I’ve never really thought of STL Hops as a “blog.” I mean the word “blog” already has a pretty nasty connotation, but this website has never really been about opinions or “what beer am I drinking?” I’ve tried to keep it mostly about news and information about beer in St. Louis.

But, there are plenty of stories to be told inside the beer business. I’m hoping to create a new little series of posts talking about how that beer gets into your glass and onto the shelves from different people in the industry. This post is from me, talking a bit about one leg of the three-tier system.

There has been a lot of discussion about beer freshness on the STL Hops forums as of late. With my job now being firmly apart of the beer industry and I thought it would be productive for some to have a look  inside one aspect of the beer business: distribution.  Here are a couple of things I’ve learned along the way:

1. Forecasting is hard.
When a new brand launches you typically try and bring in as much beer as you can because people go ga-ga for it as soon as it’s released. But, after that, you’re trying to always figure out how much you’re going to need each month. With a new brand it’s almost impossible to know what you’re going to need because you have no historical data to help.

Couple that with having to usually buy beer 45-60 days in advance and it’s not an easy task. This is sometimes why you’ll see old beer sitting out there. Rather than run out a distributor may purchase A LOT to begin with just to make sure it stays on the shelves. Shelf space is a very important part of the business and if you can’t continually and regularly provide beer you may not be able to put it on the shelf the next time it comes in.

While a lot of us probably buy our beers at places like Wine and Cheese, Lukas, or Randall’s, most of the beer sold is in grocery stores.  They’re not very forgiving about empty shelf space, which means a lot of beer will be purchased to keep them happy.

It’s difficult to keep that happy balance of fresh beer, plenty of inventory, and the next cog: shipping.
2. Shipping makes things difficult.
Ever wonder why some places get their special one-off releases before other places? Sometimes it’s because the brewery doesn’t have it available. But most of the time it’s because the beer got released outside of the distributor’s shipping cycle. If I just received an order and Capt. Billy’s Bourbon Brett Imperial Mild just got released, it’ll have to wait until the next shipping cycle because it would cost an astronomical amount for the brewery to ship it outside of the normal shipping.

Which gets us to another reason we may see lots of “older” beer in the area, when you’re shipping from anywhere that’s not within a 80 mile radius, you have to order enough beer to keep shipping prices low thereby keeping beer prices (and margins) in check.

In a perfect world I’d be able to order one pallet of certain beers at a time to make sure that we run through them quickly and they’re always fresh. But, that’s not economically feasible for reasons stated above.

If Brewery A from the East Coast is selling plenty of beer each month, this isn’t a problem. But if Brewery B is kind of slow, then it’s kind of a chicken and egg scenario. People aren’t buying the beer because it’s old and I can’t order the fresh stuff because people aren’t buying beer.

3. Consumers are fickle.
I’m just as guilty of this as anyone but when Founders was first released, I couldn’t get enough, when Ska was first released, I couldn’t get enough, when Green Flash was first released, I couldn’t get enough…

See a pattern here? I’m sure you’re guilty of it as well. We all gravitate toward what’s new. We often forget about what we already have that’s awesome. I enjoyed a Lagunitas IPA last night for the first time in a while and guess what? It was pretty fantastic. Craft drinkers are not exactly the most loyal consumers on the planet and that certainly adds to the fact that beer begins to sit.

So, go out and buy something you may have not bought in a while. I don’t expect you to purchase something that’s 6 months old, but are you really going to turn your nose up at an IPA that’s 6-8 weeks old? That’s still pretty darn fresh and we’re still lucky to get some of the awesome brands we’ve been getting.

If you have any questions or want to debate some of these points, please feel free to use the comments, I’ll be happy to discuss.