Picture it: You’ve spent your Tuesday visiting a dozen of New York City’s best beer bars, hoofing it up and down the sidewalk to the tune of top-notch craft bottles knocking about your backpack. That’s a full day of blissful bar hopping–shaking the hands of owners, chatting it up about the latest brewery buzz, handing out branded swag to appreciative patrons and sampling the city’s freshest suds well into the evening. While on the surface this may seem like some sort of lazy man’s fantasy, a pub-crawling lifestyle of European proportions freed from the shackles of our grueling Capitalist grind, any of New York City’s many beer reps will tell you differently. It’s damn hard work, and Union Beer Distributor’s rookie rep Krista Kilberg took me behind the scenes to show me why.
I met Krista at bar off the Clinton-Washington stop. It was 7:30pm and I had signed off from my desk job an hour before, leaving behind my half completed to-do list and shutting down my computer with a nod towards enjoying my evening. Krista, however, was still on the job. The bar’s wide surface was stacked high with notebooks, her thumbs typed furiously away and she was saved my place with an overstuffed work bag, tap handles and hardware spilling out onto the wooden seat. She was literally swamped.
“They’re loading the trucks right now for tomorrow’s delivery,” she told me without looking up. “And an account just emailed to say they need their order by 8AM, no later.” She wiped her forehead and sighed, then smiled. Another day on the job — one she loves, despite the long hours.
So what is this crazy job, anyway? What does a beer rep actually do? In the simplest of terms, they hook it up. As the brewing industry’s middlemen, reps act as a key vehicle in transporting delicious beer to your pint glass. As craft beer seeps into the media spotlight, many budding beer geeks have turned their eyes on brewers — those folks kind enough to make the good drink — as well as bars and bartenders, yet there’s more to the industry than the producers and the pourers. The business of beer in America is a complicated, convoluted matter, held over from years of unfortunate temperance and fickle local legislation. All that nonsense amounts to our current “three-tier system,” a federal law that prohibits most breweries from selling beer directly to retailers — and that’s where the distributors come in.
In the three-tier system, both breweries and bars rely on distribution companies to keep their product moving, and reps are the foot soldiers of the bunch. Reps represent brands, of course, hitting the streets each day in an effort to best sell their clients’ brews. It’s a sales job, sure, but it’s also a crucial part of our industry’s life cycle — a part that remains hidden to the many satisfied customers sipping happily away at the bar.
Krista came to the industry via a bartending gig at Beer Culture, a well-known midtown craft outlet with a fantastic rotating draft and bottle list, and her experience behind the bar gave her a great primer on the bustling craft beer scene. Since being hired on at Union several weeks ago, Krista’s already been given a territory that spans a good chunk of the island, accounting for 132 different bars, each with their own distinct vision, clientele and beer needs.
“Knowing where all my accounts are was the hardest part, something that I’m definitely still catching up on,” she explained, pulling out a homemade map she’d meticulously sketched on a piece of graph paper. “Yes, I made a little map… just for myself, so I can keep track. I don’t think most people do that.”
Krista returned the map to its designated folder and leafed through the rest of her notebook, pages upon pages of detailed requests, addresses, itineraries and scrawled reminders. Everything is charted out to a T, a practice that keeps her orders in line and her accounts happy. If Krista seems overly thorough, that might be because before falling in love with beer, she made her living as a banker. Her background in math and science — she also holds an advanced degree in engineering — is surprisingly advantageous when it comes to her new job.
“At Union, we actually use the same routing system I studied in college. It’s all about optimizing transportation to minimize cost,” she said and laughed. I nodded along, pretending to understand this smart talk. “I actually used to be a banker, and I love the bottom line feel of this job — the black and white. You can go about it in a lot of ways, but at the end of the day, you either made your numbers or you didn’t.”
In New York City, the industry’s distribution sector is dominated by three major companies — SKI, Manhattan, and Union, which operates under the L. Knife & Son corporation. Founded in 1898 by Italian immigrant Luigi Cortelli, L. Knife & Son has become a big, well-oiled machine, with both macro and craft accounts spread out through several states. As the New York branch, Union is responsible for keeping everything from uber-ubiquitous Bud Light to local nano Grimm Artisanal Ales pumping through our city’s taps. Their portfolio is extremely diverse and constantly growing–an element that keeps personable reps like Krista vital to the industry’s success.
“Sometimes I think, ‘Can my job be automated?’ But it can’t,” Krista expounded. “Face-to-face selling actually makes a huge difference in this business. Unless you’re face-to-face, bars are unlikely to pick it up from you — they’re busy, too, and you need their full attention to fully tell them about the beer. The goal is to introduce people to good beer, so you have to ask the right questions: ‘How’s this moving for you? What are going for with this draft list? Where do you want it to be? Where do you see it going?’ You have to really know what you’re talking about.”
In a lot of ways, cold-calling accounts is more taxing than pulling pints for thirsty patrons, but Krista’s move from bartender to rep has had unprecedented benefits.
“Draft tech is an important part and I love it. This is my draft tech bag. It looks like a purse and has a heart on it because, girl,” she told me, extracting a dopp kit-sized clutch from her tote and opening it to review hundreds of tiny washers and several heavy looking tools. Calibrating guages (or whatever it is draft techs do) adds a new layer of responsibility and reward to her job. “Sometimes, figuring out what’s wrong is hard, but once you do, it all makes sense. People are just intimidated by it.”
Besides tightening loose screws, repping encourages Krista to build and maintain genuine relationships with clients, something that bartending, with its constant flow of clientele, doesn’t offer. “It’s nice to be able to see the same people and develop a report,” she said. “It’s a totally different trajectory. I’m new, but my boss — he can walk into any bar in the city and he immediately knows everyone and everyone knows him. It’s amazing.”
As she talked, I scanned her pile of notebooks, imagining the sheer quantity of important, time-sensitive information embedded on those pages.
“This seems, like, so medieval, doesn’t it?” She laughed, gesturing to her jarringly analog system. “My day is just a long written to-do list that keeps getting interrupted.”
All photos by Jane Bruce.