Commitment can be scary.
I’m not talking about dating other humans, which is certainly terrifying. I’m referring to the commitment a brewery has to give to a distributor to get its beer sold in any given market. Rigid long-term contracts can be frightening to an upstart (or established) brewery looking to make inroads around the country.
Brew Pipeline has a way around that. Its Guest Brewer program is essentially the speed dating of the beer world.
Here’s how it works: As a master distributor, Brew Pipeline purchases fresh new kegs, cans and bottles from breweries whose beer is not available in Milwaukee (or the 40 other major markets they serve in the United States) on a temporary contract. It sends those to sub-distributors around the country. Those sub-distributors then get the beer out to bars and liquor stores. The beers are only available in these new markets for a month, which should help create demand.
“We saw that the old method, where a brewer signs a lifetime agreement with a distributor, worked great when there were a couple hundred breweries in the country and 7,000 distributors,” says Steve Kwapil, a co-founder of Beer Pipeline who lives in Pewaukee. “The tables have turned and now there are over 7,000 breweries and a couple thousand distributors. The distributors just can’t handle that volume.”
The Guest Brewer program began in Milwaukee in June when beers from Heavy Seas Beer in Baltimore and Portland’s Ecliptic Brewing hit store shelves at places like Ray’s Wine & Spirits and Discount Liquor, and the tap lines at beer bars like Draft & Vessel, Burnhearts and Sugar Maple (look for the Guest Brewer tap handles).
The program continues in July with the appearance of Sweet As! Pacific Ale and Descender IPA from Goodlife Brewing (Bend, Oregon), and Thai Style White IPA and Rocky Mountain Kölsch from Upslope Brewing Company (Boulder, Colorado).
In August, Drake’s Brewing (San Leandro, California), Ska Brewing (Durango, Colorado) and Pryes Brewing (Minneapolis) contribute the beers for the month.
The Guest Brewer program doesn’t just take anybody. The breweries included have to meet some quality standards. They need to have earned a medal at one of the major beer fests that employs certified beer judges and blind tastings or have beers with a ranking of more than 95 on Beer Advocate or Rate Beer.
“I know there’s controversy over ratings, and a lot of good beers that aren’t rated highly,” adds Kwapil. “But the ones that are rated high are good representations. I’ve been in the beer industry 30 years. Our president of sales is in Portland and has been a consultant in the industry for 20 years. We have someone in Maryland that’s been in for 35 years. We have three sales members in Los Angeles, Colorado and New Jersey. They all have relationships. Breweries contact us and we also reach out to breweries. And if it’s agreeable we take them to market.”
Local beer drinkers benefit from Guest Brewer by having access to beers that aren’t normally found in Milwaukee. But a couple of Wisconsin breweries are also participating. Milwaukee’s MobCraft Beer and O’so Brewing of Plover have contributed beers that will be sent to some of the new markets outside of Wisconsin.
More to Come
Guest Brewer is the flagship program for Brew Pipeline, and just a start. More programs are in the works, including an initiative based around beer and charity and another one that should help to bring major collaborations to market.