By Matthew J. "Heff" Heffernan
A couple of months ago, I was sitting in a mediocre account drinking a beer by myself. It was one of the constant "tap takeovers" that are a large portion of a beer rep's job. In today's craft beer environment, with the ever shrinking existence of safe, consistent draft volume, tap takeovers are imperative to maintain numbers, or goose growth, when needed. So, even when the account is a dog, and they want to do it on a Tuesday, and you know that nobody is going to show up, you still say, “Yes.”
"You mean…you will buy several kegs from me, and all I have to do is come to your bar at a predetermined date and time and drink some?" Why? Because I wear a shirt that says the name of a brewery on it? I'm not special just because I put this shirt on. I know two dozen homebrewers who know waaaay more about beer than me, but nobody asks them to show up at a bar and drink beer for free under the guise of "having somebody to explain beer to the patrons."
It's a strange dynamic that leads many people to believe that being a beer rep is quite possibly the best job on the planet. That's what the buying public generally sees us doing: drinking beer on an expense account. They don't see us awake until all hours of the night building presentations to show at wholesaler meetings (which are often at 7am the next day). So they think this job is great. They don't see the truly unfortunate amount of time you have to spend analyzing sales data to make any sort of headway at retail, or with your wholesaler partners (about all of whom, I don't think it's any secret to anyone who knows me, I've openly had some very negative things to say about in the past, but we'll get to that in a minute). The public definitely doesn't see the embarrassing and regrettable conversations that sometimes go on out in the market or during a sales call. The horse trading, the sucking up, the falseness, agreeing when you actually disagree, smiling when you actually want to judo chop the person in the neck. These are some things I'm pretty good at. None of them are sexy, but I guess they do separate me from your average homebrewer. Still though, it's the cool shirt that must make them want me there. Or maybe the hope they will receive a cool shirt of their own simply by hosting?
So there I was sitting in my stupid tap takeover at a predictably empty bar. I was bored and tired and more than a little frustrated. This was how I was spending my time? I wanted to be home with my family. Then I got a text from my wife that my son had rolled over for the first time. I could have set the building on fire. Of course, it's entirely my fault. It was my fault for saying “yes” to the Tuesday thing with the C List account in the suburbs. It was my fault for not having the volume needed to be able to make up the sales elsewhere without the kegs this event brought in. Also, I'm the one who chose to be a 36 year old beer rep. A rep with two small children at home. A rep who came into the game way too late for the second time in my professional life. I started my last career late too, before reaching my goal of running a restaurant and realizing it wasn't for me. And now here I was realizing it again. Twice in a row to grind it out completely to the point of exhaustion, just to realize that it wasn't going to make me happy. It's a Sisyphean method by which to push your way through the working world.
Advance enough in field sales, and you basically get a home office job known as Area Manager or Territory Manager, and that is a step toward something resembling a job an effective parent could do. Although, the solitary nature of that never really appealed to me. In order to advance in any profession there has to be a path upward. I, unfortunately, so far, have chosen two job descriptions with incredibly narrow ladders upward. Beer sales and restaurants are very similar in that way: at the time when you have a job, your closest peer on a daily basis is probably the person currently occupying the job that you'd like to have. It's part and parcel of avoiding working for a large organization. I've always had the pleasure of working for fun companies in "cool" industries that have been extremely rewarding in countless ways, none of which were financial or generous with free time. If only 36 year old Heff could have grabbed 26 year old Heff by his big dumb goatee and slapped him around a little, there might have been some small amount of real world strategy in plotting my course ahead.
I'm not a Millennial, but that oft-parroted line is definitely true of my upbringing: I was strongly encouraged to follow my passions. My passions brought me here. I love beer and food and service and sales and competition and creative problem solving. I've spent much of my working life enjoying what I do for a living and having the type of job that people envy. At some point though, something happened. I started to feel a twinge every night around most people's quitting time. My daughter's face would pop into my head, and I would instantaneously start to dread whatever work function was keeping me from being with her. I started to envy other people's jobs, no matter how "uncool." Some of the people I know with the least "cool" jobs make the most money. At 36, it all started to look pretty good.
A switch flipped, and loving my job not only became infinitely less important, it became impossible if it didn't include the ability to see my kids every night. When I used to hear about people who had achieved greatness in their field and how long their work days were, I would use it as mental justification for putting so much time into my own career goals. After this internal shift though, all I could think was: who cares about greatness in industry when you've got small children at home wondering why they can't see you?
There's not a lot of options for a guy looking for jobs that don't require night work but who has only ever had jobs that require night work. I felt trapped and increasingly sad. Then I thought about the wholesaler life, what many of my peers would refer to as the Dark Side. Going there would make me a huge hypocrite, of course. Nobody has been heard mouthing off with displeasure about the three-tier system more obnoxiously and more often than me. I've got friends, or I should say, people I consider friends, that probably don't consider me in the same esteem because they know that I have openly trash talked their employer. I have beers, and I run my mouth (I'm Irish; I can't help it).
Many wholesalers, by their nature, embody a lot of what is wrong with this business. The entire system of independent distribution only exists by virtue of a mandate from the federal government, and there's a resentment that flows in both directions as a result; a sense that if the other side weren't required by law, they would gladly do without them. Wholesalers are often seen as way too focused on logistics and profits and company policies.
My friend once showed me how he explains the three tier system of alcohol to lay people. He picked up his glass and moved it from in front of his right hand to in front of his left hand and then stuck out his other hand and said “That'll be 30%, please.”
There is often a feeling among brewery people that distributor people would be just as happy delivering turkey basters. Would I feel unhappy if I, for the first time in my life, worked somewhere where nothing was physically produced? I've spent the entirety of my adult years surrounded by artisans in the form of brewers, chefs, service and marketing folks. That's part of the cultural disconnect between the two sides. Wholesaler people look at brewery people like a bunch of artist hippies who couldn't care less about running a successful business, and that is not without good reason. Brewery people typically are in it because they love beer, the act of making/advertising/selling it, and the beauty of the final result. Don't get me wrong, it's not like distributor people don't love beer too, I've seen firsthand some of the most ardent geeking and blissful overindulgence on their part. However, I think you'd be hard pressed to find anyone in this industry that doesn't see an implicit divide where breweries lean more towards art, while distributors lean more toward business.
There's those work hours, though. And through handling the bulk of the Area Management for Victory the last couple years, I have actually grown to love the logistics and data analysis side. I could be a businessman, right? Then there's also not spending all damn day in your car. There's having a place and a workspace and a surface to put a picture of that wife and family that are the whole reason to continue to slog through the infinite swamp of daily work life. There's a team and not just in spirit, like with field sales. You walk out your door and over to Phil's door, and you say, "Hey man, you see that game last night?" That everyday camaraderie is such a huge part of the restaurant industry, and I've spent the last four years with a gaping hole where the love-of-team used to live.
In the end, after a year of agonizing over it, I came to peace with this idea: "Being a hypocrite is way better than being a bad dad." So here I am. A beer guy, a former restaurant guy, a known workhorse, and now a craft beer specialist for a distributor slash raging huge hypocrite. I'll consistently punch out at 4:30 and still occasionally be told by folks outside of the industry that my job is really cool. I'll know otherwise, but it won't matter. That’s because I was never actually cool, just a good dad temporarily disguised by a logo shirt.
Matthew J. "Heff" Heffernan is an (obviously) experienced craft beer industry professional. He is currently a craft beer specialist for a mid-Atlantic distributor. Prior to that he was an Area Manager for Victory Brewing Company and a general manager and part-owner of Smoke & Barrel.