Tuesday, 17 March 2015 17:56

Beer Distribution, Then and Now: A Chat with Tom Del Sarto

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Eastbound and down, loaded up and truckin'
Ah we gonna do what they say can't be done
We've got a long way to go, and a short time to get there
I'm eastbound, just watch old Bandit run

Keep your foot hard on the pedal
Son, never mind them brakes
Let it all hang out cause we got a run to make
The boys are thirsty in Atlanta
and there's beer in Texarkana
We'll bring it back no matter what it takes”

Over three decades ago, believe it or not, Coors Banquet Beer was the best American breweries had to offer. Brewed with rocky mountain spring water around Golden, Colorado, President Eisenhower airlifted supplies to the White House via Air Force One. Keith Richards would keep cans onstage and Clint Eastwood and Ray Charles even sang a duet praising the beer.

Bootlegging the original Coors beer even made a great plotline for a movie: Smokey and the Bandit.

Yep, there were Coors connoisseurs.

I’ll give you a moment.

In 1974, “The Beer That Won The West” Time story told of one enterprising fella who made weekly refrigerated truck runs from Denver to Charlotte, making a nice profit along the way.

A different fella, whom I recently sat next to sipping my Lost Abbey Red Poppy Ale at Eureka Burger, had witnessed beer bootlegging firsthand, as a promising Coors salesman in 1978. Tom Del Sarto is currently the Director of Sales at Coachella Valley Brewing. But his beer career began as an 18 year old in 1975.

“I actually made a wrong turn looking for my summer job and they told me that it wasn’t there anymore. So, as I was driving back home, I thought, what do I do now?”

It was then that Del Sarto saw the Coors Distributor sign and stopped, only to find his baseball coach. Also working for the distributor, his coach gave him what many young men have thirsted for: the opportunity to sell beer for a living.

Starting his career in Redwood City, California, with a family run distributor, Del Sarto started in the recycling department and then worked his way up to driver, still at just 18 years old. At 20, Del Sarto was promoted to District Supervisor, managing a team of five people.

By 23, he was the youngest sales manager in the country for Coors.

Del Sarto learned the business from the bottom, up, not just by learning the ropes, but by taking nearly all the classes offered by the company.  He worked with the “Godfather of the Business”, Bob Franceschini, Bay Area beverage distributor and President of Coors West Regal Beverages. By his 29th birthday, he was the VP/GM and partner of Coors West / South Bay Beverage. That ‘wrong turn’ turned into a 25 year career with the same distributor.

Today, Del Sarto carries more than 38 years of experience in beer distribution and sales.

Between Prohibition and 1976, Coors was available in only 11 states, all in the West. Beer wasn't available east of Oklahoma at the time.  It wouldn’t reach all 50 states until it landed in Indiana in 1991.

Del Sarto’s first big sell was a truck full of Coors Banquet to a liquor store in Milbrae, California in 1978. After lining up cases along the building and leaving, Tom’s intuition told him to drive back. He peaked around the corner and saw that the owner was restacking the coveted beer in a different truck to re-sell east of The Sooner State.

Del Sarto explains the biggest differences between selling beer in the 70s and 80s and today. It comes down to volume.

Today’s craft beer landscape has brought consumers more choice, making distributors carry more breweries than ever before. The demand for more training and sales people continue to rise and some are meeting this demand.

To help meet this demand and continued rise of craft beer, Del Sarto also consults for two Northern California premium brand distributors.

“I train distributor management on how to get the most out of suppliers. When I have my CVB hat on, I’m the supplier getting the most out of the distributor. So, it’s an easy thing to transition – to do both sides.”

The three-tier system requires all beer to go through a middle-man, known as the distributor (or a wholesaler).  The distributor does the on-the-ground sales and marketing for the producer, and the distributors sells the beer to retailers, all the while making sure the breweries are well represented.

“Brand loyalty is a big thing. The problem is keeping people from switching to another beer of the week and getting people to come back to your brand…It’s all about the consistency of the liquid. I think we’re making better beers than we ever have created, in history. I think the choices are awesome and people are starting to understand it.”

In Nov, US brewery count passed the mark of 3,200 brewers in the country. On March 16, 2015, the Brewers Association released 2014 data on U.S. craft brewing growth. For the first-time ever, craft brewers reached double-digit (11 percent) volume share of the marketplace. It’s been a challenge for some distributors and wholesalers to adapt to and accommodate the rapidly growing craft-beer industry.

Not for Del Sarto.

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Del Sarto handled the partnership between Young’s Market one year ago for CVB’s Desert Swarm, Kölschella and Monumentous to be distributed throughout California.

Because of the massive volume of craft beer and breweries in the state, California also allows self-distribution with no limits as to production size.  

Breweries like Russian River and Kern River take advantage of this allowance to deliver their beer with expertise and passion. Stone Brewing Co. operates a self-distribution network, carrying over 30 craft and specialty brands to Los Angeles, Orange, Riverside, San Bernardino, and San Diego counties. Greg Koch and Arlan Arnsten, Stone Brewing’s Vice President of Sales, started the Craft Beer Wholesalers Conference back in 2004 and like the craft beer industry itself, it continues to grow.

“The generation that is kind of moving this, it’s a pretty big age group. They don’t want to be sold to…they want to make their personal selections. They want to work with their buddies and say ‘hey, such and such is on tap over here and you need to try it’.  That, to me, is much more powerful. This generational cult following …”

Just then, the Anheuser Busch Superbowl ad came on the tv.

“What is the chance of that?!” he laughed.

We continued to enjoy our So Cal craft brews.

Sales of mass-market beers like Budweiser, Old Milwaukee, Miller Genuine Draft and Michelob Light have slumped. Michelob Light sales have fallen from more than 1 million barrels in 2007 to around 350,000 barrels in 2012, a drop of 70%, according to BeerInsights.com. Budweiser sales have declined for more than two decades.  

And this decline is one of the reasons Anheuser Busch spent millions of dollars on the defensive, anti-craft Superbowl commercial.  We agreed it was a bizarre approach to winning over these young beer drinkers.

This year, Forbes announced two craft beers from California breweries – Ballast Point’s Sculpin IPA and North Coast’s Old Rasputin – made their list of 30 best beers available in Brazil


What a difference 30 years has made.  

Del Sarto thinks that the next big opportunity for the craft beer industry is with the Hispanic market.

“The brands that will succeed are the brands that go beyond their own backyard.”

Del Sarto also thinks that innovative packaging and styles will continue to be hot in the coming years.

We all have our favorite beers and breweries, but what if someone asked you who your favorite distributor was? A bewildered stare would likely follow.

But think about this: distributors function as the go-between of thousands of delicious craft beers and the bars and retailers that carry them, enabling consumers to easily purchase the savory suds.  

Several major names in distribution today are Craft Beer Guild Distribution of California, Miller, Young’s Market Company, Southern Wine and Spirits, AB Sales of San Diego and Crest Beverage. We all know who CVB's current favorite is.

So, what does Del Sarto love about his job?

“I love the people in the industry. Beer is fun. When asked what I do, I always get a smile.”

And Del Sarto has brought smiles to thousands of beer drinkers across several western states, over nearly four decades. So, what's next for CVB?  Del Sarto just got back from skiing in Vail. 

With a grin, "They knew who we were, the name resonated. Who knows, maybe Colorado?"

Thanks to knowledgable and hard working beer lovers like Del Sarto, bootlegging beers is history and craft choice is the future.

Read 6315 times Last modified on Thursday, 19 March 2015 00:05
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