Thursday, April 3, 2008

The Session: Beer People | Santa's Little Helpers

For this month's Session beer bloggers from around the world are focusing on the Beer People, once thought of as mythical creatures with round noses and long, white beards who only recently found work selling cheap travel deals on the tube. OK, I somehow doubt we're talking about those beer people, the Urthel's or whatever you'd call them, but instead focusing on those among us who have helped shape the industry into what it is today. For this posting I'll be looking at three people - real people - who represent something larger than themselves, I hope you enjoy.

The Rep, Jim Shevlin of Full Sail Brewing

I first met Jim a few years back, I had wanted to meet with him to discuss some statewide legislation that was coming down the pipes and I was looking to get a beat on how it would impact him and his work. He met at the end of a busy day meeting people around the region and doing the work, the real work, of educating the buyers and managers of area shops and retail outlets. I could tell he was tired and I knew he had other stuff to do, but he was his ever-gracious self and it wasn't but a few minutes before we hit it off and started talking shop. Jim's job is a tough one, it really is. Working as a rep for a small brewery from another state, he doesn't have a song-and-dance, no fancy sheets and presentations, no gimmes. Instead, all he has is the price sheets in his kit, samples in his cooler and the internal drive needed to make his next meeting as great, or better, than his last.

Reps don't get a lot of thanks in the beer world, but they should. I won't go out and say Jim's the hardest working guy in the business, he's a good example, however, of so many reps I've met from all over the country. It's a dirty job, and these guys do it. The results? Remember how happy you were when you first saw that favorite craft beer on the shelf in your grocery store? How about that hard-to-find beer you had on tap recently? That doesn't just happen, grocery store managers don't wake up one day and realize they should sell more craft beer - it's too expensive and the customers have too many questions. The good beers on the shelves of your market, deli, bar, restaurant are very likely there because the Jim's of the beer world made a stop, shared a beer and SOLD their beer.

I don't think I would make a good rep. Honestly. I don't speak the language, I don't have the patience and I certainly don't have thick enough skin. I have nothing but admiration for the work these guys do for us and our love of beer: their cars are always full of samples, papers, and god-knows what else; their significant others used to the call saying they're running late, that a meeting presented itself on the other part of town, or they had a potential sale and now they have to sit and work out the details with the distributors and store managers. No sir, I don't think this is a job for me.

For the "Jim's" of the world, thank you. You have my respect, appreciation and I only wish I could buy you all a beer.

Larry Otterness, Wine Steward for Nugget Market (Roseville)

There are people with personalities larger than their stature would ever suggest, and Larry's passionate appreciation for the world hits you long before he has a chance to shake your hand - and he will shake your hand. Larry's one of the managers people like Jim talk to, try to finagle shelf space from and, if the stars align, an end cap! Beyond that, Larry does the same with wine, whiskey, tequila, champagne, sake - whatever the expanded selection of alcohol at the store includes, Larry's your guy. He's a 'breadth' of knowledge sort of guy, he wouldn't claim to be otherwise. He knows just enough to get buy and actually be of assistance. Do you know what kind of beer you like? He can help. Do you know what's for dinner, but your folks are wine drinkers? Yup, he knows that too. What about a gift for the boss that loves his fine bourbon? Sure enough, he's tried it and knows it well.

Again with the patience thing - I don't have it. Certainly you've heard the beer-aisle conversation with the beer guys. "Can you help me, I'm looking for a beer for my boyfriend." Larry is eager to help. "Certainly", he says "what kind of beer does he like?" This is where the train brakes kick in, you know it. "I don't know, we were in a shop in Yosemite last year and he had a beer he loved. I think it came in a brown bottle, but it might have been green. The name was something like River, or Spring... maybe Tree? Do you have any of that?" Long before the train comes to a complete wreck, I find my exit - maybe I can look at tampons or something less awkward.

Larry amazes me, his skills aren't so good he's ever going to guess that beer, but he finds a way to point her in a direction she thinks she wanted to go in all along, leaving with a good craft beer in the cart, happy to get home and see her boyfriend's expression when she offers the gift SHE got for him.

Oh, did I mention that happened after inventory, after meeting with the distributor for Bud who's concerned about space on the shelf and why doesn't he buy more Bud for the weekend. It also comes after Jim has come and gone, not just the beer Jim either, but the Jim for wine and booz too! Then, of course, there's the endless price checks, phone calls from confused customers and non-stop nagging... shit! Clean up in the beer aisle, someone dropped their six-pack of beer.

No thank you, that is not a job for me either. This is just another reason I respect Jay Brooks, by the way. He was part of this nonsense before becoming one of the all around beer expert and super wonderful beer writer he is today. Yep, before Celebrator, Jay was Larry. Sometimes I think I should have been a Jim or Larry for a while, I even applied for a Jim job a few years back.

Like Jim, we wouldn't be able to appreciate the beers we do near as much and as easily as we do if it weren't for Larry - all the Larry's in across the country. The people who do more than the status quo, Larry isn't just another wine dept manager after all. There aren't a lot of these folks when compared to the run-of-the-mill manager; Larry's care about their product's quality and the customer's experience - they care about their reputation, and that's tied directly to the area they run.

To the Larry's of the world, I applaud you.

Betty and Brett, the Barkeeps at every beer bar in every city

This time I'm using a fake name, because the stories I have are true - and embarrassing.

Betty works at a local bar, like so many Betty's of the world, she's attractive, makes good drinks and does her best to make you feel at home when you're at her bar. Sit there long enough and you can watch as she smiles while taking orders from the locals, ignores the drunk hitting on her, cleans the bar, the dishes, serves food, changes the channel on the TV and so much more. She simply doesn't stop moving, ever.

I've seen her quite a bit, we're friends now, and after closing we sit with the other Betty's and Brett's of the bar and share drinks and stories. "That guy grabbed my tits!" one Betty exclaims. "What did you do?" inquires another. "Nothing, just removed his hand and told him he'd best go home". I am not making this up. Another Betty chimes in, "I had the same thing happen the other night, I wanted to punch the guy's lights out." She didn't, of course.

Brett recalls escorting a young punk out the door, and it was clear by the way he was talking that wasn't a big deal for him. He's not a big guy, doesn't have that "bouncer" appearance, but you can hear in his voice the sense of duty he has with his job. If customers get out of hand, he steps in when he can. If not, he's the guy who gets the boss, and if he goes to the boss and the boss has to ask you to leave, you can bet your ass you're not coming back - not while he's around.

Looking at them all I see they're filthy, with food-caked pants and sticky shirts. They're not angry, not even bitter, they're genuinely enjoying the time they have together after another night on the floor. I've shared many nights like this, this is a job I once knew all too well - it got me through a couple years of college. Sitting around the last uncleaned table - all the others have chairs on them for cleaning, of course - and sharing a beer over the freakish stories of the day is a beautiful thing to be part of, but if you listen and watch, you can see just how hard the Brett's and Betty's worked that night. Under the smiles, they're tired, their feet are sore and more often than not, a few have to get up in the morning for their other job. Grueling, unglamorous and too frequently, thankless.

For the barkeeps of the world, thank you! We never tip enough, frequently don't know how out of line we are, and rarely appreciate the fact that we're not your only customer. Thank you, thank you, thank you.