By Ian McLennan
Edited by Kevin Wise
Between the many local craft breweries making beer and the many beer bars emerging on to the scene, Western New York finds itself becoming more of a player in the craft beer world. I recently had the pleasure of sitting down with Dan Robinson of Try-it Distributing to discuss the craft beer landscape in Western New York from a distributor’s perspective.
Robinson has been Try-it Distributing’s on-premise craft manager for over four years. His craft beer journey began somewhat unsuspectingly. Robinson wasn’t the biggest drinker in college and the craft beer world wasn’t something that was automatically calling out to him. When he originally gained employment at Try-it he was moving cases, kegs and other various warehouse duties to help pay the bills during college.
He quickly realized that Try-it was somewhere he wanted to stay. Robinson finished college and was hired full-time as a salesperson. Being in this environment propelled him into having a full appreciation for craft beer. Robinson’s “gateway beer” was Flying Bison Brewing’s Rusty Chain and once he fell in love with that crisp amber he pursued more exposure in the craft beer market.
Robinson noticed just how much fun everyone had at work and how well Tri-it took care of its employees. He states that the average seniority of a Try-it salesperson is about 12 years. In today’s growing craft beer environment that is a long time. Numerous salesperson opportunities have arisen as each new brewery and beer bar requires a brewery representative. According to Robinson:
There has been a ton of turnover in the market but not at Try-it, which says something about the family that we work for. Do your job and they will take care of you. It takes a lot to not have fun here.
Robinson currently manages 27 craft beer suppliers with 3 other team members. Robinson and his team do everything and anything related to craft beer: they manage beer inventories, tap handles and many other bar/restaurant account-related tasks. They deal directly with larger accounts such as Coca-Cola Field and Wegmans. They also work directly with craft breweries to ensure they are constantly growing their brands. In addition to all of that, they are heavily involved with many craft beer events and festivals in the area. Robinson believes that:
I have the best job in the world!
Craft beer festivals and sampling events are growing in size and attendance and they are helping to expand the overall interest with consumers and increase the market share. These events put craft beer in the hands of people that may not otherwise ever try those particular craft beer brands or styles.
Robinson feels Try-it has a larger impact on the off-premise retail accounts more than it does the on-premise accounts. Try-it will participate in more than 28 craft beer events just this summer. He believes the number of events may be approaching a saturation point and events that remain in the long-term rotation will be the ones that have the most impact.
Looking ahead, Robinson and his team plan to experiment with events. Ideas include possible food and beer pairings and events with separate stations for each brewery to provide interactive activities. Some established events that are favorites of his are Beerology at the Buffalo Museum of Science and Wines in the Wild at the Buffalo Zoo.
The local craft brewery accounts that Robinson and his team manage are of particular importance to them. Try-it’s larger local accounts like Flying Bison, Big Ditch and Resurgence Brewing Companies are driving the “drink local” bus. Robinson believes it is important to people to support their neighbors and drink local beer.
Support of local breweries is a very important ideal to the family that has owned and operated Try-it since 1927- the Vukelic family. Robinson said that ownership “wants local to grow.”
I asked Robinson if there were any concerns voiced by local accounts about New Belgium entering the local market. Will another out of town craft beer choice hinder local growth? Or, is more craft beer good for local breweries too? He stated that although there was some natural concern, his response was clear.
We feel that it’s better to have New Belgium in our house than in our competitors house.
The impact of New Belgium’s arrival on local Try-it accounts was discussed during negotiations. Try-it has a strong and beloved local beer portfolio and Robinson said that New Belgium had no intention to cause local breweries to suffer. New Belgium itself has a love for local beer. To support this, New Belgium is planning on bringing a brewer here for collaborations with local breweries.
On a positive note, Robinson believes that the high level of quality standards under which New Belgium operates will maintain and even increase the quality of other accounts. “Better competition creates a better self.” His message of appeasement to the local accounts is:
Local sells! New Belgium will do very well here but they will not be our number one craft supplier.
The craft beer market in Western New York currently makes up approximately 10% of total sales. That has grown over the last couple of years from approximately 7%. Robinson, in-line with Brewers Association projections, predict that by 2020 the craft beer market share will grow to 20%.
As exciting as craft beer growth is in Western New York, it is no secret the area is still dominated by macro beers like Labatt Blue Light and Bud Light. Therefore, a considerable market share remains to be seized. I asked Robinson what some of the most important things that distributors, breweries and even consumers can do in order to expose WNY’ers to craft beer.
One idea is to expose new market segments and demographics to the craft beer industry, even if beer is not necessarily the main attraction. An example of this is Food Truck Tuesday’s at Larkin Square, which attracts a diverse audience.
Another idea is that craft beer bars and restaurants should include widely-accepted beer to get people in the door. The expectation is that customers can then be introduced to new styles and brands without craft beer being the only option.
Also, there is some consumer-driven responsibility; instead of accepting a lackluster beer line-up at the local tavern, people should consistently ask for craft beer options. Basic economic principles suggest that with an increase in demand there will be an increase in supply.
Robinson believe that one must tread carefully when introducing someone to a new craft beer. The beer of choice should be something not too far away from what they’re used to. Before you know it, they will be an advocate of craft beer.
I wrapped up our conversation by asking Robinson a few questions about his favorite local beers.
Q: You’re sitting around a campfire with friends, what local beer is the choice?
Robinson: I would like something a little more hearty. Flying Bison Rusty Chain would probably be the one.
Q: Finally, if you’re entertaining friends from out of town where do you take them for the quintessential Buffalo beer experience?
Robinson: That is a hard question with all the great choices out there but sticking downtown for a brewery tour is a great way to spend a night. Flying Bison is a perfect place to get things started, then head over to Big Ditch for dinner and then on to Resurgence for the fun, party-like atmosphere. If there was time left in the night I would get them over to Mr. Goodbar for their great late-night environment and beer-centric line up.
So regardless of what direction you’re viewing the local craft beer scene from, distributors, brewers, retailers and consumers can all agree that these are exciting times for Buffalo area beer lovers. And we’re just getting started.
This is an interview in a series of guest entries by students in the Practical Brewing class at Erie Community College. Students were asked to conduct an interview with a person of their choosing in the brewing industry.
Ian McLennan is currently an intern at Flying Bison Brewing Company as part of his requirements for a state certification program in Brewing Sciences and Services at Erie Community College.