A single case or keg of beer passes through so many hands on its way from a brewery’s packaging line to the consumer’s glass: the delivery vehicle en route to the distributor, the distributor warehouse and loading dock, the local delivery vehicle, the retailer, and even the consumer’s refrigerator or closet. At every handoff, there’s the possibility for the next link in the supply chain to undo all the hard work upstream that’s gone into producing consistently top-notch beer.
While the practices described here might seem old hat to many distributors, it’s remarkable how many distributorships, large and small, come up short on one or more of these dimensions.
Cold Transport and Storage
The Brewers Association (BA) recommends that all draught beer be transported and stored between 33° and 40°F, and that all packaged beer be transported and stored between 33° and 49°F. Yes, this means those costly refrigeration units in your cold rooms and trucks need to run year-round in the southern U.S. and for large portions of the year nearly everywhere else.
Local delivery trucks are one link in the supply chain under distributor control least likely to follow these recommendations. A chart from the BA’s Draught Quality Manual shows the impact of unrefrigerated delivery on the beer that reaches retailers. A keg starting at 38°F that is held at “room temperature” on a delivery truck can rise to 48°F in only six hours but take 23.5 hours to return to 38°F when stored in a 38°F cooler. The swing is more profound when the temperatures inside a delivery truck rise above room temperature.
Create a standard operating procedure (SOP) to manage your products code dates. This means processing the beer in a first in first out (FIFO) order, and removing out of code beer from circulation. FIFO is easy to practice in theory, and for your fast moving and high volume packages, but inevitably tricky for that long tail of small volume SKUs. Implement a regular system and schedule of audits to tie up your loose ends.
As for code dates, these can prove more complicated still, as suppliers follow a variety of practices, using “packed on” or “best by” dates in standard, Julian, or even custom proprietary formats. Make it a point to document the code date formats your suppliers’ use and to make this information quickly accessible to your warehouse teams at the point of use, out on the floor. Don’t be afraid to approach your suppliers to express the code dating practices that would help you maintain the integrity of their beer. While not every supplier will be amendable or able to change their coding practices, some will.
If all this sounds like a big job, well, that’s because it is. Appointing a quality manager at your distributorship can make a world of difference, whether that’s a role assumed by an existing employee with other duties or a new hire. In this role, the distributor quality manager collects supplier code date practices and quality standards, audits facilities and vehicles for temperature control, oversees FIFO maintenance, clears out of code inventory from retail and your floor regularly (monthly), and educates the rest of your staff on how their roles and the way they are executed contributes to quality through the supply chain.
Tasting: Where the Rubber Meets the Road
If everything so far sounds familiar, congratulations! You’ve got strong systems and practices to help maintain the quality of the craft beer you handle. But how do you know it’s working and worth it? It’s all in the taste. Building an educated tasting panel can help increase your sales force effectiveness and serve as an early warning system for quality issues in the supply chain.
Distributor Tasting Panel Do’s and Don’ts
|Do approach your panel as an educational exercise designed to increase your team’s understanding and proficiency selling and handling the brands you represent.
|Don’t build your panel to act as a second go/no-go decision making body with respect to your products. Breweries spend years and countless training hours in repeated, results-based testing to develop validated panelists who can pass judgment on the quality of their products without bias.
|Do contact a brewery in your portfolio with a strong sensory program and ask if they can help you develop yours. Most would be thrilled to assist.
|Don’t feel like you need to reinvent the wheel as your develop your program. There are great resources available through your suppliers, the Brewers Association, and often local universities as well.
|Do engage as many of your team members as possible in tasting panel participation. Everyone from the drivers, to the route reps, management, and the warehouse team makes decisions each day that impact beer quality. Experience tasting allows you to show rather than tell them why this is important.
|Don’t force employees to participate. There are a variety of personal, religious, occupational and health reasons why an employee may not feel comfortable participating. Volunteers make the best panelists and you can recruit more by making the panel a fun, social activity with occasional rewards for participation.
|Do ask your suppliers for their “true to brand” descriptions of their products and invite a member of their team to lead a guided tasting with your panel.
|Don’t send your panelists out the door with tasting notes that vary wildly from a brewery’s own. While everyone’s palate is different, your suppliers entrust you to represent their brands as they would themselves. If the liquid in the bottle seems markedly different from a brewery’s description of it, alert them so that they can investigate the discrepancy.
|Do train your team to recognize the “true to brand” tastes and aromas of their products. Use “spikes” and beer held at high temperatures or well beyond its code date to introduce your team to what a particular brand tastes like when exposed to diacetyl, oxidation or other quality-compromising compounds and processes.
|Don’t assume your team can differentiate common off-flavors without training. Even many devoted beer drinkers have a hard time distinguishing common off-flavors until tasting them head-to-head in a specific beer.
|Do provide a classroom-like setting with clean glassware, a place to write notes and opportunities to discuss.
|Don’t get intimidated and worry about setting up a state-of-the-art sensory space if you’re just getting started.
When Concerns Arise
From time to time, you find that beer in trade or in your warehouse that raises questions about its quality. It’s tempting to shrug and move on because investigating quality issues can be tricky and time-consuming. But your brands depend on your attentiveness to quality concerns. In today’s competitive marketplace, there are too many tempting alternatives to entice a consumer who’s had a bad bottle or pint into giving a brand another chance. When concerns arise it’s best to:
- Contact your brand’s local market manager first. Ask to be put in touch with the brewery’s quality control manager, and keep both of those folks in the loop as discussions progress.
- Put the questionable beer on hold immediately to avoid sending any (more) of it out to retailers. Get the specific case or keg in question sent back to the brewery via refrigerated overnight shipping (which your supplier ought to support). The clock is ticking!
- Provide as much information as you can to your supplier about your concerns. What seems to be wrong and what evidence supports that conclusion? For the beer in question, provide the brand, package format, lot number, the date you received it, the shipping company (if necessary) and a list of retailers who have already received it and on which dates.
- Work together to investigate the concern and develop an action plan. Sometimes it’s a false alarm whose flames have been fanned by confirmation bias. Sometimes it’s a problem with the retailer’s draft system. And sometimes it’s a problem that has developed or has always been present in the beer itself.
- Once you’ve made a conclusion, take the actions necessary to prevent consumers from drinking non-true to brand beer. It’s all too easy to investigate, uncover the cause of the concern, and then conclude that doing anything about it is too difficult. Communicate with your suppliers about your expectations and theirs about how together you will remove sub-par beer from the marketplace.
This article was written by the market development committee as part of the BA Insider—a free email publication sent quarterly by the Brewers Association. Each issue covers topics relevant to craft beer distributors.