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VOL. 128 | NO. 26 | Thursday, February 07, 2013

Expanding Distribution

Budweiser of Memphis works to expand local craft brew scene

By MICHAEL WADDELL

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Budweiser of Memphis is dedicated to expanding the craft beer segment in Memphis following its acquisition of Southwestern Distributing’s sizable craft beer portfolio last October, making Budweiser of Memphis the largest wholesaler of craft beer in the Memphis market.

Austin Sawyer, craft beer manager for Budweiser of Memphis, installs a tap for Brooklyn Brewery at Bardog Tavern. It’s the latest craft beer to be introduced in the market.  

(Photo: Lance Murphey)

Now the distributor is deep into planning for the first-ever Memphis Beer Week, which will run from April 21 to April 27 and will feature a variety of special events around the city.

“When you go to big craft beer markets like Philadelphia, San Francisco, New York or Atlanta, one thing you see in common is a city beer week with huge lineups of events, rare beer tappings and tastings, beer dinners and luncheons, liquor store tastings or other fun stuff,” said Austin Sawyer, Budweiser of Memphis craft specialty brand manager.

So about one month after the completion of the deal Budweiser got the ball rolling on planning a Memphis Beer Week to rival similar events held in other cities.

“With Memphis Beer Week, we are really trying to build the presence of craft beer here. I think Memphis is really starting to solidify itself as a serious craft beer city,” he said.

Budweiser of Memphis’ first craft supplier was New Belgium Brewing Co., and they will partner with new supplier Yazoo Brewing Co. to put on a barbecue and beer dinner at Central BBQ Downtown April 22.

“That will be a great way to kick off Memphis Beer Week,” Sawyer said. “After that, most of those craft outlets in the city – the Flying Saucer Emporium, Young Avenue Deli, Mellow Mushroom, Sweetgrass, Local Downtown, Local Midtown, Aldo’s Pizza Pies on Main Street – will be holding rare tappings and tastings each night,” Sawyer said.

Sawyer believes imported kegs and rare tappings should satisfy the palates of even the most demanding “beer geeks,” and the week’s events will also showcase the company’s core craft labels like Sierra Nevada Pale Ale, New Belgium’s Fat Tire, the beers of local Ghost River Brewing, St. Louis’ O’Fallon and Blackstone Brewery from Nashville.

Memphis Beer Week festivities will culminate at the annual Memphis Brewfest at AutoZone Park April 27. Sawyer said that event is growing by 500 people each year, and he expects more than 2,000 beer lovers on hand this year.

“We are trying to use as much regional and local craft beer as we can to tie into the festival,” Sawyer said.

Late last year, Budweiser of Memphis brought Chicago’s Goose Island Beer Co. to Memphis, and this week they debuted the first new brand to the market this year – Brooklyn Brewery.

Carla Villa, Brooklyn Brewery brands manager, is in Memphis this week to roll out the brand, which includes 10 tap takeovers at both Flying Saucer locations and Bardog Tavern on Madison Avenue.

“Memphis will probably be the only new market we will be filling in in the United Sates this year,” Villa said. “We will have great distribution here, with availability in Kroger, Whole Foods and various convenience stores around town.”

Brooklyn Brewery beers available here will include Brooklyn Lager and Brooklyn Brown as well as four other year-round offerings and a seasonal lineup. Special offerings in Memphis will include Brooklyn’s limited Brewmaster Reserve series.

“Every quarter we come out with beer that we typically only make once and it is only available for a short time on draft,” Villa said. “Our next Brewmaster Reserve will be our Silver Anniversary Lager in late March or early April to celebrate our 25th anniversary as a brewery.”

Surprisingly, the explosion of craft beer sales locally has not hurt the distributor’s bread-and-butter products, Bud and Bud Lite, as well as its other big selling brands like Corona and Yuengling.

“Last year was one of the best years we’ve had as an overall company, with substantial growth across the board,” said Sawyer, who pointed out that the suppliers are very happy that sales are growing here. “We’re still selling a ton of Bud and Bud Lite and having great years with those beers, but craft is really what’s new and fun. It’s what is driving new consumers to the beer category.”

High-alcohol beers, or those with higher than 6.3 percent alcohol by volume, are gaining popularity despite the fact they can still only be sold in liquor stores.

“We are starting to see more liquor store owners recognizing the potential for high-alcohol beers,” Sawyer said. “Here in Memphis, there’s a strong Belgian import portfolio, which is about 90 percent high-gravity [alcohol]. And many American crafts like Stone Brewing Co., Rogue, New Belgium and Sierra Nevada have great high-gravity portfolios that were not available in Tennessee before now.”

Sawyer hopes to team with local restaurants for other beer pairing dinner nights soon in order to showcase hot trends like sour beer. One newly announced sour beer to Memphis is Yazoo Brewing Co.’s limited edition Wild Child, which is part of a series of sour beers from Yazoo called Embrace the Funk.

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