Carolina Beer Guy: The art of selling craft beverages

ACCOUNTABLE: Wyman Tannehill, director of sales and marketing at Asheville Brewing Co., is one of many men and women who represent local breweries and cideries in sales. Photo courtesy of Asheville Brewing Co.

A lot of Asheville-area beer and cider is consumed in Western North Carolina, but the market is also strong far from home.

In addition to nationally distributed products by Sierra Nevada Brewing Co., New Belgium Brewing Co. and Oskar Blues Brewery, locally made adult beverages are sold across North and South Carolina, and around the Southeast in Tennessee, Virginia, Georgia, Alabama and Florida, as well as Kentucky, Ohio and Colorado.

With an increasingly crowded and competitive market, someone must persuade new accounts to give brewers and cider makers a tap or a spot in the cold shelves at grocery stores and convenience markets. A lot of the heavy lifting is done by distributors who take the brews from producers and get it to accounts. It’s hard, backbreaking work that begins early and continues into the night. Most distributors have big portfolios that include major national brands like Budweiser, Miller and Coors, along with imports and many craft brews.

But there are also sales crews employed directly by the breweries and cideries who visit new and established accounts to make personal connections with bar and restaurant owners, servers, bartenders and supermarket managers. They pitch new products and support their established brands — work that frequently keeps them on the road.

In states that allow consumer sampling, these individuals can sometimes be found in groceries offering tastes to those of legal drinking age. They also work the beer festival circuit, navigate a patchwork of state and local regulations, and, while they hope to make a sale, must also be prepared to be turned down and move on to another account.

Wyman Tannehill does the job for Asheville Brewing Co. As director of sales and marketing, he’s focused on the company’s core brands such as Shiva IPA, Ninja Porter, Lemon Space Dog American Wheat Ale, 828 Pale Ale and Perfect Day IPA. He’s been working in sales for the brewery for two years and works with another account manager.

“We sell beer in every part of Western North Carolina,” he says. “It’s a lot of territory.”

Tannehill works closely with the brewery’s distributor, Budweiser of Asheville, to keep up to date with accounts. He says the distributor does a majority of the sales, but the account managers “are developing relationships” across the brewery’s several hundred accounts, where Perfect Day and Shiva are its best-sellers.

“Deciding which beer goes where is an ever-changing process,” Tannehill says. “We’re so spoiled with so many great breweries and beers. Some accounts like to stick with the same beers all the time. You go to the accounts to gauge what they are doing and how you can fit in best.”

Robin Stevens does a similar job at Noble Cider. He uses a software program to keep track of potential and active accounts and carries along a cooler of cold cider for customers.

“Once they taste it, our work is done,” he says. “When I first started, my job was to persuade people to have cider at all. Now, most accounts have at least one cider tap, and it’s [more about] which cider are they going to be serving.”

The company sells its products in both Carolinas, Tennessee and northeast Georgia. In the out-of-town markets, Stevens often finds himself explaining what craft cider is, as well as Noble’s history as “a small company that built [itself] up and [is] using local apples.”

Noble has about 700 accounts, and Stevens says about half of those are stores. He adds that he and Noble’s two other sales representatives are knowledgeable about how cider is made, and the job also requires them to get to know people. “A lot of the time, [clients] want to tell you about their grandkids,” he says.

Mark Conti is the regional sales manager at Highland Brewing Co. He started at Highland as a brewer before moving into sales, and his territory covers Western North Carolina, Tennessee and part of Kentucky. He works with a team of three sales representatives to grow the brand and works closely with Skyland Distributing on the local level and other distributors outside the state.

Highland has a big line of packaged beers, but its first brew, Gaelic Ale, remains a big seller. Conti says AVL IPA and Daycation IPA are also performing well across the seven-state footprint, which varies in its familiarity with the brewery’s offerings. “The farther you get [from Asheville], you have to be sure you’re using the right [sales] approach,” he says.

Catawba Brewing Co. has grown from a small brewery in Glenn Alpine to now include breweries in Morganton, Asheville and Charlotte, and recently acquired the Palmetto Brewing Co. in Charleston, S.C. Clayton Burrous oversees a sales force of eight, which works in five states. By his count, the brewery sells its beers in “thousands” of locations, a number that will soon grow once the company expands into Virginia.

“One thing Catawba has going for it is there is a reverence for Western North Carolina beer,” Burrous says. “As we go into markets like Virginia or Alabama, all these cities have their own local beers. Having a good story, having a good consistent beer and having someone at the street level who can build relationships are the critical factors.”

Between Catawba and Palmetto, there are about a dozen core brands and many seasonal beers. Burrous says Catawba’s biggest seller is White Zombie White Ale, while Huger Street IPA is tops for Palmetto.

The Craft Centric beer store and taproom on Long Shoals Road sees a parade of beer sales representatives, according to owner Matt Vaughan. “If a day goes by that we don’t see [one], it’s an odd day,” he says.

The store works with many local brands, and Vaughan says the sales representatives are “vital” in securing shelf space and taps. “If you want to sell your product, you have to come and introduce yourself personally,” he says. “An email or phone call is not enough. You also have to sample the product. I am more than likely to buy if I am experiencing it, drinking it.”


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About Tony Kiss
Tony Kiss covers brewing news for the Xpress. He has been reporting on the Carolina beer scene since 1994. He's also covered distilling and cider making and spent 30 years reporting on area entertainment. Follow me @BeerguyTK

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