Union Beer Distributors

It takes a fleet of forklifts to take one down, pass it around.

Chances are high that the suds-loving regulars at Spuyten Duyvil in Williamsburg and the patrons belly up at Wheeler’s Pub, the divey tavern on Sheepshead Bay Road, do not share identical taste in beer. But what they’re drinking likely came from the very same place: a 120,000-square-foot warehouse on Grand Street, just before the English Kills Canal separates East Williamsburg from Maspeth, Queens.

That’s the home of Union Beer Distributors, the folks who deliver every single Anheuser-Busch product consumed in Brooklyn—not just Budweiser and Busch, but Stella Artois, Michelob, Hoegaarden, Boddingtons and Beck’s—as well the biggest portfolio of craft beer in New York City. From that barren industrial block in Brooklyn’s far-eastern reaches come five million cases every month, says Robert Hodson, the company’s sales and marketing manager, who deals with 300 suppliers and a whopping 1,800 SKUs. Do you drink Dogfish Head, Stone, Allagash, Bear Republic or Smuttynose? They’re all under Hodson’s purview. So are our borough’s own Sixpoint Craft Ales, plus Greenport Harbor and Blue Point from Long Island. How about Sierra Nevada, Rogue, Victory, Tröegs, Schneider-Weisse, Cisco, Köstritzer, Chimay, Great Divide, Green Flash or Lagunitas? Yep, they’re Union. As are Mikkeller, Hitachino, Ayinger, Duvel, Saison Dupont, Brasserie Bretagne and Corsendonk, to name but a few of their bestselling brews.

Indeed, Union’s multi-roomed warehouse—which includes special keg refrigeration rooms and a section for smashing returned cans into giant metal cubes—is nothing less than a brewsky compound, a place where a fleet of forklifts zig and zag between stacked six-packs and silvery metal kegs that loom high above your head like some kind of sudsy city skyline. While accidents are rare, Hodson tells me, drivers are prone to slick moves like 360s or whizzing backward in reverse: Anybody headed out to the floor, he insists, has to put on a Day-Glo-orange construction vest.

Despite its impressive physical size, Union is not the city’s biggest beer distributor—more like fourth or fifth, says Hodson, who is largely responsible for the 40 percent of the business that isn’t Bud. By law brewers can’t distribute their own beers, and instead ink contracts, if they’re lucky, with companies like Union that sell and restock their products within certain cities or even certain counties. Union, for example, has Anheuser-Busch in Brooklyn, but in the other boroughs those beers belong to another company. Beyond those two Anheuser-Busch deliverers, there’re also competitors delivering the other “big three” brands of Miller and Coors…all of whom park side by side with a slew of smaller distributors who sell imports destined for immigrant enclaves or hand-sell kegs from tiny nanobreweries that are still produced in the owner’s brownstone basement.

Note that all these beers are delivered by yet another company if you’re drinking in Connecticut or New Jersey: Distributors are licensed state-by-state. In fact, the original owners of Union (the first branch was named for its address: 388 Union Avenue, now the home of the beer-centric Barcade) sold the business 1996 to L. Knife & Sons. The 113-year-old family operation, based in Massachusetts, now owns 13 Anheuser-Busch-based distribution businesses nationwide.

Thanks to its location near some of the most sophisticated drinkers in the country, Union Beer is one of the top sellers when it comes to craft. Still, the company didn’t stock much more than Shock Top, Anheuser-Busch’s own attempt at craft, until 2003. That’s when the owners of the Brooklyn Brewery decided to sell off Craft Brewers Guild, the distribution company they’d built from scratch in 1989 to support sales not just of their own lagers, but hundreds of others, too. Hodson was then running Craft Brewers Guild’s sales force, and got to talking about the company—and the exploding growth of craft brands in general—with Paul Bussiere, Union’s long-standing assistant general manager. Union decided to buy the entire portfolio from Craft Brewers Guild, and hired Hodson to grow the new piece of their business. (Brooklyn Brewery’s own beer sales were sold to Phoenix Distribution, which also delivers Miller products from a brand-new warehouse in Red Hook.) Today Bud might still be Union’s bread and butter—it’s 60 percent of sales—but craft is where the real currency is. Since taking over Craft Brewers Guild, Union has doubled the size of the business overall and tripled its revenue: Consider that an average 22-ounce Bud costs $2, and the same size Bear Republic IPA goes for $7.99. That’s meant a lot more stock on those shelves. “Most of the 1,800 SKUs are right here,” says Hodson, gesturing at one long aisle filled with a patchwork quilt of quirkily logo-ed six-packs and cases. (They also share the same destination: In Brooklyn, most of the craft brews go to Park Slope, BoCoCa and Fort Greene or to Williamsburg and Greenpoint.) As countless new breweries around the country expand to supply craft-swilling patrons at borough bars like The Diamond, d.b.a. or Mission Dolores, they more often than not end up with Union, which can offer not just access to nearly every bar owner in the city, but a 12-person design staff creating custom art to move the merchandise, going so far as to make Smuttynose party posters for Sharlene’s, a bar on Flatbush Avenue in Prospect Heights.

The company is currently converting an old garage next to its warehouse into more storage space to accommodate its ever-expanding roster of suds, which Hodson’s 123-person sales force is charged with knowing inside and out. At the Friday morning meeting, they discuss brands’ backstories, taste samples from newly acquired breweries like Massachusetts’ Clown Shoes, or even hear from visiting brewers themselves. Just as important to Union’s bottom line is its fleet of forklift drivers—their machines run on rechargeable batteries, powered in part by a massive solar array on the roof—who together move product 24 hours a day, five days a week. Using headsets and voice-recognition software, stockers speak the order number, and a computer tells them where in the warehouse it’s waiting. For smaller orders, like many of the craft brands that sell just a few six-packs to each bar, stockers work the floor with a sales list. Orders are generally filled overnight, then loaded each morning into Union’s 40-truck fleet, each destined for different city routes and painted with a motley selection of some of the better-known brands the company owns: maybe Sixpoint or Lagunitas or Saison Dupont for box trucks, the Sierra Nevada and Budweiser for the bigger boys.

When parked late at night after deliveries are done, the trucks butt up against the curves of the English Kills Canal, where here and there a ragged patch of cattails reminds you that along this now-industrial stretch, the Lenape Indians once plucked oysters by the bushel. These days, of course, what’s coming from those banks isn’t the bivalves themselves, but a keg of oyster stout.

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Rachel Wharton is the former deputy editor of Edible Brooklyn and Edible Manhattan. She won a 2010 James Beard food journalism award, holds a master’s degree in Food Studies from New York University, and has more than 15 years of experience as a writer, editor and reporter. A North Carolina native and a former features food reporter for the New York Daily News, she edited the Edible Brooklyn cookbook and was the co-author of both Handheld Pies and DiPalo's Guide to the Essential Foods of Italy. Her work also appears in publications such as The New York Times, the Wall Street Journal and Saveur.