Stories from the Road: The Unheralded Boys of Beer Sales Keep the Suds (and Stories) Flowing

Feature by | Jun 2012 | Issue #65

Hell, back then, T-shirts were the marketing budget. So when Ska Brewing Company, out of Durango, Colo., sent Arlo Grammatica on a one-man publicity mission to Crested Butte in the early 2000s, he was instructed to come back with some cash. Sell a T-shirt, raise awareness, get some bills.

The ladies of Crested Butte had other ideas. “It was like Girls Gone Wild,” Grammatica says. “I got back and they were like, ‘Where’s the T-shirt money?’ I was like, ‘Oh, I don’t have the money. But here’s the video.’”

It was, as far as the guys back in Durango were concerned, a fair deal. And financially, Ska’s been able to recover. Grammatica, on the other hand, is still a lost cause. In 11 years at Ska—over the course of which he’s risen to the official title of “bar room hero,” which is a way of saying “national sales manager” for people who don’t have any clean shirts—he’s spearheaded the brewery’s growth, all the while becoming a clown-prince of the beer sales world.

It’s a world that’s defined by the dueling currents of competition and collaboration. Competition for tap lines; collaboration for lifelines. “I feel like beer reps are the unsung heroes,” Grammatica says. “These are the guys getting 35 dollars a day to go out and pump these brands they love. … Everybody just wanted to make beer and make a living at it. It was like, ‘If we can make this big, if we can make this pay our bills, we’d be fucking stoked.’”

For Ken Wilson, of Lumberyard Brewing Co.—an industry lifer who got his start pushing Newcastle and Guinness before going to the craft side—even $35 would’ve been generous.

“I remember a boss of mine being upset that I was spending too much on T&E [travel and entertainment], and I stayed at the Arizona Hotel in Flagstaff,” he says. “The hotel room I was in had been kicked in 20 times. It was like, ‘Your little chain’s here—here you go.’ To prove a point, I paid $25 for a terrible room, and was scared for my safety.”

And that wasn’t even the worst one. Wilson’s favorite story from a night on the road happened in Flagstaff, too. He’d just attended a festival and didn’t feel like driving home. So, he talked to a couple other reps, pooled some tip money together and figured they’d just all crash in a motel in town.

Then the sink fell out of the wall. “We paid a collective 20 bucks,” Wilson says. “It might’ve been the John Wayne suite, but it was rickety. The train was going by every 20 minutes, and all of a sudden I’m like, ‘The whole sink came out of the wall!’”

But among reps, stories about sharing hotels rooms—or turning double-occupancy apartments into craft-brew tenements—run a dime a dozen. Well, more like a dime a square-foot. Grammatica’s favorite comes from a festival in Vail, Colo., two years ago. “There were, like, chunks of food on the floor and on the bed,” Grammatica says. “I was there with our brewery guy, tasting room manager and our tasting room girl. We’d go into their room and every time their phone rang, the TV would shut off.”

But they made it through. And that’s more than some guys can say. Because if beer festivals are the lifeblood of the industry (“Going back even 15 years, the fun parts are still the festivals,” says Kevin Love, vice president of sales at Smuttynose Brewing Co. in Portsmouth, N.H.), sometimes the blood spills over.

“I’ve seen beer reps fight with each other—I’ve seen them get into fisticuffs,” Love says. “I’ve seen some festivals very well run, usually by brewers, then there are the other people who run it—I call them the carny guys—and it’s just mayhem, people just getting as drunk as they can at these festivals.”

That’s the exception, though, according to the sales reps (including Love). By and large, festivals mean not only a chance to get some new fans, they’re also a chance to see old friends … and break onto the roof of a hotel with them.

“I just received a certificate from a hotel in North Carolina,” says New Holland sales rep Joel Armato. “They caught us drinking on the roof, so instead of kicking us out, they gave me a certificate that said ‘Certified Roof Ranger.’ I was the first certified roof ranger at the hotel.”

The Mobile Command Team
“It’s tough to roll into a town like Harrisonburg, Virginia, and you have no idea who the guy is that’s calling you,” says Ted Whitney, national sales director at Avery Brewing Co. in Boulder, Colo. “But if Doctor Joel [Armato] from New Holland or Derek [Zomonski] from Bell’s is gonna be there, it’s gonna be kickass. You can look down at the list and know if you should go. Other times, you can tell it’s going to be a ghost town.”

Arlo Grammatica’s one of the guys you want to see at a festival. He’s the kind of guy who’ll find a remote-controlled car, stick a beer on it and send it swerving across the floor on a delivery run. Or—like he did for a late-arriving Maui Brewing Co. team at a recent Arizona festival—drive to a warehouse, pick up 20 cases of your brewery’s stuff, then haul it down to the festival for you.

Before turning into the barroom hero, Grammatica was a substitute history teacher. “I have a high school teaching license, and much to my mother’s dismay, I’m not using it,” he says. “It’s lean times, but everything takes time. I don’t know a lot of people that get a sweet, kickass job where they get out of school.” Then he worked in bottling and packaging for Ska before joining the sales team.

Its stunts like helping out Maui Brewing that also make Grammatica the kind of guy you want to keep at a beer festival, although that desire is tested at times. Like when the security guard at the Big Wheel and Chili Festival in Vail “jumped [his] shit” and tried to throw him out.

“He told me I couldn’t drink or pour beer anymore, so I kind of got smart, and was like, ‘I’ll tell you when I can’t drink anymore,’” Grammatica says. He started packing up, though. Then, Todd Thibault from Breckenridge Brewery and a rep from Flying Dog rushed over to his table and told the guard that if Arlo was leaving, well, then they were, too.

“It caused a mess,” Grammatica says. “I was really adamant about these festivals treating us right. A lot of them were like, ‘We’re doing you a favor.’ I was like, ‘I’m sleeping in my van. I’m packing up my shit.’”

Granted, Grammatica was never above sleeping in his van, a 15-seater that had all the seats removed in favor of a mattress. He still does it from time to time, although he’s got a new one—which he calls the “Mobile Command Unit.”

But favors like the one in Vail are just part of the business, says Grammatica. Everything from helping out with a busted tap to putting in a good word for your buddies at a bar, to bailing them out, literally—as Nick Johnson from Tröeg’s Brewing Co. had to for another rep at one point—comes with the job.

“It’s just all a part of the feeling of the industry,” Grammatica says. “Do what you can. Instead of telling everybody, ‘Deal with it yourself,’ you gotta help each other.”

You need to lean on each other, say the reps—all the while, competing for tap space—because the job can spoil you like a Milk Stout in the midday sun. Rejection’s the norm. And they need to support each other because, really, nobody else understands. What seems like a dream job turns into reality real quick.

“It’s critical,” Whitney says. “It’s a fraternity of guys you rely on for moral support.”

“Not to say that we don’t go after each other’s lines—but that’s business,” Love says. “We tend to play nice together.”

Chuck Ott gives new hires a year. He remembers the feeling of a wide-open world when he first went full time at Flying Fish Brewing Co., in New Jersey. And how quickly doors closed. “Their eyes are wide open. They’re living the dream,” he says. “Then you run into them again about six months later, and they’re kind of feeling their way around. They got beat up a few times. Then, after a year, they’re seasoned, like, ‘This is a job, it’s not all glory.’”

Which is why festivals matter so much, the guys say. And, as far as fests go, few can rival Philly Beer Week. Now in its fifth year of existence, it’s become one of the most popular industry events around the country. Sort of the East Coast equivalent of the Great American Beer Festival, it spills throughout a city that, after being ranked America’s ugliest city for a few years, could use a drink.

As it’s grown, locals say the week’s gotten a little more tame, a little more corporate. But that doesn’t mean it’s hard to find a whole brewery’s worth of sales staff careening down a side street with a shopping cart full of supplies. Or even a rep and a bar owner bursting out of a hearse, escorted by police, so they can flaunt a bloody mannequin wearing a Chicago Blackhawks jersey to the entire Chicago Blackhawks hockey team.

It was the Stanley Cup Finals in 2010, and the Philadelphia Flyers were taking on the Blackhawks in mid-June, which just so happened to coincide with that year’s PBW. When it was time for Tröegs’ ambassador, Nick Johnson, and Kite & Key bar owner Jim Kirk to carry the Hammer of Glory—as part of a day-long trip around the city, leading up to the ceremonial first keg-tapping—they came prepared.

Kirk’s wife had supplied them with a mannequin, which they dressed in a Blackhawks jersey and bloodied up. And placed on a stretcher. In a hearse. After that, though, things got weird.

They somehow managed to get a police escort, and started drinking in the back of the hearse. Then they passed the Four Seasons, where the Blackhawks were loading up the bus. “We pull the hearse over, and pull out this dead Blackhawks mannequin,” Johnson says. “The cops are laughing, and we’re yelling at the Chicago Blackhawks.”

But somewhere, even in the beer sales world, there’s a line. “As the events are getting bigger, breweries are getting bigger, the more people recognize you,” Grammatica says. “There’s more room for lawsuits, so shenanigans turn to court orders. Shenanignas equal subpoenas after a while.”

“That’s the danger of the job,” Love says. “You have to be careful. It’s a seductive job. You don’t want to turn it into a drinking job. I’ve seen guys ruin their lives, their marriages and their careers by making it a drinking job.

“You have to be wired a certain way,” he continues. “You have to recognize you have pretty good gig here—don’t blow it. I’ve seen guys blow it. I was in another state, and they had a new guy on staff. He was just hired, and got really inebriated a week into his job, and was just in bad shape, so they had to let him go.”

And that’s what makes people like Grammatica so damn impressive, Whitney says. In an industry dominated by youth (“It’s a younger man’s game, beating the asphalt,” Smuttynose’s Love says), Grammatica is a true professional. In the beer sense, at least. He’s got the wisdom of a sage and the constitution of a pro kayaker. Which, of course, he once was.

“His title is barroom hero, and he earns it every day,” Whitney says. “He’s in it to win it all the time. He’s certainly my hero.”

And, in a part of business that requires mixing it up with total strangers every single day, Grammatica’s long been known for his stones. “There are so many stories about him showing his balls, it’s hard to remember,” one rep says.

“My all-time favorite was getting up one morning—well, it was the afternoon—and Arlo had walked out of the hotel butt-naked, except for knee warmers and arm warmers, and he woke up our head brewer. The first thing he saw was an eyeful of Arlo’s undercarriage.”

But that was a couple years ago. Grammatica’s an older man now. In a committed relationship. To a woman, not just to beer. But at times, he’ll find himself looking around at an event and noticing that he’s, in his words, “the old guy,” and he’ll think back to the early days of Ska. When the world was open, and so were blouses.

“People were psyched,” Grammatica says. “There were kegs of Ska at every house party. Everybody was younger, like, ‘Let’s all go to the party and take another keg.’ We’re all trying to change the world one party at a time, I guess.”