By Lee Reiherzer
At the entrance to the Lee Beverage Company of Wisconsin is a large, timeworn weather vane depicting King Gambrinus, the patron saint of beer. It’s an appropriate greeter for a company whose business is distributing beer, but it also signifies something deeper. The piece is representative of the company’s long history and involvement with beer in Oshkosh.
Located in a 130,000 square-foot facility on S. Oakwood Road, Lee Beverage is the only beer distributorship based in Oshkosh. The business was founded in 1934, the first year after Prohibition, by Harry Lee and William Precour. In 1963, Lee sold the company to John Kuenzl, whose family had helped found the Oshkosh Brewing Company in 1894. And that weathered figure of King Gambrinus at the Lee Beverage door goes back even further. It was once perched atop the brewhouse of the Gambrinus Brewery, which was launched on Harney Ave. in Oshkosh in 1875 by John Kuenzl’s great-grandfather, Lorenz Kuenzl. Clearly, this is a company with a beer-based heritage few others can match.
Having that kind of history may be nice, but in the tumultuous business of beer it takes more than a pedigree to stay alive. Jeff Lindemann succeeded his father, David Lindemann, as president of Lee Beverage in 2006. He leads the company at a time when the beer world is being reshaped. For decades, the lifeblood for most beer distributors has been the core brands of the big, American beer producers such as Coors, Miller and Anheuser-Busch. But the ongoing consolidation of the largest brewers and the declining sales of their flagship brands has caused forward-looking distributors to reformulate their business model.
“There have been so many different changes,” Lindemann says. “We started out as a Pabst and Old Style house. We did that for years and did a lot of volume with those brands.” In 1985, with the sales of those beers weakening, the company contracted to distribute the Coors brands. And as craft beer gained traction in the late 1990s and early 2000s Lee Beverage began adding a series of smaller breweries to its portfolio. As Lindemann puts it, “We learned how to sell craft beer when craft beer wasn’t cool.”
The company now distributes hundreds of different craft beers in the 21 counties it serves. The big name in its craft lineup is a small-town Wisconsin brewery. “When we first started distributing New Glarus, you had to drive down to New Glarus to pick up the cases,” Lindemann says. The nurturing has paid off. “Last year we sold 125,000 cases of New Glarus beer,” he says. That’s about 7 percent of the brewery’s total output.
Lindemann sees the potential for a number of other Wisconsin craft breweries to realize a similar kind of growth. “What’s really helped these newer brewers is their quality control,” Lindemann says. “You can’t get away with having off flavors in your beer anymore. These brewers get that.” He concedes, though, that broader acceptance may not come as rapidly as some expect. “You have different classes of beer consumers and a lot of these people aren’t interested in trying something different,” he says. “But it has gotten much better. I keep seeing more and more people trying craft beer. It’s a gradual shift; and if there is a problem, it’s the price. The higher price of craft beer is what holds it back from growing even faster.”
Lindemann says that perhaps the biggest change has occurred among the consumers. “Now they’re the driving force,” he says. “People know more about beer than they ever have before. Often they’re more informed than the people selling the beer. You have some very educated beer enthusiasts out there. They come in asking for the beer they want. This has become a hobby for a lot of people. They’re always out looking for something new. They’re the explorers of this millennium.”
That sounds about how it should be, but for a beer distributor it also presents a couple of problems. The number of craft brands continues to increase at a pace faster than most retailers care to keep. “There’s still only so much room on the shelf,” Lindemann says. “Trying to obtain that space has become a constant battle.” Trying to stay attuned to what can be a very fickle audience requires a continually growing book. Competition for the prized brands can be fierce. “Wisconsin can be a tough market,” Lindemann says. “I think a lot of craft brewers outside of the state are intimidated by the loyalty people here have to Wisconsin beers.”
In December, Lee Beverage landed one of the marquee names in craft beer after Dogfish Head Brewery decided to give Wisconsin another go. “Getting Dogfish Head was a big win for us,” Lindemann says. “We had been working on that for a while. We went out there last April, and toured the brewery and got to know their team. When they decided to come back to Wisconsin again, they were already comfortable with us. They’re great at what they do. I think they’ve got it figured out. And they have a huge following. We had the kickoff party on a Monday night at Oblio’s and we had a packed bar.”
Lindemann has a difficult time envisioning how multinational brewers such as Anheuser-Busch InBev can replicate that kind of homegrown enthusiasm for their product. “They’re all looking for ways to grab onto the success of craft beer, but they just don’t have the patience for it. The way they go about it leaves people feeling like its being forced down their throat. That’s not going to works with these consumers. It takes more than a year or two to make a brand successful. It took Deb Carey 20 years to get New Glarus Brewing where it is today. This is a circular business and right now you can see where things are headed.” For beer drinkers, it appears to be the right direction.
Lee Reiherzer drinks, brews and researches beer in Oshkosh. Visit his blog, Oshkosh Beer, at OshkoshBeer.Blogspot.com