmhouse Ale, or even a Belgian Quad. Something with complexity, but that also had a bridge for their palate from the malt and yeast.
I love all kinds of beer, so it’s like asking what your favorite record is… it just depends. I’ve always had a strong affinity for the Belgian Farmhouse tradition. The complexity of Farmhouse beers, coupled with their homespun history hits home for me.
There are a lot of new American interpretations of that tradition that are GREAT as well. As you already know, I LOVE Oubliette. I gravitate towards beers that are low in alcohol but bold in flavor. Lost Abbey Carnivale is almost in season right now, which is always a favorite. I’m also REALLY looking forward to having some Penrose P2 in my fridge (Come on Hobbs and Korder!!! Let’s get Korder a haircut!!!).
I certainly appreciate bigger, bolder, high alcohol beers, but usually with food. I’m not afraid to admit that I love a great Pilsner.
What key elements do you think are a necessity to be a great craft distributer?
The right beer, in the right accounts, with the right quantities.
As craft has begun to grow in all markets, I assume you are solicited daily by new breweries opening up. What makes a brewery stand out to you?
Good god, man. That is a hard question to answer. We get a lot of requests every week, and we do our best to take a good look at all of them. But, our portfolio has been built in a very selective way over a long period of time. From every angle, we want our business model to express the quality and creativity of those breweries we already represent. Our existing suppliers are always a primary component of any consideration, and our commitment to them is most critical. We don’t try to cram beer all over the place or just collect brands. Honestly, we’re just not the best fit for everyone.
And lastly, how much do you REALLY love Solemn Oath?
When you, John, and Tim came to our shabby old conference room a few years ago, we already knew Tim was capable of making some REALLY great beer. The big question mark was those crazy ass Barley brothers. Who the hell were these guys?
After we spent some time learning more about the “how and why” of Solemn Oath, we figured we’d roll the old dice. The first time I had an Oubliette was at your first draft promo, and I just thought; well, thank god that was good.
You guys have cultivated a perfect environment for Tim’s talent to thrive, while developing an overall culture with creative energy. That’s a big part of the whole battle no matter what you do for a living. Cheers mates!
Images in this post provided by Michael Kiser of www.GoodBeerHunting.com. Be sure to check out the new GBH Podcast with interviews and insight from beer-related influencers driving the next wave of beer.
For beer to go from grain to glass it often takes manufacturers, distributors, retailers, bar staff, and more. These are those people. These are their stories.