“When we started out, the plan was to focus on selling our beer in Brooklyn. However we went around to a lot of places we thought might be interested in what we’re doing and they weren’t! They just didn’t trust the brand, and there was almost an attitude in some areas that if we had a beer this good, why on earth are were we giving it the Brooklyn name? It was tough.”
Steve Hindy is the co-founder and chairman of Brooklyn Brewery. He’s in Edinburgh on a brief promotional tour and gearing up to speak to a room of students from the Scottish capital’s Heriot-Watt university.
Not something he probably envisaged he’d be doing when he and co-founder Tom Potter were delivering their first cases of beer back in 1988.
But for someone that ended a five and a half-year tour as the Middle East Correspondent for the Associated Press where he covered wars and assassinations in Iran, Iraq, Lebanon, Syria, Egypt and Sudan before helping start Brooklyn Brewery, Hindy takes such evenings in his stride.
“We had faith that we could make a go of it in Brooklyn and wanted to focus our efforts there, but when you’re told by restauranteurs and master sommeliers that you’re banging your head against a brick wall pursuing that route, it was time to take stock and look at other options,” he explains. “The name and connotations of Brooklyn just weren’t the same then as they are now.”
Hindy adds: “We were frequently told that people in Brooklyn would only believe in our product and take it seriously if they saw it in Manhattan. So fairly quickly we had to pivot to selling there and to be honest, we found out there was some truth in the advice we were given.
“I think that was unusual, and probably a function of New York City as a whole, but before long, we had people coming to us from all over the world telling us that they had tried our beer and wanted to start selling it in their native countries. We’re talking Tokyo, Stockholm, London. They were all clamouring for our beer.
“I’m not sure if I told them, or only thought it, but my attitude was like are you crazy? I can’t even sell the beer, do you now know how hard this is? People were telling us to make a beer more like Heineken and you’re here telling me you want to export this dark, bitter beer?
“And the people wanting to buy the beer were total amateurs, too. In Stockholm it was an SAS pilot and in Tokyo it was oil company executive but we needed the money, so we told them they needed to pay up front. That was a great deal for us and a bad deal for them. But they paid!
“It could have been a disaster and they would have paid good money to have the beer shipped over and it would just sit there, not sell and go bad. Then people would taste it, assume it was crap and taint the brewery and the distributor. But thankfully it sold!”
However, it wasn’t until the 2000s that the penny started to drop for Hindy and the team. They realised that they were selling an “awful lot” of beer overseas and decided that they should be paying that side of the business more attention.
At that time, in 2003, Carlsberg invited the brewery’s venerable brewmaster Garrett Oliver to Copenhagen to receive the prestigious Semper Ardens award, which recognised his contributions to the global beer industry.
Carlsberg also assumed responsibility for distributing Brooklyn beers in Scandinavia in that period.
“The relationship with Carlsberg was really borne out of that,” says Hindy. “They started focusing on Denmark and we told them that they really needed to look at the smaller, speciality places and to grow the brand slowly. They disagreed. They told us: ‘Hey, we know a little bit about beer and distribution. Leave it to us’.
“So we did.”
Hindy adds: “They flooded the supermarkets and pushed the brand everywhere but unfortunately people weren’t aware of it, they couldn’t relate to it, and they didn’t know anything about it. So that approach didn’t work at all. It was a disaster.
“However, they worked with their House of Beers division when it came to distributing in Sweden and the approach was far more considered. And it worked. The same happened in Norway and Finland.”
Since then, Brooklyn Brewery and Carlsberg opened their joint venture brewery Nya Carnegie in 2014, which operates as a brewery and tasting room in Stockholm, Sweden.
This project was followed by E.C. Dahls in Trondheim, Norway in 2016 and Jeju Island Brewing Company in South Korea and HK Yau in Hong Kong opened in 2017. This year has also seen the announcements of the acquisition of London Fields Brewery in the UK, and the founding of a new brewery in Lithuania.
“Carlsberg have been great partners for us. They know we wanted to sell as much beer as possible but also maintain our independence, and they’ve allowed us to do that. Heineken were only interested if they could end up with 100% ownership, the same with AB InBev, and we didn’t want that,” explains Hindy. “Carlsberg’s distribution, along with the investment that came with the 24.5% stake in us that Kirin acquired, has allowed us to grow more than we ever could before.”
He adds: “One of the contradictions we struggle with though is that craft beer, in my opinion, is largely about the local. So what am I doing in Edinburgh?! But craft beer is also about the brand and some brands travel better than others. And I believe that our venture with Carlsberg is a way of us spreading our DNA, and not the approach that some companies have marching into town and stating they are going to own it.”
But for newer breweries starting out today, Hindy says that distribution remains as important as ever if you want to make a go of it in this industry.
He explains: “It goes without saying that distribution models are very different in somewhere like the US compared to the UK. But either way, it really is the most important part of your business. You’ve got to make a great beer, you’ve got to have a great packaging, and you need a fantastic team.
“But you’ve also got to get the beer to the consumers and wherever you are in the world, you need to spend a lot of time working out what’s the best way to this. You also need to know your goals and how you’re going to achieve those. And working with a good distributor is one of the most important places to start.”