Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Wednesday Weekly: A spate of respectful bristling, non-contractually speaking.

Three weeks ago, I carefully collated and groomed a growing collection of bilious secretions that had been accumulating, and launched a rant into the world.

There were four responses, and since three of them came from Chinese spammers trying to sell me adulterated Viagra, freeze-dried dim sum and/or a sheet metal factory in Harbin owned by the Army of the People’s Republic (not People’s Brewing in northern Indiana, which makes excellent beer), it was the fourth and final comment that drew my attention. Follow the link and scroll down to read it.

Wednesday Weekly: "Contract," my ass.

The fourth response was written in the King’s English, and came from my good friend Jim Schembre, whose World Class Beverages wholesale business brings loads of craft beer into Indiana. Jim has taken his craft beer business model to other locales throughout America, and although I’m not privy to exact numbers, it’s safe to say that he’s one of the prime movers and shakers for the distribution of craft beer – not just here in Indiana, but in the whole United States.

Hoosiers influencing the country?

That’s a great thing and I’m for it if you’re Jim Schembre or Larry Bird. Not if you’re Dan Quayle or Mitch Daniels, but I digress.

Observe that Indiana’s largest beer wholesaler is Monarch Beverage. Oceans of Miller and Coors products pass through Monarch’s warehouse in Indianapolis, which is only slightly less roomy than Lucas Oil Stadium.

As an aside, permit me to note that Monarch only tangentially was the topic of my rant three weeks ago. It could have been any wholesaler, anywhere, in Monarch’s position of broad market dominance, and consequently useful for me to cite as an example of what sort of attitudes can stand in the way of a local craft brewer in certain situations.

Anyway, Monarch’s website notes that World Class Beverages has grown 500% since its founding in 2001, and this surely testifies to Jim’s hard work and vision. If you’re new to this, it may also cause some confusion. I’ll let Monarch speak for itself:

“The newest division, World Class Beverages, represents independent and microbreweries … ”

That World Class Beverages is a division of Monarch explains many things, among them Jim’s understandable instinct to leap to its defense in his comment. I don’t think I’m speaking out of turn to posit that Monarch’s larger corporate vision and willingness to underwrite Jim’s prescience played a significant part in animating his laudable success with World Class Beverages.

If I’m misreading any of this, please correct me. It’s fitting that Jim should seek to straighten the record in this fashion. I concede his employment and payroll statistics, even if quoting Monarch’s entire payroll does not make it entirely “craft” in orientation … as we’re soon to see.

Yes, I will concede Monarch’s length and breadth throughout the state of Indiana, but in a spirit of contrarian, small business stubbornness, not mere semantics, I persist in holding that while this makes Monarch a suitably powerful statewide entity, it does not magically render it into a “local” entity in any sensible meaning of the word “local.”

Thinking back to the example I gave of a spokesperson explaining beer choices made by a concessionaire, first as the result of a contract, which we all know can’t legally exist, then by citing Monarch’s status as a local company (try again), then by “it’s how we’ve always done it – see the calendar over yonder; it’s 2010, folks – and contrasting these various uninformed excuses for not knowing about local craft beer options (how much trouble is it to spend ten minutes on the Internet, anyway?) with the knowledge that Monarch possesses a specialty craft division and thinks enough of it to brag on the same information superhighway about it, then …

Then … if Monarch knows and thinks enough about craft beer’s growth and profit potential to start a whole new division and invest in it for a decade, shouldn’t the company’s own Monarch sales people down here in Yokelburg be touting situational local craft placement – their own company’s division’s stock in trade – as a possibility for civic concessions arrangements?

Wouldn’t doing so actually help Monarch as a whole?

Wouldn’t Monarch want to balance the portfolio and expand the perimeter by informing a customer of all the possibilities?

Isn’t that sort of fair and balanced offering of information precisely the sort of education that Jim rightly touts as essential to changing the game?

But in his response to my rant, Jim strangely waves away eighty years of mass market chicanery (wink wink, nudge nudge … you’re free to BELIEVE it’s a contract even if it isn’t) by holding that it is neither Monarch’s responsibility to offer, nor the local concessionaire’s to ask, because obviously, the event’s sheep-like attendees, faced with a grand total of two choices (Light and Lighter) are not standing up, raising hell, and demanding locally brewed craft beer.

Okay, granted, I suppose not everyone is as outspoken as me. And yet verily, I hear a dozen complaints a week from people who lament the absence of local choice in these situations, and yes, they should be voting with their wallets by keeping those wallets in their pockets and not spending on swill, but damn it, Jim, it’s a two way street, isn’t it?

When wearing its Monarch tag, your own company apparently is not doing you any favors when it comes to selling the broader portfolio that includes World Class. The reps enter the orders for swill, check their cell phones, harvest their paychecks, and move on to the next dull karaoke bar.

Now, I’m famously contemptuous of the lack of discernment in just plain folks, and it gets me in trouble all the time. I never learn. And yet, working to subvert choice and to pre-empt market access is not something plain folks can do much about, even with their earnest complaints and clearly stated preferences. It is not trying let me down easy with mumbo-jumbo because no one wants my company's beer and they're too nice to say so. It is monopolistic, good old boy bullshit, and it's what the craft beer movement is devoted to exposing for what it is: Wrong.


Know that Jim and I have indeed spoken about this matter on many occasions. We fully agree that consumers need to brighten up, that brewers, wholesalers and retailers must ceaselessly educate and inform. All the parts must work together for us to begin aggressively entering the majority percentile and growing the segment at a faster rate. It’s all crystal clear. None of this is to be construed as any more than an extension of a chat that has continued through the years.

But, Jim, hear what I’m saying to ya: How can it be as much the consumer’s burden to bear, as you suggest, when entities like Monarch itself, specialty division or not, still have so much to gain by preserving the status quo of swill?

And, if Monarch understands that the status quo someday will change and has invested (in my view, properly) in alternatives, why do its own people so often fight against diversity to preserve the status quo and to perpetuate ignorance?

You simply have to know that this is the way it works, and to say that the consumer must of his own accord fight gallantly through the thicket of beer business as usual to the exclusion of the beer business's own responsibility to educate – even Monarch's, for chrissakes – is a bit disingenuous, perhaps not to the extent that three pints of Elector compel me to state it here and now, but disingenuous nonetheless.

Isn’t it true that consumers can’t choose what’s kept invisible? Isn't it over-simplistic to assert that they only need ask for it, and the beer business as usual will give it to them?

Come to think of it, neither Monarch nor World Class carries a locally brewed craft beer strictly in the Southern Indiana context, so neither actually could offer such an option in my "local" sense of the usage. But that’s another story for another time, and one that I’m expecting Jim to scald me (justifiably) for when we meet next week.

Make no mistake: I admire Jim’s chutzpah and passion, and I know the feeling’s mutual. As they say, it’s all good between us. On this issue, we have an honest disagreement, and I look forward to discussing it in more depth with him when craft beer is on hand.


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