by Mark Tichenor
Here in Rochester, we haven’t exactly been hurting for great beer. We’ve always had the humongous Genesee Brewery perched on the edge of our river gorge, and since the Rohrbach Brewing Company opened its doors in the 1980s, we enjoyed a steady stream of superior beer. Still, in terms of great American brewing scenes, ours hasn’t even been on the map.
That’s mostly because, with the exception of Genesee, most of our local breweries are content with their local markets, focusing on organic growth instead of pushing Rochester beer out to other reasons.
As Rohrbach. Custom Brewcrafters and Canandaigua’s Naked Dove show, the regional/national approach is just one way to thrive in a market as thirsty as this. Area craft beer consumption continues to climb, and drinkers are demanding enough of variety to ensure that these breweries have plenty of market to develop. In that sense, Three Heads serves a complimentary function, drawing beer lovers’ attention to Rochester and serving as a gateway to the many fine breweries that bless our corner of the country.
For many breweries, that would mean distributing to the next large city over, and a slow, concentric expansion. However, that does not satisfy Geoff Dale, Three Heads’ ever-loquacious frontman.
“There’s a point where you realize certain cities are considered ‘beer capitals,’ “ he says. “You have to have enough confidence in your product to say ‘if you’re gonna do this, do it!’” Of course, it didn’t hurt that Three Heads was invited, out of the blue by Beer Advocate’s Alstrom brothers to participate in their annual American Craft Beer Fest in Boston. That was a sign that the heads’ beer was opening up eyes, ears and mouths far away from Rochester, in extremely competitive markets.
Today, Three Heads distributes to Virginia, Boston, Chicago, and even Philadelphia, considered by many to be the craft beer capital of the East Coast. Dale says that, even in such a beer-centric environment, his beer is more than holding its own. He credits strong relationships with distribution companies for much of that success.
“We’re at a point where there’s a partnership, where we realize that we and our distributors are stronger than ever,” he says. “We have an endgame- to have our own brewery. We can’t do that without properly branding ourselves and expanding our distribution network.”
As Mark Schultz, Regional Sales Manager for T.J. Sheehan, the distributor for Three Heads beers puts it, that partnership is vital for a local brewery to expand regionally and beyond. “The reality is a brewery out of Rochester can’t physically go beyond the Rochester market without the three-tier distribution system.”
Three Heads is far from the first contract brewer to expand beyond their own geographic borders, but success beyond the home region depends on more than just signing a distribution contract. Distributors want brands that make money. It’s all about identifying good business partners,” Schultz says. “These guys market themselves extremely well, they pound the pavement. The brand translates very well. As a distributor, it’s what will fit in our portfolio that complements what we already have. We don’t ‘collect’ brands.”
Even while introducing other parts of the country to Rochester beers, Dale works hard to keep his beer flowing at home, and he believes there is plenty of bounty for all local breweries, yet extra-regional distribution is something he feels is critical for Rochester. “I think people are now starting to see Rochester potentially being a destination,” Dale says. “Maybe this is just a dream, but I see this vibe in Portland, where everything, beer and music and culture, ties together. I see Rochester being one of these cities. There’s so much greatness, and we’re happy to be part of it.”
Mark owns a laptop and likes beer. For more on beer, check out the beercraft blog, updated regularly, at beercraft.wordpress.com. Find him on Twitter @beercraft. Send your questions, suggestions, or comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.