After our ride-along with a Chicago distributor last week, I got a message from a friend who works on the buyer and bar management side of things at one of Chicago's best beer and whiskey bars, Longman & Eagle. They're just down the street from the studio, and it's a consistent haunt for me. And Phil, our man in this story, has been a podcast guest before.
The text: "Just read your piece on Windy City. It's great, but I'd love for you to hang with me on an order day, while reps are in and out all day, the other side of that story. I'll even spill the beans on pay-to-play!"
I'm going to make you wait for that last part. We've got a full Critical Drinking interview coming next week.
For today, I'm going to sit in on sales calls and inventory management, and try to get a feel for the buyer's role in the process. Here's how it starts: "You want a beer?"
In the basement, Eric and Tony are comparing their monthly inventory numbers with their weekly sales, figuring out how much they need to order today from a variety of distributors. Liquor, wine, beer—it's a long and diverse list.
"We used to order two cases of beer at a time, but these days we try to keep a lighter inventory," Phil says. "It felt stupid to have IPAs down here getting old when our drafts upstairs were moving well."
It's a mixed cellar of cans and bottles for popular brands like Sculpin, alongside some rarities like Bourbon County Stout.
Beer is the easy part here. The two biggest challenges seem to be figuring out which distributors carry which wines, and how many cocktails were sold against their liquor inventory.
"We get a print out of our cocktail sales every week," Eric says.
Why would the cellar have packaged IPA at all? The cellar at Longman serves both bars—the restaurant side and the bar out back that's can-focused. Something like Grapefruit Sculpin finds a home in both, but the sales rep has priorities.
"If you're one can out of twelve in the mix in the back, it's a different kind of exposure than if you're just getting rotated in on the draft line-up up front," Phil explains. "And then Mango Keel got into one of our cocktails. So over time, they start to sell well across both bars, but in very different ways."
Lagunitas is first at the table for beer. Brian brings in the 12th of Never can to taste and the impact is immediate. "Oh, cans!"
"Everyone seems to be on vacation this week," Brian laments. The Chicago summer is having an impact on his day-to-day.
"I don’t know what our obsession has been lately with purple," he mentions as he turns the can around to face Eric. He picks it up, turns it around and reads the copy on the top of the can. He chuckles to himself. "More Tonyisms," he says, shaking his head playfully.
Everyone likes 12th of Never.
"This is great. I'm surprised I’m not the 80th person in line today."
The Lakeshore Beverage distributor rep shows up with a long bottle of Elysian's Space Dust IPA. It's the first bottle I've seen in the market. "They were bought by Budweiser back when they were buying everything they could," he says.
After inquiring if there'll be more Elysian coming into the market behind it, he explains that the play will be more cautious. "One beer for awhile. That’s something we’ll probably gravitate toward from now on. Our problem was that we kept bringing in the seasonals and then we were dumping out a lot of beer."
Then the conversation turns to Goose Island BCS and the most recent recall information. And things get...confusing.
"Is BCS draft back?" Phil asks.
"What do you want us to use with what we have? Do we have to get rid of it? We haven’t sold any of it."
"That’s probably a good thing. Better for you to take it to the brewery—they’re paying you 20 bucks a bottle and we’re paying you six bucks a bottle."
"Should we look through the bottle dates? It's not all bad, right?"
"You can—but you’d be safer."
"But if it’s good, we can put it on the menu in a few months and tell people we know it’s good."
"Let me get exact dates for you."
"Should I call Goose and get the info?"
"Yeah, do that."
Why there wouldn't be a clear info-sheet available for such a high-profile recall is baffling to me. So much BCS is sitting in bar cellars right now, in Chicago and across the country. And in this case, we're lucky that Phil has been paying attention and is motivated to hang on to good product. But if this conversation is indicative of the hundreds happening in the same context, a lot of good BCS could be getting pulled off the market.
"We'll take some Tank 7 and Hopslam," Tony says.
Jonathan from Hopewell brings by a wide selection of new beers for the crew to try—many for the first time.
Hopewell recently won the Brewbound Start-Up Brewery Challenge and has been keg-only in the Chicago market for a mater of months.
"That's Belgian strong is over 8% and I'd still order another one," Eric exclaims with a bit of surprise in his voice.
"We're a keg-only brewery, so we sort of have to ensure that people want more than one of our beers at a time, otherwise the line gets slow," Jonathan explains. "So that's kind of our way."
Saison, Lager, kettle sour, Belgian Strong, Session Ale, two different IPAs, and a cold brew coffee. This is a contemporary brewery portfolio in Chicago in 2016, and it's mind-blowing.
The conversation is noticeably excited amongst the four decision-makers at the table. A lot of clucking about pull-through, backing up one keg with another, beers that can get replaced in favor of these, and debating about clear personal preferences. This strikes me as the optimistic sounds of "new" and "local" backed up by great flavors in a city with more breweries than people can even keep track of.
They’re now doubling up on tastings with Rob Brennan of Penrose holding down one end of the table and Laura Von Brock of Destihl holding down the other. And the conversation quickly turns to the distro ride-along we did with Windy City—specifically their rep, Matt Modica. It gets bawdy. Beer is a small industry, and Chicago is a small town. Rob starts pouring the Counter Clockwise Wild Sour for this end of the table while he waits his turn.
The tangle of brewery reps and distributor reps selling the same accounts the same beer is something we saw in our distro ride-along, but today we’re seeing it in spades. Some handle the overlap better than others, but for some, they can get off their game.
“This one guy gets pissed every time a brewery rep shows up unannounced,” Phil explains. “He really doesn’t like it.”
Meanwhile, the table enters into the philosophical discussion of what things taste like.
"What does purple taste like?"
"Can we talk about blue raspberry?"
"My palate is informed by Bubble Tape and Big League Chew."
"Who's ready for the Radler?"
Maplewood Brewing jumps in, and a hazy IPA gets poured around the table.
"Isn't this controversial, these kind of IPAs?"
"No, are they?"
A rapid discussion ensues, debating the processes, ingredients, and, ultimately, the intent of these New England-style IPAs.
"It's a yeast that won't flocculate"
"It's the hop matter left over."
"People are making them intentionally hazy. It's bullshit."
The speculation is real, and the heartiness of the debate is disingenuous at best, considering that everyone here loved the beer. We should just consider NE IPAs the American Zwickel beer and move on.
There's a group panic as we realize no one's eaten yet, and a rush of prepared chicken salad wraps come out of the kitchen. The kitchen didn't forget.
A Windy City rep shows up, pops open his tablet and keyboard, and one look at the table of empties makes him realize he's been preceded by his brewery reps many times over.
"I see you've had a bunch of our stuff already."
He introduces a new rep in their area. The last guy moved into brand management.
"We'll drink that 12th of Never again, though."
Phil: "I can't believe it's August and I have seen a single pumpkin beer yet!"
The rep waiting at the table behind us drops her head in her hands and the whole room laughs.
"We'll take some Allagash White, Off Color Apex, and some Vandermill."
"We're gonna re-do the whole cider menu for September, so you should bring a bunch of those through. It's always lived in the beer section, but we want to do beer, cider, and wine sort of separately. Adjunct ciders, for lack of a better term, like Vandermill Peach or whatever, And then some more fermentation-driven stuff like E.Z. Orchard. I think we have a place for that now. Does anyone know who picked up Eden Iced Cider?"
"I have the Metro Heliostat coming again."
"Again? Another batch? Damn, I love that beer, but we're backed up three-deep behind that line. Damn."
"Just because it's clearly tentacle porn doesn't mean it isn't consensual."
I think we're done here.
This one had to be explained to me three times.
For the last six years, Longman has bought Old Milwaukee beer from John Lindeman of Glunz distributing in Chicago. Suddenly, according to Phil, one day, a new guy from Skokie Beverage walks in and says, "Glunz doesn't have the right to sell you that beer. I do. How much do you want?"
This didn't go over well.
After pushing back multiple times and essentially kicking the guy out of the bar, Phil ran it up the flagpole at Pabst, and it came back confirmed. The territories for Old Milwaukee won't enable Glunz to sell that beer to Longman.
"They used the word partnership in the email response," Phil recalls. "And I thought that was right, because for us the partnership is with John. And we only want to buy that beer from John. So now if we can't get it, we'll work on an alternative. So that's what this list is about."
"Anyone ever heard of Jacob's Best?"
We're closing out the day with our Hermetus bottle re-sealer. Why every rep doesn't have a bag of these is beyond me. But cheers to Illuminated Brew Works for using one to hold their Coffee Wit steady throughout the day. It's tasting great.
"These things! Sometimes the buyers are more interested in these re-sealers than they are my beer!"
This story will update periodically throughout the day. Follow us on Twitter or bookmark the page to keep up.
GBH in Residence
Sometimes to get the real story, you have to go beyond the brewery tour and the tasting room, and literally join the crew in their daily grind. For the Residence series, GBH spends a day or two working alongside brewers, cidermakers, cellarmen and delivery drivers. It's what the craft industry looks like on its own terms.See more GBH in Residence