A little more than three decades ago, Coors Banquet Beer was the best beer that American breweries had to offer.
It was brewed with Rocky Mountain spring water near Golden, Colo., and was only available in the West. President Eisenhower had supplies of it airlifted to the White House via Air Force One. Keith Richards would keep cans onstage; Clint Eastwood and Ray Charles even sang a duet praising the beer. Heck, bootlegging Coors was part of the plot line of Smokey and the Bandit.
Yep, there even were Coors connoisseurs. I’ll give you a moment to let that sink in.
In 1974, a story in TIME magazine, “The Beer That Won The West,” told the tale of one enterprising fella who made weekly runs with a refrigerated truck from Denver to Charlotte, N.C.—making a nice profit along the way. A different fella, named Tom Del Sarto, witnessed this beer bootlegging firsthand, as a promising Coors salesman back in 1978.
More than 35 years later, Del Sarto is still in the beer business, working as the director of sales at Coachella Valley Brewing Co. His beer career actually began in 1975, when he was just 18 years old.
“I actually made a wrong turn looking for my summer job, and they told me that it wasn’t there any more. So, as I was driving back home, I thought, ‘What do I do now?’” he recently told me as I sipped a Lost Abbey Red Poppy Ale.
It was then that Tom saw a Coors distributor sign and stopped—only to discover that his baseball coach was working there. His coach gave him a shot—and that ‘wrong turn’ turned into a 25-year career with the same distributor. Del Sarto began in Redwood City, Calif., in the recycling department. At 20, Tom was promoted to district supervisor, managing a team of five people. By 23, he was the youngest sales manager in the country for Coors. By 29, Tom was the vice president, general manager and partner of Coors West/South Bay Beverage.
Tom learned the business from the bottom up, and worked with the godfather of the business: Bob Franceschini, Bay Area beverage distributor and president of Coors West Regal Beverages. Between Prohibition and 1976, Coors was available in only 11 states, all in the West. It wouldn’t even reach all 50 states until it landed in Indiana in 1991.
Del Sarto’s first big sell was a truck full of Coors Banquet to a liquor store in Millbrae, Calif., in 1978. After lining up the cases along the building and leaving, Tom’s intuition told him to drive back—when he caught the owner restacking the coveted beer in a different truck to resell back East.
Del Sarto said the biggest difference between selling beer in the ’70s and ’80s and selling it today is volume: Today’s craft-beer landscape has brought consumers many, many more choices, meaning distributors carry more beers from more breweries than ever before. To help meet this demand, Del Sarto also consults for two Northern California premium-brand distributors.
“I train distributor management on how to get the most out of suppliers,” he said. “When I have my CVB hat on, I’m the supplier getting the most out of the distributor. So it’s an easy thing to transition, to do both sides.”
Del Sarto handled the agreement for distributor Young’s Market Company to distribute CVB’s Desert Swarm, Kölschella and Monumentous throughout California.
The beer world’s three-tier system requires beer to go through a middle-man—the distributor, or wholesaler. The distributor does on-the-ground sales and marketing for the producer, and sells the beer to retailers, all while making sure breweries are well-represented.
“Brand loyalty is a big thing,” Del Sarto said. “The problem is keeping people from switching to another beer of the week. … It’s all about the consistency of the liquid. I think we’re making better beers than we ever have created. I think the choices are awesome, and people are starting to understand it.”
As of last November, there were more than 3,200 beer brewers in the country. On March 16, the Brewers Association revealed that in 2014, for the first time ever, craft brewers achieved a double-digit (11 percent) share of the marketplace. It’s been a challenge for some distributors and wholesalers to adapt to and accommodate the rapidly growing craft-beer industry.
Because of the massive volume of breweries in the state, California also allows self-distribution with no limits as to production size. Breweries like Russian River and Kern River take advantage of this, as does Escondido’s Stone Brewing Co., which operates a self-distribution network that carries more than 30 craft and specialty brands to Los Angeles, Orange, Riverside, San Bernardino and San Diego counties. In fact, Stone’s Greg Koch and Arlan Arnsten started the Craft Beer Wholesalers Symposium in 2004—and like the craft-beer industry itself, it continues to grow.
“The generation that is kind of moving this, it’s a pretty big age group,” Del Santo said. “They don’t want to be sold to; they want to make their personal selections. They want to work with their buddies and say, ‘Hey, such and such is on tap over here, and you need to try it.’ That, to me, is much more powerful.”
Just as Del Santo was saying this, Anheuser-Busch’s advertisement criticizing the craft-beer industry came on TV.
“What is the chance of that?!” he said, laughing about the commercial that first aired during the Super Bowl.
There’s a reason Anheuser-Busch is on the defensive: Sales of mass-market beers like Budweiser, Old Milwaukee and Miller Genuine Draft have slumped. For example, Michelob Light sales have fallen from more than 1 million barrels in 2007 to around 350,000 barrels in 2012, according to BeerInsights.com. Budweiser sales have been declining for more than two decades.
On the flip side, Forbes magazine this year announced two craft beers from California breweries—Ballast Point’s Sculpin IPA, and North Coast’s Old Rasputin—made its list of the 30 best beers available in Brazil.
What a difference 30 years can make.
As for the future, Del Sarto thinks the next big opportunity for the craft-beer industry is in the Spanish-speaking market. He also predicts that innovative packaging and styles will continue to be hot.
We all have our favorite beers and breweries, but what if someone asked about your favorite distributor? A bewildered stare would likely follow. But think about this: Distributors are the go-between that brings delicious craft beers to the bars and stores that carry them—enabling consumers to easily purchase the savory suds.
In other words, thanks to talented beer-lovers like Del Sarto, the beer-bootlegging era is history.