Beer, Politics and the American Dream

by Virginia Coyne

6 questions for Craig Purser, President and CEO of the National Beer Wholesalers Association

Craig Purser is the President and CEO of the National Beer Wholesalers Association, a trade association representing the interests of 3000 independent beer distributors.

Beer. It’s the country’s favorite alcoholic beverage. In 2018 alone, the industry sold more than 200 million barrels, the equivalent of 26 gallons per person of drinking age. And the number of breweries in the United States continues to grow year after year. That means more options for consumers but only if they can access their brands of choice. 

That’s where the National Beer Wholesalers Association (NBWA) steps in. The Washington, D.C.-based trade association represents distributors who deliver beer (and hard cider, and now, spiked seltzers) to your favorite establishment or corner store. 

We sat down for a cold one with Craig Purser, the President and CEO of NBWA, at Virtue Feed & Grain in Alexandria, Virginia. He diplomatically demurred when asked which beer he was drinking, but enthusiastically answered other questions about the industry he represents.

In a nutshell, what is the National Beer Wholesalers Association and who do you represent?
The independent beer distribution industry employs 141,000 people from coast to coast. That’s bigger than many Fortune 100 companies in terms of total employees for one industry. We advocate for and represent the interests of 3000 member companies, located in every state and congressional district. 

These are not just jobs. They are quality jobs; they are careers. Even in the Rust Belt, where a lot of industry has left, our companies are still a mainstay. We are job providers both in rural areas that are struggling and in urban areas like New York and Washington, D.C. Many of the companies are family-run and multi-generational and today, more and more women are taking the helm. Then there are the personal success stories of the guys or gals, sometimes immigrants, that started out mopping the floor or driving the truck, and are now running the place. It’s people living the traditional American Dream.

Why do we need beer distributors? 
Just look at the menu at this restaurant. See how many choices there are? Those beers are delivered here by a number of distributors. In Old Town Alexandria alone, I believe, there are six or seven distributors that handle all of these products. If it weren’t for independent distributors most of these brands wouldn’t be offered here or wouldn’t be on store shelves because brewers don’t have the scalability to do the distribution themselves. They make great products, but the difficulty is getting that product from point A to point B.

What are some of the issues distributors face? 
In 1983 there were less than 50 breweries in the entire United States. Today, there are over 7000. So one of our issues is managing that kind of explosion and the industry changes that go along with it. For example, in 2016 when Anheuser-Busch InBev finalized its $100 billion merger with SABMiller, the implications for the marketplace and obviously, our members, were huge. We wanted to ensure that our members did not have their contracts canceled because of this change of ownership. During their review of the merger, both the Department of Justice and the U.S. Senate concluded that independent distribution is essential to competition and for the industry to continue to scale. Distributors are the ones that get the product to the beverage retailers, grocery and convenience stores, bars and restaurants.

How did you end up in this job? Is it because of your love of beer?
It’s funny, when I took the job 12 years ago and the press release went out, a couple of old fraternity brothers from the University of Oklahoma emailed me saying something along the lines that “this was not Purser’s first foray into beer.” Yes, I did like beer in college, but I also loved politics. You could say beer and politics are two of my loves. Most days you’re in the weeds and working hard, just like any other job, but there are some days where you pinch yourself and think, “Oh my gosh. I can’t believe I get to do this.” It’s pretty cool.

What is your favorite beer?
I rarely drink the same beer in a row. And most times, I’m just drinking a quarter glass of something. So, when someone asks, “What are you drinking?” the answer is “I’m drinking your beer.”  I’m always switching. There are so many options. Yes, we have all the interesting craft beers, but the bigger, globally-known brewers still provide great liquid refreshment. Sometimes there’s nothing more uniquely refreshing than an American light lager, and there are other times when a great, high-end import is the perfect accompaniment to your meal. I don’t usually name names, but Heineken has a pretty good thing going when it comes to that department. Ask anybody, even non-beer drinkers from another part of the world if they know the brand, and they always do.

Do you drink anything other than beer? 
I joke with my friend Bobby Koch (the president and CEO of the Wine Institute) that with wine, you’ve got red, you’ve got white, and you’ve got pink, but it’s all really the same! There’s much more diversity in beer. But okay, I’ll go ahead and confess on the record that yes, I drink wine sometimes. When I do, I call it opposition research.

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