The Disconnect

Martin Johnson - A weak link in the chain.

Usually my boss and I collaborate on the beer program at my store.I tell people that I’m the creative director and he’s the executive director.But sometimes the roles reverse themselves and I’m playing adult, vetoing some urge of his to order super expensive, but rare and geeky beer.Anyway, he was away early this week, which left the entirety of the beer ordering in my hands.No big deal to me, I’ve done it before when he was out sick, and he knows that I’m as likely to bring in a bunch of new and exciting beer with him looking over my shoulder as I am without.

Anyway, I was placing an order with one of our medium sized suppliers. It was mostly a rote conversation of filling in the conventional needs of our inventory until we came to a new chocolate stout that we were running low on.I told him I didn’t want to reorder because we were expecting a new shipment of the famed Brooklyn Black Chocolate Stout later in the week. 

Then I paused and thought quickly, I didn’t know the chocolate stout on the shelf, what if it’s more milk chocolate in its overtones? If it was, then it would be a nice contrast to the Brooklyn stout and I could carry both.I had taken a liking to this sales rep; he seemed thoughtful and professional.So I asked him about the flavor of the stout on the shelf and told him if he thought it was a good contrast to the Brooklyn, I’d be happy to carry both.His response stunned me.

“Oh, I don’t know, I don’t drink.”

That completely mystified me and I’m sure my poker face failed me because he quickly explained that he had just never been into alcoholic beverages, but he’d taken 200 hours of courses so that he could tell me what each beer tasted like.

I tried to process that for a minute.200 hours of coursework notwithstanding, he couldn’t tell me what one of his new products tasted like.If he’d read the direction of the conversation and lied and told me that it was a striking contrast to the Brooklyn, I would have ordered $100 more of the beer.The candor was admirable, if all the more mystifying.I decided to move on and review what my PBR needs were, as it was one of his flagship beers.

The teetotaler underscores one of the biggest problems at the retail level of craft beer.Too many sales reps don’t know their stuff.They are there to fill in an order sheet.I don’t think that every craft beer sales rep should be a certified cicerone, but some knowledge and enthusiasm for the product doesn’t hurt.It would help them sell more beer.Of the ten sales reps I deal with regularly, four are really into beer and guess what, those four get lots of orders.There’s a steady dialogue between us about what’s coming.They stop by and review the case, so that they can say, “hey, I’ve got a new IPA and it’s the middle ground between these two that you carry.”

Knowing your product and caring about your customers - I feel so old school for having to advocate it.

Craft beer is highly dependent on local distributors and if those distributors don’t care about the product, then it’s like having soldiers on the front who don’t care about winning the battle.The brewers deserve better, and so do the craft beer drinkers.

The Author:

Martin Johnson is a beer buyer and merchandising manager for Westside Market East Village in New York City.When not selling or drinking beer he writes about jazz and beer for the Wall Street Journal, basketball for Slate, beer for Eater and about a variety of cultural and culinary topics for The Root.

The views and opinions expressed herein are those of the author's alone and do not necessarily reflect the views of Ora Media, LLC, its affiliates, or its employees.

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