Gone are the days when San Antonio lacked craft brewers. It’s fair to say the city has undergone a beer renaissance in recent years.
But that’s not to say its bevvy of new beers are well-represented on store shelves or bar taps.
Local brewers say they’re waging an uphill battle to get their products to a wider retail audience, and the growing number of craft breweries snapped up by conglomerates like Anheuser-Busch InBev have only made that fight harder.
“There’s a distinct difference between making a good product and being good at the competitive part of the landscape,” said Randy Ward, head brewer of Dorćol Distilling + Brewing Co., producer of the High Wheel beers. “The fight for tap space is incredibly competitive, and it’s getting worse.”
Dorćol more than doubled its production from 2017 to 2018 and last year was named the state’s fastest-growing independent brewery by the Brewers Association. Even so, it serves just 100 bars, only three of them outside of San Antonio.
With some 300 breweries now competing in Texas, it makes more sense for self-distributed Dorćol to focus on being a “village brewer” and serving the immediate community, Ward said.
Indeed, several local production brewers say that if they were getting into the business today, they would choose to open a brewpub and cater to a neighborhood clientele rather than face the state’s cutthroat retail market.
While many local brewers produce a half dozen or more styles, most are lucky to land one or two on store shelves, said Tim Campion, a vice president at San Antonio’s GLI Distributing, which handles craft brands such as Busted Sandal alongside Pabst and other mass-market brews.
H-E-B and other grocers have opened up more shelf space for craft product, but the aisle is still dominated by mass-produced brands like Budweiser, Miller and Coors. Not to mention, the nationwide proliferation of craft brewers has made the remaining space far more competitive.
And the battle for tap space is even tougher, Campion points out. If a beer doesn’t move quickly at a bar or restaurant, management is quick to replace it with a known quantity with a guaranteed track record.
“If you get on a tap ahead of your brand’s trend, you’re not going to keep it,” Campion said. “And once you’ve lost that tap, it’s really, really hard to get it back a second time.”
Complicating matters, brewing conglomerates have been on a nationwide buying spree, snapping up craft brewers. ABInbev bought Houston’s Karbach Brewing Co. three years ago, for example, and DFW’s Revolver Brewing Co. became a MillerCoors property shortly before that.
That corporate backing gives one-time indies like Karbach an upper hand when vying for tap space, especially when reps can offer it as part of a package deal with sure sellers like Bud and Bud Light, local brewers say.
“At the end of the day, our biggest competition is ignorance,” said Eugene Simor, CEO of Alamo Beer Co. “People just aren’t aware that there are all these great products being made locally.”
Last month, a new Texas law allowed breweries to sell beer to go for the first time, giving craft brewers another opportunity to put their products in customers’ hands. Under the old regulations, brewery visitors could buy beers at a brewery tap room but were unable to take six-packs and growlers home.
“That news was really well received by our customers last month,” Dorćol’s Ward said. “It’s hard to tell whether that’s because it’s something new or whether the interest will last.”
While selling beer on-site is one way to build a customer base, it’s not a quick process. Without the kind of ad budgets boasted by the conglomerates, craft brewers are forced to take a face-to-face approach to building awareness and brand identity.
For Dorćol, that includes holding tastings for bar staffs to make sure they understand the product and can help sell it to customers, Ward said. It also includes personalized customer service, from rushing a delivery to one account that forgot to place its order to helping another fix a problem with its tap system.
For its part, Alamo Beer sponsors a half-dozen events and does 40 in-store tastings each month to get its brews in front of customers and build a personal connection.
In the end, San Antonio’s craft brewers are waging their war for retail space one beer drinker at a time, according to Simor.
“I don’t think the CEO of Budweiser is going to walk into your bar, shake your hand and thank you for your business,” he said.
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