Michael Brawley, Owner of Brawley’s Beverage

Last Call by | Jan 2013 | Issue #72

When the monks of Belgium’s Abbey of St. Sixtus decided to release a one-time shipment of Westvleteren XII to the US, they chose the Shelton Brothers, the Massachusetts-based beer importers, to handle distribution east of the Mississippi. The Shelton Brothers, in turn, gave the beer exclusively to the national corporate wholesaler Total Wine (except in states where such exclusivity deals are illegal). “Westy” XII was released last month. Michael Brawley is one of many independent retailers who were shut out of the much-anticipated beer release. Brawley argues that it’s the little guys—with their craft beer events, beer-community support and passionate staff—who “built this business,” and views the Total Wine deal as a blow to the spirit of the industry. “Ideally, you would think that something from a small, anti-capitalist monastery would go into small, anti-corporate, American beer stores,” Brawley says.

Have you contacted the Shelton Brothers?
I got stonewalled for two weeks and finally got a response from a sales rep for Shelton. They basically said, “If we have offended anyone, we’re sorry,” which to me says, “I’m not sorry for what I did, I’m sorry that you’re upset.”

How will the deal affect your business?
It’s not the kind of thing that you could ever put a monetary thing on, and that’s not my beef. … It’s the fact that when you give something like this to Total Wine, you basically elucidate who you believe the flag-bearers are for beer in this country—clearly, Shelton Brothers thinks that the people that are most worthy to distribute the most sought-after beer in history is Total Wine. And that’s fine, if that’s their opinion. … But there’s a lot of independents … that might feel differently about it, and don’t want to see that be the way the business goes. …

Fifteen-thousand cases distributed to 22 states. That’s 681 cases per state. And they would have us believe that they’re just not capable of divvying that up, that it’s overwhelming. But I would have to guess that [theirs is] one hell of an order of Cantillon, and they seem to have no problem saying, “One case here, one case there.” … So if they can allocate stuff they make their bread and butter off of, why shouldn’t they allocate what the monks make their bread and butter off of a little more equitably. … They trust us enough to make a living off of us—I mean, we sell a lot more of their product than Total Wine—yet they don’t trust us to handle this. It just doesn’t make sense.

You’ve said that you and other small retailers are part of the same community.
I’m a little guy. We’re a small company. I’ve got one employee. We’re fighting these corporations all the time, and the more it goes along, it takes the fun out the beer business. … [Independent retailers] all think we’re in competition with each other. We’re not. We’re in competition with Total Wine, with the big-box stores, and the sooner we all realize that, the sooner we can start dealing with the problem.