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Craft beer transition: a Q&A with Budweiser of Memphis’ Austin Sawyer

November 19, 2012 By: mike Category: Breweries, Craft beer, Distribution, Memphis

Austin Sawyer of Budweiser of Memphis

Austin Sawyer, of Budweiser of Memphis, with a growler of Ghost River Brewing’s 1887 IPA.

The craft beer business in Memphis is in the midst of a major shake-up, one that may make lovers of hand-crafted Belgian beers, stouts and IPAs a bit nervous. After more than a decade as Memphis’ craft distribution pioneer, Southwestern Distributing recently sold its beer business to the Hand Family Companies. As a result, Budweiser of Memphis, which is owned by the Hand family, has taken over Southwestern’s craft portfolio, including Stone Brewing Co., Sierra Nevada Brewing Co., Rogue Ales, Yazoo Brewing Co., Abita Brewing Co., Red Brick Brewing Co and Memphis’ Ghost River Brewing Co. Those brands join Budweiser of Memphis’ existing craft brands, from New Belgium Brewing to Magic Hat Brewing Company to Blackstone Brewery, as well as domestic brands like Budweiser and Bud Light. So what’s going to happen to all those beers from Southwestern’s portfolio? How will Budweiser of Memphis balance its craft brands with its mass-produced AnheuserBusch products? Austin Sawyer, import, craft and specialty brand manager for Budweiser of Memphis, has heard all those questions, and he says Mid-South craft beer drinkers should not fret. He sat down at the Downtown Flying Saucer with FuzzyBrew to talk about the craft beer transition in Memphis and to share some of Budweiser of Memphis’ big plans.


Give us the back story behind the sale of Southwestern’s beer business to the Hand Family Companies and what has transpired in the last few weeks.

Georgia Crown purchased United Liquors a couple of years ago, and then they came in and bought the liquor division of Southwestern. At that time … the beer side became available. Obviously they’ve got a great portfolio. They’ve done a great job establishing those craft brands. They came in in the 90s, really before the market was ready for craft, and they did great things with it and really got it going. We got our first venture into craft at the Budweiser wholesaler five years ago with New Belgium … and it really opened our eyes up to what that movement was. Ever since then we’ve picked up breweries such as Magic Hat, Yuengling … We started going after some other players. We started hunting the breweries across the country. … We got Blackstone Brewery out of Nashville. Those guys produce some great liquid. We really like what they’re doing, so we got them on board.

Budweiser of Memphis logoWhen the Southwestern beer portion became available, our owner J.R. Hand was obviously very in tune to what is going on with the craft beer movement. He was very excited about the opportunity, and here we are now. He purchased that beer division of the company, and we moved forward with it. From there, three weeks ago we merged their low-gravity brands in house, sold under Budweiser of Memphis. And (for) all the high-gravity, we opened up a new company called West Tennessee Beverage, which is a subsidiary of Budweiser of Memphis servicing all the liquor stores and bars and restaurants with high-alcohol licenses. Just beers at this point. We’re servicing Shelby County and Memphis with all low- and high-gravity brands and we’ll be servicing Jackson, Tipton and Dyer counties with high-gravity brands.

How long have you been with the company?

I’ve been the craft manager here at Budweiser of Memphis for two years now. I took it over right when the Hands took over the company. It was a new position that they added because of how excited they were with the craft beer movement and wanted to get involved. We’ve got a great team over there…and when we absorbed the Southwestern brands, obviously our portfolio quadrupled. … When you’re selling against these brands for years, you see what works and you’re so envious of those things. Now we’re like, ‘All right, how do we take what they did and build on that as a stronger and more efficient organization?’ … Opening up this liquor store division is definitely interesting. I know all the liquor stores in Memphis that have spoken with us are overly excited about the fact that we’re just selling high-alcohol beer. The beer consumer in Memphis is so thirsty for what’s new, and the rare stuff, and these great breweries, and with this new portfolio, we can offer that.

Here’s the question that all the beer nerds in Memphis want to know — how are you going to balance the sale of craft beer versus Anheuser-Busch products?

At the end of the day, I’m never going to sit here and tell you I’m going to forget about Bud Light. At the end of the day, we’re in the South and it’s the No. 1 domestic beer brand in the market. It’s what pays the bills. But at the same time, I realize and the ownership group realizes that craft beer … isn’t a fad. This is what’s here to stay. … Everybody in our company has bought into the craft beer movement.

Do you think the shelf space for craft beer across Memphis will be increasing?

Without a doubt. I will say that’s where our company excels throughout the years, on execution and brand roll-outs. And that’s why we’ve picked up some of the juggernauts over the years such as New Belgium and Yuengling. They go with a high-execution company. I think if you look at what Sierra Nevada has done in this market, it’s very underdeveloped at this point. … I don’t think at the end of the day it’s going to come from cutting domestic. Not everybody knows what works in this market. Our guys are very good at identifying what works with the right accounts. … One of the hottest items in grocery right now is a ‘pick six,’ create your own six-pack. I think a lot of convenience stores are going to go toward that. And that’s going to offer consumers a lot more craft sampling opportunities. … I think you’re going to see more expansion of ‘single serve,’ the big bombers. Core brand six-packs I think have a lot of room to grow. Between Abita, Rogue, Stone, Victory, Ghost River and Yazoo, I think those are all pretty well seeded in grocery, but I think (there’s room for expansion) in convenience stores.

Will Budweiser of Memphis be getting rid of any of the beers from the Southwestern portfolio?

Not at all, and that’s been a big concern from a lot of consumers. … In the craft beer world today, I have my go-to beers … but I’m all about trying what’s new and what’s hot. … I think you see more style loyalists now a-days. There’s not much brand loyalty in the craft beer world, and that’s why it’s great to have the diverse portfolio that we do. … People have those niche beers they love. We’re not killing them, we’re keeping them around. People are going to realize that we’re doing things the right way.

I know there are people that have reservations about us taking over all these brands, but I think over the last few weeks that we’ve shown people that we’re committed to keeping up with Southwestern’s local service and really trying to exceed all those goals and continue to bring cool beer events to the city.

We’re still under way in the transition, we’re less than a month in and we announced that we’re going to host Memphis Beer Week. With all the trials and tribulations going on in house, we have a full fledged marketing plan put together … with how we’re going to launch Memphis Beer Week. We’re committed to bringing cool stuff to the city.

SweetWater - exterior

SweetWater Brewing Company in Atlanta

Does Budweiser of Memphis have plans to bring in regional brands that are not available in Memphis now, such as SweetWater Brewing Company, Back Forty Beer Co. and Good People Brewing Company?

Oh, 100 percent. Some of those I can talk about, some I can’t. There’s still competition to get those. You still have to do your pitch like you’re a car salesman and try to get the best breweries in. But we feel like we have a strong craft beer culture built in our house. It’s pretty apparent when you visit us, our warehouse, listen in on the sales meetings, and craft is dominant in terms of what we’re talking about. … As more breweries grow, we’re definitely interested in bringing anything regional here.

How do you feel about a local start-up company like High Cotton Brewing that will likely self distribute?

Our stance as a company … is that’s great. Obviously it’s competition for Ghost River, but the best competition you have is friendly competition. The guys at High Cotton are doing the same thing we’re trying to do. They’re trying to expand the beer culture in this city. Everybody knows local, regional craft is hot right now. If you’ve got some good beers and know what you’re doing like those guys, and you’ve got the desire and dream to start a brewery, more power to you. … I hope those guys make it….. We’re not going to go out and say, ‘Hey, don’t put their beer on.’ We know it’s Memphis and you’re going to carry Memphis beer, but we have the No. 1 Memphis beer right now, and we plan on keeping it that way for sure. We’re not going to openly invite to give up our (tap) handles, but I want those guys to succeed.

Ghost River BrewingWhere does Ghost River Brewing fit into your plans, and do you see it expanding?

Ghost River is producing consistent, quality craft (beer) and really correlates well with the local consumer. … As they expand and add new tanks at the brewery, obviously what Memphis is clamoring for right now is another flavor in bottles. … Obviously that’s going to be their next opportunity for huge growth. Their seasonal draft business is great. … It’s one of the fastest selling drafts around. We’re doing three pick-ups a week from Ghost River. … Memphians support Memphis things.

Can you give me an idea about new products craft beer drinkers in Memphis can expect to see in the upcoming year?

Not a chance! I wish I could! There’s some great ones coming. There’s some good commitments in line. People will be very excited about what’s coming in 2013, but I can’t expand more than that.

How about Goose Island, which has been bought by Anheuser Busch and is supposed to be coming to all 50 states soon?

Goose Island is coming Nov. 26. Two brands, draft only — the IPA and the Honker’s Ale. Hopefully, the high-alcohol stuff will follow in 2013.

What do you think about the sale of Southwestern Distributing’s beer business? And what beer brands would you like to see come to Memphis? Leave a comment below.

New Belgium’s new fall seasonal Red Hoptober surfaces in Memphis

August 21, 2012 By: mike Category: Breweries, Craft beer, Memphis

New Belgium's Red Hoptober AleThe hunt is over. New Belgium’s new fall seasonal beer, Red Hoptober Ale, is arriving in Memphis this week.

FuzzyBrew got a sneak peek at this beer, and it’s a really different offering from Colorado’s New Belgium Brewing Company.

This is no Octoberfest beer. Dry-hopped with El Dorado and Centennial hops, and brewed with Target, Nugget and Cascade, Red Hoptober is piny and floral on the nose.

And while there’s a noticeable hop bitterness when you first sip it (Red Hoptober is packed with 60 IBUs), the malts quickly make themselves known.

I tasted coffee and baker’s chocolate, along with sweet caramel. Red Hoptober is brewed with a pale malt base, and has Caramel 80 and roasted barley for specialty malts.

Medium in body, the beer is deep garnet color and is close to an American-style Red Ale, though it doesn’t fit neatly into a particular style category.

At 6% ABV, you’ll find Red Hoptober in Memphis area-grocery stores over the next couple of months. Red Hoptober replaces the Hoptober Golden Ale as New Belgium’s fall seasonal beer.

Buying beer at the West Memphis Walgreens

July 09, 2012 By: mike Category: Breweries, Craft beer, Memphis

West Memphis Walgreens beer haul

Across the bridge in West Memphis, Ark., there’s a big Walgreens that sells a lot of liquor and beer. For Memphis craft beer fans, it’s just a short drive to get some beers that aren’t distributed in Memphis.

This is no beer paradise, but you can get brews from Chicago’s Goose Island Beer Co., Kansas City’s Boulevard Brewing Company and some higher alcohol beers from New Belgium Brewing Company.

I crossed the bridge into West Memphis this weekend to restock my beer closet and grab some sixers for an upcoming craft beer party.

Here’s what I found at the Walgreens that you can’t get in Memphis:

• Three beers from Goose Island — India Pale Ale, 312 Urban Wheat Ale and Honker’s Ale. $8.99 a six-pack.

• Three beers from Boulevard — Single-Wide IPA, Pale Ale and Bully! Porter. $7.99 a six-pack.

• Three beers from New Belgium’s Explore Series — Ranger, Trippel and Abbey. $8.99 a six-pack. Budweiser of Memphis, which distributes New Belgium in Memphis, has never gotten its license to distribute higher alcohol beers. That’s why you can get a Fat Tire, but not a Ranger. Let’s hope this changes soon.

As an added bonus, you get to experience some Arkansas culture on your visit to West Memphis!

First, a woman in front of me in line tried to haggle with the cashier to get a discount on her case of boxed wine. After that, a middle-aged guy was rebuffed when trying to buy a case of beer for a young-looking guy who was with him and had no ID. The kid gave the man money right in front of the cashier. There was a loud argument with the cashier, a manager was summoned and the guy and his young friend stormed off, beer-less. It was all pretty entertaining.

Anyway, here’s the details on finding the Walgreens. (Remember, no beer sales on Sundays.)

1800 N. Missouri St., Ste 2
West Memphis, Arkansas, 72301
Phone: 870-735-8987
Get directions

New Belgium’s 2012 Tour de Fat kicks off in Nashville on June 2

May 10, 2012 By: mike Category: Breweries, Craft beer, Events

New Belgium bike

Tour de Fat, an annual traveling bike festival sponsored by New Belgium Brewing Company, makers of Fat Tire, will kick off a 15-city tour next month in Nashville.

The event aims to spread “the good word about the positive societal offerings of the bicycle” and features a costumed bike parade, New Belgium beer, music, food and more.

In Nashville, the bike Parade begins at 10 a.m. at Centennial Park, with registration starting at 9 a.m. The festival, which includes performances by Mucca Pazza, Ian Cooke, Yo-Yo People and Sssnakenstein, runs from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. For more information, go here.

The event, which is visiting Nashville for a second-straight year, will benefit the Sound Forest, Walk/Bike Nashville and Ride for Reading.

Here’s the full list of cities on the 2012 Tour de Fat calendar:

Nashville, TN – June 2 – Centennial Park
Washington, DC – June 16 – Yards Park
Durham, NC – June 23 – Diamond View Park on the American Tobacco Campus
Atlanta, GA – June 30 – Historic 4th Ward Park
Milwaukee, WI – July 14 – Coast Guard Event Area, McKinley Park
Chicago, IL – July 21 – Palmer Square
Minneapolis, MN – July 28 – Loring Park
Boise, ID – August 18 – Ann Morrison Park
Fort Collins, CO – September 1 – Civic Center Park Area
Denver, CO – September 8 – City Park
Los Angeles, CA – September 15 – Los Angeles State Historic Park
San Francisco, CA – September 22 – Lindley Meadow in Golden Gate Park
San Diego, CA – September 29 – Golden Hill Park
Tempe, AZ – October 6 – Tempe Town Lake
Austin, TX – October 20 – Fiesta Gardens


So who’s been to the Tour de Fat? Tell us what it’s like in the comments below. And, New Belgium, how about adding Memphis next year? We’re down with biking, too!