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Hey! Why can't I find Dogfish Head? (or, How a beer gets from us to you)

Mon, 10/07/2013 - 10:22am

In a perfect world, we'd package a batch of beer one day, and the next day it would appear on taps and shelves in all 27 states where our off-centered ales are sold.

But if you've ever hunted for a highly sought-after beer from Dogfish Head or any other small, independent brewery, you know we don't live in that perfect world.

Take our fall seasonal, Punkin Ale. We release Punkin every year on Labor Day weekend. We're in coastal Delaware, and that's the unofficial end of summer around here, so that just feels right. Any earlier would give us that feeling you get when you start seeing Santa in September.

So if you come to our Milton brewery or Rehoboth Beach brewpub on Labor Day weekend, you'll find Punkin Ale on our taps and shelves. Easy-peasy.

The rest of our distribution footprint? Well, that's a little trickier.

packagingAfter our off-centered ales leave our brewery, they head to one of nearly 100 wholesalers nationwide.

As odd as this might sound, you – the beer drinker – aren't our customer. Yes, we love you and need you and want you, but by the time our beer gets to your glass, it's switched hands a few times.

It's a long story, but here's the rub: After the repeal of Prohibition, the states set up a three-tiered distribution system of producers, distributors and retailers. The three- tier system does a lot of things – protects consumers from unlicensed products, helps smaller producers get on shelves, regulates tax collection and prevents corruption – but it also means producers like Dogfish Head don't have much control over their product once it leaves the loading dock. We don't get to say where our beer goes, when it goes, or how much it's sold for once it's there.

Our customers are that second tier, the distributors, and we work with nearly 100 throughout the country. And just like each of the more than 2,500 American craft breweries have their own way of doing things, their own philosophies and their own idiosyncracies, so too do all of those wholesalers.

Back to Punkin. It's our biggest seasonal release, so we roll it out to wholesalers in stages. After all, there's only so much time on the bottling line, even when we're brewing around the clock. The wholesalers then sell it to retailers. Some of those wholesalers and retailers work with us to hit that Labor Day release right on the nose. That makes us happy.

But others jump the gun and start selling Punkin before Labor Day weekend. We think that kind of misses the point of a fall seasonal. Still others wait until they get their first few shipments before getting the beer to market.

And keep in mind, they have dozens, if not hundreds, of retailers to deliver beer to, so their rollout goes in stages, too. That's why you might see a Dogfish Facebook post that says, "Hey, we just released Punkin," but not find it right away at your favorite bar or retailer.

“My favorite store doesn't have the beer I'm looking for, but the gas station
on the other side of town does. What gives?”

When the demand for a beer is out in front of supply, the wholesalers have to decide who they'll sell the beer to and who they won't. It's called allocation, and it all comes down to the relationships between wholesalers and retailers. We're out of the picture on that one.

“Well, why don't you just brew more?”

In the case of the wildly popular Punkin, we've been brewing 10 percent more each year for the past few years. But we don't want to be the Punkin Ale Brewing Co., or the 60 Minute Brewing Co., for that matter. We're Dogfish Head, and we like to brew a whole bunch of different beers. Brewing more of one means brewing less of another, and we love all of our off-centered children.

To catch up with demand, we've been brewing and packaging six and seven days a week for a few months now, and we are close to finishing up an eight-figure expansion that will allow us to brew and package even more. But in the grand scheme of things, we still only brew 1/10 of 1 percent of all the beer sold in the U.S. We are growing, but we're focused on growing at a strong, steady pace that allows us to stay true to ourselves.

“I found the beer I was looking for, but it's too expensive!”

We strive to make world-class beer. To do that, you need world-class ingredients and a world-class team of co-workers. We don't take shortcuts, we don't dumb- down our beers, and we don't discount to clear the shelves.

That said, things occasionally get out of control at the retail level, especially with some of our most extreme beers like 120 Minute IPA and World Wide Stout. It's called price-gouging, and it stinks, but it's not illegal. Although we can’t tell retailers what to charge, we do reach out and let them know their customers think they’re being a bit over-zealous.

“OK, OK, I get it! But what can I do?”

Our Fish Finder app is your friend. The Fish Finder can give you a snapshot of where you can find your favorite Dogfish Head beers. Just punch in your ZIP code, and voila, we'll tell you where your favorite beer has been delivered in the past 60 days. You can search for a specific beer, by store or by bar, and narrow it down from 100 to 5 miles away. Not all of our wholesalers report their data to the app, but it's a good place to start. And just to be sure, it's always smart to call ahead before you make a trip.

Some wholesalers also have their own version of the Fish Finder. At greatbrewers.com and with the BeerCloud app, the craft-only Hunterdon Distributors in New Jersey allows customers to search for beer in their neighborhoods.

And if you have a question or request for a distributor, feel free to drop them a line. They are usually more than happy to accommodate customers. Here’s a list of our wholesalers.

Phew! That was a lot. Thanks for understanding the wild web that is beer distribution. I don’t know about you, but I need a beer. Let’s check the Fish Finder to see what’s out there!