As craft brewers continue to churn out new and exciting products, they also are tasked with developing relationships with wholesalers who can support the growth of their brands. Recognizing the popularity of craft beer, many distributors are bolstering their portfolios as they foster partnerships with these entrepreneurs.

Chicago-based Wirtz Beverage Group is no stranger to this concept. Although the company’s Wirtz Beverage Nevada and Wirtz Beverage Minnesota divisions have been in the beer business since the 1980s, the wholesaler is commonly associated with its wine and spirits portfolios. Now, the distributor is taking its years of expertise and applying it to the craft beer market.

“Wirtz Beverage believes in building brands by utilizing knowledge, sales excellence and flexible solutions for partners of all types and sizes in order to grow long term,” says Danny Wirtz, executive vice president of Wirtz Beverage Group. “We built that infrastructure and worked with many spirit and wine brands when they first came to market. Many craft brewers are in the same place today that spirit or wine suppliers were a few years back.

“They demand and deserve that same dedication,” he continues. “Craft beer was a natural progression, and we’re committed to being a value-added leader in the field.”

Danny Wirtz notes that by the end of 2013, more than 2,700 craft breweries were in operation in the United States, with 1,700 in
planning stages. Also, experts predict the craft beer market will be worth $18 million by 2017, he adds. “The trend is here to stay, and we believe we can add value to the marketplace,” Danny Wirtz says.

Jimmy Wirtz, craft beer specialist for Wirtz Beverage Group, adds that bringing craft beer into the mix was a smooth transition, because the differences between craft beer and wine and spirits aren’t about the types of products companies are manufacturing, but where they are in their brand development.

“We’ve worked with a lot of spirit and wine brands from their start in the same way we’re working with our craft beer partners today,” he says. “The synergies are more of a mindset: How do we think and plan long term? What is our growth strategy? What is the right route-to-market approach to grow this brand? Who is our consumer?”

Quality expansion

Wirtz’s push into the craft beer market began in 2012, when the company made substantial investments in craft beer to grow its portfolios for the Nevada and Minnesota divisions, Jimmy Wirtz says. Those investments also prepared the company for launches within other states. In 2013, Wirtz Beverage Illinois added craft beer brands, and its joint venture in Missouri also expanded its craft beer offerings that year. The company also is positioned to add craft beers within Wirtz Beverage Wisconsin this year.

In forming these respective portfolios, the company sought out brands that fit within the Wirtz Beverage Group business model. “We’ve been very strategic in developing craft partnerships,” says Amy Abraham, director of craft beer sales for Wirtz Beverage Group. “We aren’t just trying to build a list; we are finding partners that share our philosophy, culture and business approach. We are also looking for those who are committed to growth.”

David Kahle, Master Cicerone for Wirtz Beverage Group, notes that the company put a lot of effort into balancing its portfolio, which features both high-profile and emerging brands that embody quality within their products. For example, Nevada contains brands like Oskar Blues, Green Flash and Rogue, while Minnesota has Sierra Nevada, Boston Beer and Anchor. Missouri features Left Hand and New Holland in its portfolio, and Illinois works with Deschutes, Vanberg & Dewulf, and Ballast Point. Wisconsin also recently teamed up with Solemn Oath.

“We’ve also partnered with some of the country’s best local and small-scale producers,” Kahle says. “Breweries like Une Annee, BuckleDown, 4 Hands, The Traveler and Civil Life show creativity and connect well with local beer consumers. We’re also very excited about the emergence of craft [hard] cider brands and are using the same balanced approach with the category.”

All in all, Wirtz Beverage Group features more than 50 craft beer partnerships nationwide, says Michael Shetler, craft portfolio specialist for the company. “What’s important is that we take a quali-tative approach to building our portfolio,” he says.

Abraham adds that the company is committed to the craft beer movement and foresees continued success for its current brands and any potential ones down the road.

“We have aggressive growth goals for our company as well as our current and potential brand partners,” she says. “We understand and respect the craft model, so we want to see its continued overall success.”

The right support

In order to ensure that all of these brands flourish in the market, Wirtz developed a team to help cultivate their presence in market.

“There were certainly new investments in infrastructure, education and, most importantly, people,” Jimmy Wirtz says. “In a short time, we built a nationwide craft beer team of 400 talented individuals including brand and sales managers, Cicerones and draft technicians. Our exclusive training and development programs bolster those experts and systematically enhance our capabilities.”

Shetler adds that along with the company’s emphasis on expertise and knowledge, it has bolstered its teams with Cicerone certifications. “Most of our sales consultants are certified beer servers,” he says. “We also have one of the largest groups of certified Cicerones and one of only seven Master Cicerones in the world. We do structure our sales consultants by channel so that the right expertise is put to the right accounts.”

In addition to all of these support models, Abraham adds that what sets Wirtz Beverage Group apart is that it works as one with its partners right from the start. “We go all-in to generate excitement, build relationships, and create opportunities for long-term success,” she says.

 As Wirtz Beverage Group follows up on a successful 2013, the company is looking forward to what the future has in store for its craft beer aspirations. “We like to think that we’re leading the way in what it means to be a committed and successful craft beer distributor partner,” Jimmy Wirtz says. “And we’ll continue to develop and grow in 2014 and beyond.”