Competing in a Feeder Market: Beer distribution and the beer journey in Dane County

Competing in a Feeder Market: Beer distribution and the beer journey in Dane County

Home to over 20 local breweries, Dane County is a very unique market for beer, creating both competition and community.

“There’s obviously a lot of competition when you have a couple dozen local breweries producing a wide range of products, not all of them are unique to each other,” said Tim “Pio” Piotrowski, the Chief Beer Officer of Delta Beer Lab. “But, on the other hand, It gives us a community of small business to collaborate and to share ideas or to forecast issues that we all might address and to be there for eachother. It’s a double-edged sword.”

Pio and his team at Delta Beer Lab, located in Madison, created a brand that was welcoming to all people, which in turn created a very diverse customer base. To grow the brand, Delta Beer Lab distributes personally to its retail partners, giving consumers access to their beverages across the city.

Personal relationships are a large part of beer distribution in Dane County. Frank Beer, the category leader in all beer sales for Dane County, personally meets with each and every one of its retail partners instead of doing work over the phone.

“We’re fortunate enough that because we are the category leader, we have the most information and we are able to go and help retailers grow their business,” said Shawn Knoche, director of brand management for Frank Beer.

In the beer industry, college towns like Madison are typically known as feeder markets, because college students are heavily influenced by the first few alcoholic beverages they try and enjoy the most.

As the consumer begins to grow curious about other beers, they embark themselves on what Knoche calls, “the beer journey.”

“The first thing they usually drink is whatever Mom and Dad did at home, then you’ll probably drink whatever is cheap that you can get your hands on.” Knoche continued, “From there you’ll start doing crossover beers and lighter beers that don’t offend the palate as much. From there people tend to try imports and the multiple style crafts, then you’ll probably try the darker, more bitter beers that tend to turn people off. People that really love beer are willing to go anywhere and you are open to more ideas and suggestions.”

Local breweries, pubs and taprooms witness young adults on their beer journeys firsthand. “One of the things that we’ve noticed is that when people of all ages come in and say they don’t like’s amazing to see how many eyes are opened,” Pio said.

One of the first local breweries to open in Dane County, Great Dane Pub and Brewing Co., has grown to have four locations in the county. The Great Dane takes a different approach to the beer industry, placing part of its focus on the food they serve along with their beers. Providing food delivery has helped to increase brand awareness and bring traffic to their stores.

“We change our menu twice a year based on the season...our executive chef is constantly looking for the next thing,” said Samantha Frazier, the general manager of Great Dane Pub and Brewing Co.’s Eastside location. “We have a good crowd of regulars established here that come a lot during the p.m.”

Becoming a recognizable brand and standing out amongst the competition takes time, especially when trying to win over the same consumers, which are typically not college students.

“I think there’s an ability to grow depending on your scale and how big of a brewery you are and what you focus on...There’s different kinds of the business.” Knoche said, “While they’re all competing for relatively the same person, it’s very difficult for the smaller breweries to compete with say, New Glarus, on a visibility and recognizable aspect.”

Competing with New Glarus is no easy task. At Octopi, serving clients is prioritized. Though they have a taproom, the distribution comes first.

“Our biggest thing is that we are a contract brewery, so we have a couple of house brands that we serve under the taproom, but the vast majority of what we make is for clients,” said Ben Puls, compliance manager at Octopi Brewery. “We aren’t limited to how our house brands are doing well necessarily, we have many other companies that we make products for, which gives us an edge on staying alive.”


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