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Hear a Distro's Thought Process on Bringing a New Brewery to Market

Last month, Michigan's Dark Horse Brewing Company arrived in the DC beer market. The DC market is both crowded and competitive, so the decision to come to DC, and the process of finding a distributor, can be tricky. They found such a distributor in Madidus Importers. We had a chance to chat with Bob Gill, Director of Craft Beer for Madidus, about Dark Horse and where they fit into our market. What follows below is a transcript of our email conversation, loosely edited for length and clarity. This is an interesting read given that distributors don't often go on the record in such a candid way. Thank you to Bob for his time and attention, and welcome to Dark Horse.

Do you think the fact that some of Dark Horse’s contract beers are already in the market (e.g., maple stout from Evil Twin) is pro, con, or neutral to launching in DC?

I feel that this helps us as well as Dark Horse. Most people, if they are not from the midwest,  have a vague recollection of trying some of their beers at one time or another. It is a brand that I have mentioned, and the response is typically the same: "Oh yeah, I have heard of/tried some of their beers in the past."  Getting them acquainted with the brand has been a real joy for me as they don't make a bad beer.

It seems like Dark Horse is the largest of the beer brands Madidus has by quite a margin. What goes into the discussions as far as the size of the breweries you decide to take on?  

Our focus is to bring smaller, lesser-known, and upcoming local brands to market. Being a smaller distributor with a smaller, more niche catalog, we have had more success with the local and smaller brands as we have the time and energy to devote to such brands. Most of these brands would get lost in a larger house's portfolio. The reception we have from all of these brands is very positive: a relief that there is a distributor like ours that can focus on the little guys.

We are in the works of bringing in another well-established brand from Michigan, as well as another large brand from Colorado. We take possession of our new warehouse in the next few weeks, which will give us more space and increase our ability to carry more inventory.  We have a cider coming in from Vermont, and we are constantly chatting with local brands.

We are excited to launch another Maryland brewery into DC this spring. One of our Virginia breweries is expanding and opening a new facility with a true sour brew house. We hope to have them in market by June, and we cannot wait to bring their juice to the people of DC.  

Ideally, we look to bring in brands that have professional brewers and good equipment; people that have made the proper investment in the tools necessary to make good beer. There are a lot of new breweries opening in this country; I think we are at two per day now. Many of them were homebrewers that decided to make the leap into production. This tactic doesn't always translate as well as they would like and results in lower quality or inconsistent product. We aim to work with professionals and Dark Horse certainly is not of amateur status.

Your beer portfolio seems to have an east coast lean, so how do/did you decide on bring beer from the midwest region out here? Who approached who here? Did Dark Horse want in on DC's market, or were they recruited?

I recruited them. One of our sales reps hails from Michigan, and he brought us samples of five or six Michigan brands. I reached out to Dark Horse as I thought they made some amazing beer, and, within a few weeks, I was on a plane to meet with them. They are all over the midwest and east coast including VA, NC and PA. They skipped over DC and MD for some reason, so it was an obvious market to go after. They were just looking for the right fit from a distributor, and we fit nicely together.

What void, if any, does Dark Horse fill in this market?

Dark Horse has a pretty amazing barrel program with intentions of increasing that lineup. They have several beers with 99 or 100 ratings, which is not easy to find. You can find highly rated beers, but for a brewery to have several highly rated beers in different categories is rare.  

As a distributor with a fairly small portfolio, how do you leverage the beers you have onto taps and shelf space?

Business is all about relationships. This is a very crowded or saturated market. Everyone is fighting for the same real estate. We have to utilize our relationships and properly serve our customers. We pride ourselves on bringing the aspect of customer service back to the bars and retailers of DC.  We do not have minimums, we do not have a cut-off time, we offer next-day as well as same-day delivery in most cases, and we are working with a niche portfolio.

Madidus has a warehouse in northeast DC so we are a true DC distributor. We are not shipping product in from a warehouse in Virginia or Maryland. Our wine and spirits portfolio is rapidly expanding as well. I think that by this summer, our catalog will have doubled, and we will have a lot more to offer. Our biggest obstacle right now is finding new sales people, so if you know of anyone looking to work with a rapidly expanding company, send them my way!

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