By EMMA SCHMITZ | Moonshine Ink
Tahoe is known for mountain landscapes, outdoor recreation, world-class ski resorts, and — craft beer? As liquids are wont to do, beer has been steadily seeping its way into this bustling mountain town thanks to passionate people taking on the challenge of providing craft beer to a thirsty audience. (Plus, local crafters at FiftyFifty gained clout at the last Great American Beer Festival.)
Since beer and the outdoors go hand-in-hand, you’d think everyone would stock the best independent beers around — but it’s not that easy. Moonshine Ink consulted with a handful of North Tahoe craft beer retailers and one regional distributor about how and why they get fresh, quality, certified independent beer to their people.
Tapping craft kegs and stocking craft cans in a relatively remote and rugged region isn’t simply a matter of shipping and receiving. The Craft Beer Fairy doesn’t drive up and down Interstate 80 all week long dropping off beer at local retailers. Those Budweiser and Coors semis you see on the highway are doing just that — big beer reps mass-distributing big beer. And the little guys feel it.
Hayden Pruitt, owner of Truckee Philosophy, admits that their greatest challenge comes down to distribution. “The networks are really set up to push the big brands, which is why you can find Coors and Bud Light everywhere you go,” he said. “We’re willing to go the extra mile to get Rare Barrel or Moonraker on tap.” A business must be willing to do the extra work to stock quality craft beer in the mountains.
Nevada retailers like Incline Village Spirits & Cigars face an even greater distribution challenge. The Silver State’s distribution system doesn’t allow small breweries to self-distribute like California does. Owner Miles Hendrickson says he wishes this weren’t the case. Still, he devotes the effort and money to bring in independent beer because “craft beer has always been [his] passion” and he wants to support small local businesses like his own.
Besides the distribution roadblock, getting beer to the mountains isn’t always green-means-go. Think back eight months ago, around New Year’s — did you ever get stuck in traffic because of an Interstate 80 closure? Kevin Kremler, the beer purchaser at New Moon Natural Foods, knows this issue well. “Weather wins,” he said. “There are times I am excited to get some awesome order in and a storm will change that.”
A taproom like Philosophy, with rotating local craft beer handles, especially feels the storm effect. “There are weeks we simply can’t get more beer in the winter,” Pruitt said.
Offering fresh craft beer in a place like Tahoe/Truckee requires dedication and perseverance. So, what’s the retailer version of blood, sweat, and tears? Their commitment manifests as any of the six to 16 different ways they source craft beverages. You read that right. If you want a specific beer, retailers like Zander’s Spirits Etc., New Moon, and Philosophy will scavenge their resources to find it for you. If you asked your regular ol’ corner grocery store manager to stock beer they don’t already have, chances are they’d be restricted by their distributor(s).
That’s why specialty stores like Zander’s exist. Owner Tina Zander-Auldridge works with “about a dozen different distributors,” but said she tries her best “to work with the local breweries the most.” Kremler says New Moon has “16 different ways to source the beers, ciders, and hard kombuchas [they] carry in the store.” Even Philosophy, a bar with just 14 beer taps (compared to a store with rows of shelves), goes through “six to 10 different distributors and brewers at any given time.” That’s nearly one source per beer at the high end.
Being a retailer isn’t inherently this complicated; being a passionate supporter of independent brands can be. “We carefully choose breweries we want to support,” said Kremler. “We do not carry any breweries that are owned by larger breweries (if we would not carry the larger brewery’s beer).” Hendrickson shares this mentality, saying, “I love buying from small breweries rather than macro breweries disguising themselves as independent craft beer.” Like consumers, retailers also vote with their dollars.
Yet the independent beer industry continues to progress. Remember the aforementioned Craft Beer Fairy? While she may not truly exist, small family-run distributors like Mussetter Distributing in Auburn do. Mussetter dubs itself a “craft distributor,” which owner Jason Mussetter says means they are “craft connoisseurs as well as craft consultants for the retail industry.” They see the need for craft beer, cider, and kombucha representation in the distribution world, even if the bigger brands and stores do not.
Besides weather and traffic, the main challenge for this craft distributor has been retailers not giving them (or new brands) a chance. But people like Mussetter aren’t simply pushing their own agenda; he wants to “show the accounts that offering craft increases their bottom line [and] draws more consumers to their location” — a truth local small retailers seem to understand.
While this region can be hard to get to in the winter, its central location allows anything from Auburn to Incline Village to Reno to be considered local. Perhaps this was part of Pruitt’s marketing plan for Philosophy.
“We have the advantage of being surrounded by so many great breweries,” he said. “We have Reno, which has become a bit of a mecca in the craft beer scene, but also Auburn, Truckee, and outliers like the amazing Brewing Lair up in Blairsden.” Pruitt recognizes that this “makes it easy to stay local and locals appreciate that we make that effort.”
That effort has its rewards. On top of the obvious fun of visiting breweries, seeing “their passion firsthand … makes it easy for us to educate our customers,” he said. These retailers are in the business of sharing and transferring passion. From the brewery to the retailer to the consumer, Pruitt loves converting a patron “from an average beer drinker to a passionate craft beer connoisseur.”
The mountain town experience comes at a cost, sometimes, and one of those downfalls is the sluggish movement of new trends. “The trends are slower to infiltrate and take hold,” Kremler of New Moon acknowledged. The upside to the region’s heavy tourism, however, is that once those trends arrive, they last longer. How do our local craft retailers stay up on trends that crawl up the hill slowly? It’s a mixed bag of brewery email lists, brewery representatives, social media groups, and, as Kremler put it, “just listening to the customers — they know what they want.”
Zander-Auldridge confessed that she spends “up to three hours a day researching new beers,” which includes making phone calls, writing emails, and “dealing with politics” to obtain limited or brand-new beers that would otherwise not make their way to Truckee.
The effort, the time, the money, the politics — it’s all worth it to these craft retailers. A huge part of their appeal is that they’re independent and local. Zander-Auldridge enjoys representing breweries such as Revision Brewing, Alibi Ale Works, and FiftyFifty Brewing because “people come in all the time looking for local … We don’t want to look like every other city in the nation with the same six stores,” she said.
Patrons shop at places like Zander’s to find products bigger chain stores don’t have. Incline’s Hendrickson says his customers are “excited to see what we bring in week by week” because he constantly rotates the store’s selection. These owners and reps see the grass on the other side, but don’t necessarily think it’s greener. Pruitt of Philosophy admitted they “would make much better margins” if they cut their distribution sources down, to which he quickly added, “but then we wouldn’t be proud of our tap list.” He said Philosophy plans to always stay this way because providing quality craft beverages is essential to their core principles.
“Craft beer is more mainstream” nowadays, Mussetter declared. This fact has allowed local small businesses like Zander’s Spirits Etc., New Moon Natural Foods, and Truckee Philosophy to thrive in a competitive market where even big beer brands dress up as “craft.” Thankfully, craft recognizes craft. These passionate retailers and distributors do the extra work throughout the sales cycle to put independent beer on the table.