Today I’m doing something that I’ve wanted to do for years—a two-day ride along with a distributor rep from Windy City Distributing, Chicago’s craft-centric house. They’re inarguably the juggernaut of craft beer distribution in Chicago, and while many organizations have taken a craft lean in the past 5-10 years, most of them see Windy as the benchmark. But even the OG has its challenges.
I’m curious to see how they sell a book as broad as their's, with more breweries and SKUs than anyone else in the city. And I’m curious to see how they approach territories, buyers both advanced and novice, and how they became a trusted partner in the transition of so many neighborhood spots, sports bars, and restaurants into craft-oriented accounts.
My guide today is the perfectly imperfect Matt Modica. In Chicago’s sometimes hyper-intellectualized beer market, Matt and I tend to argue more than most. It’s our little bubble, and we love to hate it. But as much as this guy fights for his perspective, he’s also open to others as well. He often says magic phrases heard so rarely today, like, “I see your point,” and, “That’s interesting.” It’s enabled us to end every argument (so far, two days is a long time) with a hearty hug and a beer or five.
So this is your guy for the next two days. Former beer buyer in Andersonville turned distributor rep for the past five years. Fighting for the breweries in his book in perhaps the country’s most competitive and distributed-to beer market. I have no idea what to expect.
Update: since wrapping up the two days, this post has been reformatted to put it in chronological order.
First stop is Simon's Tavern in Chicago's Andersonville neighborhood.
"First time I came into this bar was the first time I cashed a proper paycheck," Matt says.
The guy they were expecting isn't here—last minute trip to Disney World or something. A few cackles and the bar resumes its business. And that means that today, someone other than Scott is getting a bonus whiskey tasting from Town Branch, makers of Kentucky Bourbon Ale. It's gonna be a different kind of day for this crew. Morale is high.
"Within three hours of emptying the bourbon, 5-6 years old, we put beer in it for the bourbon ale," Matt Sullins says. "We wet-barrel it. Six weeks of that, and we're putting our whiskey in that beer barrel. We use them all three times."
The banter begins—bartender war stories.
"If someone comes in here and requests a Malort for their friend, but they're not drinking it, I make them take a shot too," John the bartender says. "It's only fair."
Downstairs, Matt wobbles a few kegs and pokes around in the case boxes to measure inventory. "IPA, IPA, that looks fine, probably more of that, this looks good," he says. Not exactly a data-driven joint, but if it ain't broke...
"You guys blasted through three barrels of Stone IPA, so yeah, I'll be by."
Stop number two: The Globe. One of Chicago’s most popular soccer bars run by British expat, Stuart Johnston. A staple of the North Center neighborhood, this place gradually replaced many of the default exports (not all of course) with American craft for a tap list that appeals to locals and immigrants alike. And both tend to drink both. Krombacher, Stella, Guinness, and Belhaven next to Zombie Dust, Allagash White, and Surly.
Matt has new can samples from Solemn Oath in the cooler for today’s tasting—Fun Sponge, their Golden Ale—and Whiner Beer Co., the city's newest brewery who's putting mixed fermentation Saison into 12 oz. cans.
But while those are chilling a bit more in the back, the buyer, Adrian, talks about the scene. “Things are good—it’s a bit slow right now. My numbers would be just fine for some people, but I’m used to more. The lake just pulls so many people east when it’s hot like this."
That reflects some things Matt 's been describing for the neighborhood overall. With so many places doing craft, and generally doing a decent job of it, continued growth is hard to come by for bars in this area.
Then Rob and Sarina from Penrose Brewing bounce in, another local Windy brand from Geneva, Illinois, making the rounds with some howlers of their newest Radler. They make their own grapefruit soda for the blend in-house, and it sets the bar for me for Stateside Radlers.
“What’s on that line, the open one?” Matt asks, eagle-eying a 3-inch gap in the lineup. “Nothing,” says Adrian. “Not sure yet.”
Then on to which dates for which events, and which brands are on what posters, and who's printing what and when—lots of details that sell one sixtel at a time in Chicago.
Matt waits for the fervor to die down and some hugs to get shared as Penrose departs, and breaks out the Whiner Le Tub cans for sampling. Tart, funky, light, and easy. "Those sour beers you like from Allagash," Matt suggests. "I think you'll like this. I know you're backed up on new stuff, but this is something fresh for Chicago. It's killer. Keep it in mind."
Stop number three is Bottles & Cans on Lincoln Ave. The difference between a bar and an off-premise retailer is immediately apparent. With hundreds of SKUs to manage vs. a couple dozen taps, the job here is one part sales and 10 parts reconciliation.
“You’re almost out of that.”
“The rest was out of code.”
“Maybe you should pare down your selection.” *said with a wink*
“Where’s my two cases of that specialty?”
“Two? I have one. Did the rep say two?”
“Yeah, he said two.”
“Show me the text message.”
“Don’t talk to me about pumpkin beers yet.”
“You want the new beer coming out in cans? It was in the newspaper.”
“But it’s in cans now.”
“I don’t need a beer because it’s in cans.”
“This brewery isn’t in Chicago anymore, why’s that on your order?”
*rep from Oskar Blues comes in*
“Don’t tell me about pumpkin beers. I swear the next person who does gets set on fire.”
“I have an Oktoberfest!”
“Don’t tell me about specialty stuff until next week. I have to pay property taxes”
“Okay, I won’t. Who’s going in next door, they getting a liquor license?”
“So what’s up with those two cases, he text you back yet or what?”
Oskar Blues guy, Kevin Sweeney, goes to the back and starts facing all the cans:
Making a quick stop at Farraguts (we've circled back around and we're a few doors down from Simon's where we started). Matt borrowed a coupler from The Globe so he could fix a line that's giving them trouble here—need to get the Vandermill cider flowing again.
Matt gave it a shot. But when it still didn't work, he was lucky that the Leaders' Beverage guys (who manage a ton of draft systems in the city, including GBH's) were at the bar enjoying a few Chechvars and they jumped in to troubleshoot.
We pause and split an Alpha King—on $2.50 draft day, that's a buck twenty-five each. The boys go back to their Chechvars as talk turns to worst cooler experiences in Chicago (Farraguts is remarkably clean and organized).
A whirlwind of smaller retail shops around the neighborhood show a very different side to sales. Managing limited cooler space, tons of brands, and trying to get to volume discount levels in the heat of the summer when things get slow for some and are cranking for others means Matt’s switching modes pretty quickly. But one thing that’s not changing?
“Can I get more Zombie Dust?”
No single brand has come more often than Three Floyds’ Zombie Dust. And everyone from high-end specialty shops to low-end convenience stores want it. And the further down the pecking order we go, the more they want it.
“You know that’s priced wrong, yeah?” Matt says, pointing to some Victory Summer Love in the cooler.
“It’s not moving,” is the retort. “Yeah, probably because it’s priced wrong,” Matt reiterates.
Accidentally $7 over the list price, Matt helps the clerk re-tag it all.
Then the boss jumps in. “You telling me how to price this?” The head that looked out the window of the back office is now an imposing figure towering behind us.
“You can price it any way you want,” Matt says. “But I’m not gonna pick it up if it goes out of code at that price.”
“These guys…” the boss motions towards me. “They charge what they want, and then tell me how to price it? You can fucking write that down!”
Matt shakes his head. “Do what you want, man.”
He shrugs and agrees to change the price.
On the way out I ask Matt if that's tough for him to handle interactions like that. "Nah. Everybody wins. It's what the brewery'd want. It's what our company would want. And it's what he's gonna want once he sells it all."
Our next neighborhood convenience store is sitting in the middle of a construction zone. It's dead. And the coolers are still stocked to the gills.
“The construction,” says the clerk. “Three, maybe four more weeks left before it’s finished.”
“Fuck,” Matt mutters. "I’ll be back next week and check on you."
“You have any Zombie Dust?” he asks with a smile. “I’ll take 25 cases of that if you got it.”
Matt grimaces through a laugh. Shakes his head.
A quick stop in to see Scott from Independent Spirits to celebrate it's third anniversary today. Underbergs all around.
"They sell packs of these for $5 at Whole Foods now," he points out.
"So, what do you sell them for?" Matt asks.
"Well, $5 now."
I thought we were off the clock. But the reality of sales is that there's no punch card.
All day, I'd been told we'd end at The Victor cocktail bar for a drink. Summarize the day, recap it all, and chill. But this was all in the course of business.
Turns out, we were hustling toward a cutoff for new orders by 6 p.m., and we just skated in under the wire, only to discover that the special order had already been delivered and we'd skipped lunch for no good reason.
We brushed it off and drank some gin cocktails and an Old Fashioned. And with me barely noticing, Matt had slipped his liquor brands into three new house cocktails going on the new menu. The whole crew was psyched.
Surprise, we're back at The Globe.
Matt stops here each day to get ice for his sample cooler before he makes his rounds and the bar is happy to oblige. They probably get to see more new samples than anyone else as a result — and they've earned it. Over the years, it's the little graces that build relationships like this.
Made a few visits and ended up at an unlikely craft account—except that there's no such thing anymore.
A Korean private room karaoke joint up on Lincoln Avenue that I remember being thrilled because they had Goose Island Green Line on back in the day. Now they have to different Allagash lines, including Curieux, a fridge full of Vandermill cider that "fucking moves" according to the buyer, and a mix of macro light Lagers, European standards, and regional crafts like Bells, Revolution, and Lagunitas. I couldn't believe what I was seeing. These are the long plays that Matt has been talking about—the accounts where you wedge one beer in and gradually open up their eyes to others. And before you know it, their customers change too.
In reminiscing how things have changed and why, Matt gestures toward the buyer, and says: "You get up everyday and do the same thing everyday just like me—this way, you get to have a conversation with your customer about something interesting. Change their minds. Show them something new."
At the same time, they have three separate domestic lights on draft. A sign that this buyer and the owners have different approaches and ideas. "He wanted to do it, so I let him, and now it's proving my point," Matt says. "They aren't moving."
Matt and the buyer go back and forth for awhile discussing a draft strategy—how to make sure you have balance and momentum in equal measure. And then the pitch. Pointing to a European Lager handle, Matt inquires.
"What happened to the Krombacher?"
The buyer explains: "I have Mongolian customers who always want the same European Lagers. So I have this. That's okay. One of them drinks the raspberry beer from Dark Horse and he loves it now."
For the rest of his changing clientele, he has to keep up, and he seems to love the challenge personally. "Some white people who drink craft beer, they bounce around trying all sorts of different craft beers. They do this, then this, then this."
"Hey, you guys ever try Ginseng soju?"
In stark contrast to the transitional accounts we've been hitting, Lade Gregory is a full-on craft stop. And for this, Matt takes a look back at their recent orders so he doesn't waste their time sampling the same beers again.
This stop gets Forbidden Root's new Money on my Rind grapefruit and juniper beer and Lost Abbey's Carnivale.
The buyer here, Bill Malinowski, has an historical view on things that informs his buying decisions.
"Five to six years ago, somebody told me when I drank my first sour they were gonna be the next IPA. I thought they were out of their mind. Nothing will ever be that big. I thought it was disgusting. Now I have one, two, I’m pouring three sours. They used to be one note, the flavor of sour, like a Duchess, Flanders reds—people love those because they're sour. Now, I think they’ve become a great thing for the summer—at least in my perception. More easy drinking, lower ABV, refreshing. Rather than ending on a fruit or wheat note, they have little kick to them."
For the rest of the Carnivale bottle, that doesn't stay behind. Matt grabs it off the bar and we go a few doors down to taste it out with that gal at Acre. Spread the wealth.
"The first beer dinner we ever did here was Lost Abbey and Stone," Matt recalls.
The bottle of Carnivale lives on.
Up the street further to one of my favorite restaurants in Chicago, a neighborhood joint called Brixton. Their amish chicken was the only chicken dish I talked about for a year.
The crew is in rare form.
"What the hell happened to you two?"
"We didn't feel pain last night." *points to the Carnivale* "Who were you sharing that with?"
"My mom's dead."
"No, not really."
"Well, mine is. OK, not really, but my dad is."
"Well, shit—no one's buying that beer because your dad's dead."
"Are you eating Tostino's pizza rolls?"
"Yes. How expensive is this?"
"$180 a half barrel."
"What? This? Well, that changes things."
"I love that reaction."
That's three half barrels sold off one shared bottle of Lost Abbey Carnivale in about an hour.
A break for some food at Little Bad Wolf, while Matt samples them out on Two Brothers' Dog Days lager. "'Tis the season," he says. He also casually convinces the patron next to him to order his first Krombacher. He ends up ordering two.
Avery Maharaja seems to be the bell of the ball today.
We exit through the back. "Sweet. I didn't get boxed in by the linen delivery guy this time."
Up on Devon Avenue, one of Chicago's most unique and immigrant-led neighborhoods. The area is full of small retail shops that fill the need of a grocery store for local residents. But these days, stores like Whole Foods are moving in, and that changes the way things like beer get bought and sold. While many of these stores took on a lot of craft beer in the past few years, it's not clear if they can sustain that role.
"I didn't call you," a small voice says from a chair near the door as soon as we walk in.
"Hello, Ms. Han."
Her husband sleeps behind the counter while Matt and I poke around the inventory that's building up on the floor. I'm reminded of the moment in Children of Men when the nurses looked ahead at the calendar and realized there were no new births scheduled.
Peak beer. At least maybe for this little shop.
This is why it's critical to put in the early seed work of nurturing the next craft account into transition as neighborhoods, demographics, and attitudes remain in flux.
Further down the street we stop at Carly's Lounge. "This is kind of an outpost up here," Matt says. So many of the people in this neighborhood don't even drink for one reason or another, some religious. So there isn't much else."
"Is he in?" Matt asks the bartender about the buyer.
He went to the Cubs game.
So after two days on the road, I’ve been able to show you some of the banter, misadventures, and hard work that a distributor rep puts in on the regular. Every keg sold feels like hand-to-hand combat, and every case of beer is looking for a spot on a shelf that’s already buckling with options. From skeptical craft buyers to transitional neighborhood retailers, the field is both broad and deep. And, man, it’s more competitive and confusing than ever.
Two days isn’t much to go on. Not when there are hundreds of reps in the market, on the distro and the supplier side, on the streets of Chicago every day. The perspectives are far more diverse than my sliver here. But this experiment was certainly revealing. It included some things that I’d never considered, and others I’d only understood through anecdotes.
So sitting over a pint of Two Brothers’ aptly named Bretter Days at Wild Goose, this is what I'm walking away with.
1. Reps have to switch modes all day long, and it’s enough to make a normal person feel insane.
Watching Matt prepare himself before stepping out of his car at each stop, he’d cycle back through his last conversation, recall questions his customers had, and he’d review orders to make sure he wasn’t about to waste someone’s time. Despite all this preparation, he still had no idea what he was walking into. Some new beer the account read about in the newspaper, or something a supplier rep promised them and shouldn’t have, or something’s that’s out of stock, shorted, or no longer even in the market. Or, god forbid, they’ve heard of Zombie Dust. It’s all in flux.
And even if he has his head wrapped around all that, a supplier rep could walk through the door at any moment, and he’d have to switch to their mode and support them, before returning to his intended business. Every stop is a revolving door of industry relationships and sales goals. And all a rep can do is try to stay in the pocket of the improvisations occurring around them at all times. Then it's on to the next ring in the circus.
And that says nothing about the innumerable personalities he has to jive with. From people happy enough to hug him, to people who literally say “I didn’t call you” when he walks in the door. He takes abuse and love in equal measure, and all in stride. This isn’t a part of the industry for egos. And in two days, I didn’t hear anything resembling a script. Every visit was a conversation on that retailer’s terms. It was specific, historical, and exhausting to watch.
2. There’s an incredible waste of time and effort in the system—and you never know what wasted time and effort is actually a worthwhile investment.
Trying to meet with buyers and owners is a crapshoot. Some take it seriously, some don’t. They skip meetings, ignore phone calls, get distracted by myriad important and unimportant things, and everyone has their own game they’re playing. Bars are generally in more of a partner mindset, curating a number of draft lines, and rotation is expected. So there’s the assumption that there’s at least some room for everyone—even if it’s a single sixtel. Buyers seem to like to spread it around. But in off-premise, where shelf space is limited, it’s an uphill battle, and nothing is as problematic as beer going out of code. Even as a rep is trying to get another brand in the cooler, they’re trying to keep existing brands from getting stale and having to replace it. It’s spinning plates.
Some stops, especially in transitional accounts, seem to be nothing more than check-ins, showing face, reminding them that they have options. And while it takes time, gas, and samples that seemingly get nowhere, that’s exactly how reps like Matt have created craft accounts where no craft seemed possible. And when he does that, he has incredible loyalty on those handles, not to mention longterm shelves. How many accounts have to change over to make it all worth it? Hard to say. The important part is that he realizes if he doesn’t have new accounts in the pipeline that everyone else ignores, then his options for growth inevitably get slim.
3. Pay-to-play is a profoundly entrenched practice.
While Windy City ’s reputation is staunchly anti pay-to-play (I didn’t observe a single questionable pay-to-play-related practice on Windy’s part, nor the expectation of it from a retailer, many of whom had no idea who I was or why I was there.), I did hear shockingly open discussion of pay-to-play throughout the system. It was almost comical toward the end. Any time Matt would see a handle that didn’t make sense, and ask, “What the hell is that doing on there?” the reply invariably involved explicit pay-to-play deals that were not only accepted, but so mundanely and casually discussed that I thought I was being punked. Matt repeatedly shaking his head is a memorable image from our two days together.
Pay-to-play is so routine for some accounts that I wondered if they even realized that what they were talking about was illegal. And there were plenty of stops in our two days of work that I didn't bother to mention, so don’t ask me for names or start speculating. Rather, let’s take a moment and consider the challenge ahead of us. Craft is venturing far, far away from its core audiences into sports bars, neighborhood joints, and dive bars all over and in every corner of a city like Chicago. And that means it’s being bought and sold by people who care much more about the small economics of their day-to-day purchases than they do about growing some slice of a pie that enables more independent producers and more engaged consumers. They want the dollars in front of them, and for now, they can get it from craft. Later it might be from something else. But what they don’t realize is that these short term economics don’t always translate to long-term value. Because if someone moves in down the street and does it better, they’ll eat your lunch.
For someone like Matt, that means finding a value and relevance to his buyers that competes with incentives, “a bunch of free shit,” and, in some cases, a check. He educates, builds trust, advises, and even encourages them to bring in competitors if he thinks it’s the right beer for the place and opens a door. His odds seem long in some cases. But in others you could see the cracks forming as he got into their heads and got them thinking about their customers in a different way. He was helping them see their business as something they could take pride in and enjoy. And while he might never completely convert some of them, on a day better than most, he seems content with how much good he can do instead of being overwhelmed by how much bad he’s up against.
Thanks to Matt and Windy City for two days of restriction-free observation and frank conversation about the challenges and opportunities facing craft in the distribution tier. I’m wiser for it.