Sell Me a Beer – An Open Letter to Beer Sales Folk

In my day job behind the bar I encounter brewery reps and distributors pretty regularly, all hoping to sell me a beer. While distributors seem to have a handle on things, I’ve noticed more and more that our local brewery reps struggle with a few basic concepts. Now, it is entirely possible that I see a soft sell side of folks, maybe when they go to a more hostile place they turn up the heat (admittedly we’re a pretty soft sell for small-batch brewers, we rotate our taps and love good American beer). An exchange this week led me to think perhaps it was time to write a post of tips and tricks in the art of selling beer to a craft beer account. This is based solely on my observations, take ‘em or leave ‘em – I’m just trying to help. Please note: none of this will help you in higher-volume accounts like sports bars or chain retail accounts – for those you’ll most likely need a whole different strategy.

Own Your Brand

Of all the reps I’ve seen there is one that I remember above all. He represented a brand that was struggling to keep up in today’s craft beer scene, but the beer he sold was clean and delicious – honestly, a beer I quite enjoyed. The man walked in the front door, sort of shuffling his feet a bit, and made his way up to the bar where he asked for someone that he could sell beer to. What happened next made my jaw drop – he literally said “I doubt you’re interested in our brand”. Hello? I think what he meant was, “I know we’re not as cool as some of the other guys” or “I’m sorry to bother you with a brand that doesn’t get a lot of social media buzz” – in essence, “I’m sorry we’re not the trendy beer you’re looking for”.

For starters, who the hell says that? Second, even if you believe what you’re saying, you’re being paid to be proud of the product you’re selling me – own it! Tell me how clean your beer is. Tell me how great the history of your established brewery is. Remind me why it’s a good thing to not have another ‘extreme’ beer. Sell me your friggin’ beer! I tried to walk the poor sap through these hoops, but I doubt it sank in – he didn’t last long in his job, but how could he? He was clearly defeated, resigned to selling a great beer he just didn’t know how to promote… nearly ashamed that he represented a beer that was just good.

That’s a sad state of where our ‘craft’ beer scene is today. There are a few hot brands that everyone has convinced themselves that they need to try, leaving out a huge portion of the industry that simply make good, clean beer – and there’s something beautiful about these beers, by the way.

Do you represent a brand that was once popular? Do you have a brand that focuses on the traditional styles – lagers, ambers, browns? Do you not have a new billion-IBU triple IPA? Who the hell cares? Remind owners of bars that the vast majority of beer drinkers like a good lager, love a clean amber ale and have a soft spot for a traditional brown ale. It may not be the trendiest beer out there, but if it’s of any quality at all, I’m certain there’s an audience for it.

Know My Business

More recently I had a guy stop in “for lunch” and to chat me up a bit, this happens all the time and it’s wonderful. We talked and bullshitted a bit, then it was time for him to move along. As he was leaving he did what nearly every small brewery rep does, tells me what’s available from his brewery and asked if I wanted anything. This seems to be the standard soft sell technique.

Look, it doesn’t take but a few seconds to scan the list of available beers we have on at my work, we only have sixteen wonderful taps. A cursory observation should tell you we have a handful of IPAs and Double IPAs, a Wheat Beer, an Amber Ale, a Brown Ale, Porter/Stout, Lager and a few other common styles. Yes, they’re all great. Yes, we’re also picky – the liquid has to be great, regardless of the brand. Here’s an idea: sell me on one of those taps. You have an amber ale that we don’t already have on tap? Ask me what we’re putting on after that particular beer is gone, but don’t do it in a way that demeans anything we have on currently – that’s a major no-no that happens far too often, it’s a conversation stopper for me. It doesn’t need to be forceful; it can be inquisitive if you’re of the soft sell personality (which is common in the craft industry) – just ask me what we’re putting on after the amber ale. If I don’t know, then ask if we would be interested in your amber ale. It won’t be 100% successful, I promise you that, but you’ve opened a dialogue that doesn’t exist when you simply give me a list of available beers, you could actually be helping me out – which is a major plus for most people that haven’t thoroughly thought out the plans for each and every tap handle. Not all bar managers are the same, obviously, but it’s not a bad idea to start a conversation about a particular beer rather than leave me with a list of products I’ll have to remember down the road.

Know Your Product

Of the memorable experiences we’ve had with reps, this guy takes the cake on cluelessness. He came in on a random weekday to sell us a beer that was set to be released in the near future. The beer was similar to another beer they had in our rotation, so we asked for more info: he literally said to us that “[Beer A] is great, but [Beer B] is awesome.” Pressed for more info, he said that one beer was a little darker than the other, he thought. Pressed further, he finally admitted that he hasn’t actually tasted the beer, but it’s gonna be great.

Now look, I don’t expect every rep to know every last detail on every single beer in their portfolio, but holy shit… If you have an upcoming beer that is similar to a beer you already have, it might be a good idea to know what differentiates brand A from brand B, more than “it’s a little darker”. If you ask why this is important, keep in mind that taps are treated like real estate and why would a bar manager take up two valuable taps for beers from the same company that are very similar?

I sold beer for a while and know I wasn’t that good at it. I was the typical craft guy that did the super soft sell, knowing what I had to sell in my portfolio and hoping the bar manager cared enough to listen (that right there was pretty much the gist of my sales plan, which worked alarmingly well for this industry). It’s a tough business, facing rejection is a daily occurrence and with the current influx of small-batch brands, it’s just getting harder and harder to sell good beer. I wish I knew then what I know now. Please don’t take this as condemnation, but more a set of things to consider when selling to the next craft account. Further, I know too that craft bars and bottle shops are growing increasingly difficult to work with, there may well be 20 bars in town that want the beer you have only five kegs of. I get that and appreciate the way many of you handle  yourselves in the most professional and diplomatic way. Keep up the good work.


*Contrary to some popular belief, I do not own or even run a bar. I work with an amazing owner and great staff together, and together I feel we do a bang-up job. While this and other pieces are written in first-person, I do not mean to suggest that I am a sole decision maker at my work. Locals know this, I just want to make sure you do, too. 

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