I’ve always said that opening a craft brewery is a great business for a handful of people who want to work at what they love while making a decent living — but as soon as you expand outside your own backyard, you’re no longer in control of your destiny. Selling everything you brew out of a small system to taproom customers and in the small footprint that you can deliver to can be a smart business model. But as soon as a brewery expands beyond that, it begins working for the distributor instead of itself.
This is a necessary evil, because distributors are great at ... well, distributing, and they can contribute marketing and logistical help to open up new markets. Again and again, smaller craft brewers make the choice to expand into new markets with a splash with all sorts of sales support from a distributor in another town, state or region. But eventually, some other shiny new toy catches the eye of the distributor, and much of the sales work falls back on the brewery. They end up having to hire sales staff in the new market, essentially adding to the cost of every can or keg they sell in their new remote town.
National breweries have already established their own network of sales and marketing, as well as buying up smaller craft breweries to expand their footprints. In an attempt to level the playing field at least a little bit, Nashville brewery Bearded Iris has joined forces with Atlanta’s Scofflaw Brewing Co. to form IndieBrew, a new platform created to share resources in terms of improving administrative functions, purchasing, marketing and sales.
Formally known as the Independent Brewers Union, IndieBrew members will maintain their autonomy as companies while cooperating to penetrate new markets. Other planned initiatives include looking for ways to improve sustainability and minimize carbon footprints while supporting charitable efforts. IndieBrew’s motto is “Brew With Purpose.”
The alliance started with a casual conversation between Scofflaw founder Matt Shirah and Bearded Iris founder Kavon Togrye. They bemoaned the plight of smaller independent breweries in the face of supply-chain disruptions, raw-material shortages and market uncertainties.
Rather than just shout into the wind, Togrye and Shirah sought solutions. “The industry is changing around us, there’s no question about it." says Togrye. "Matt and I decided we want to be part of the solution to create something that will protect brands and businesses for the long haul. So, despite the challenges we all face, our fans can remain confident that our products will be available to them well into the future.”
“We are better together," says Scofflaw’s Shirah. "Better positioned to address the challenges we face, better positioned to offer more options to our customers. We built IndieBrew not with a ton of money, but with a ton of consideration. We’re not looking to exit founders; we’re looking to forge partnerships that will give us more control of our individual brands."
The main difference that consumers may notice will be in the form of combined sales efforts by IndieBrew members that are able to offer larger and more diverse portfolios of products. IndieBrew intends to continue to expand as it searches out other breweries that share the members’ values and visions, and companies across the country have already expressed interest in joining the effort.
The industry is stronger when the base of local breweries is healthier, and this seems like a great way to help eliminate some inefficiencies by combining services. As long as IndieBrew members can continue to focus on making great craft beer, I’ll always raise a can of Homestyle to their efforts!