A New Era Of Partnership

Craft brewers and grocery stores join forces on special products and new releases.

Amid competition from brewery taproom special releases and draft-only beers, retailers are in a battle to become destinations for must-have brews. For some top grocery chains, the solution is to partner with local craft brewers on exclusive or nearly exclusive beers, driving fans to their business.

Over the past year, Rochester, New York-based grocery chain Wegmans has partnered with several craft brewers on special releases for its “Freshest Beer” program. Last fall, the grocer unveiled Neon Rainbows IPA ($14 a 4-pack of 16-ounce cans) from Cooperstown, New York-based Brewery Ommegang at its New York stores. It marked the first time that the limited-volume New England-style IPA was sold in cans, and it was delivered to the grocery stores just days after being brewed. “This was a smart response by Wegmans to participate in that consumer demand for brewery-fresh beers,” says Ommegang president Doug Campbell. The partnership was so successful that the two companies expanded upon it this year, with a total of eight beer specials set for 2019.

Wegmans, which has approximately 100 stores in six eastern states, has partnered with other brewers as part of its “Freshest Beer” initiative. Queens, New York’s SingleCut Beersmiths teamed up with the grocer last year to deliver its 18-Watt IPA ($13-$14 a 4-pack of 16-ounce cans) to stores in New York, Pennsylvania, and Massachusetts. The beer sold out in just three days. Last month, SingleCut and Wegmans partnered again on a special dry-hopped double IPA called When Time Just Slips, with availability expanded to Wegmans stores in New Jersey and Virginia. While it was available at some independent accounts shortly after release at Wegmans, SingleCut general manager Dan Bronson notes Wegmans received the lion’s share of the beer. “They got first dibs,” he says. Wegmans also partnered with Virginia’s Pale Fire Brewing last year for distribution of Major Tom IPA ($16) in nine Virginia stores. “Customer response was fantastic,” says Pale Fire founder and general manager Tim Brady.

Elsewhere, Food Lion, the North Carolina-based supermarket chain with more than 1,000 stores in ten states, teamed up with a local craft brewery last year on limited releases. New Sarum Brewing—located in Food Lion’s hometown of Salisbury, North Carolina—approached the grocer with the idea of producing several limited-batch brews under the Lion Series banner for distribution in the Tar Heel State. New Sarum produced a lemon shandy and raspberry blonde ale (both $10 a 6-pack of 12-ounce cans), and Food Lion bought the entire run. Gian-Mauro Moscardini, co-owner and vice president of sales and marketing at New Sarum, says there’s talk of continuing the series this year, although no decision had been announced as of press time.  For its part, Food Lion has been enthusiastic. “Over the last several years we have made it a priority to offer our customers an expanded selection of local craft beers and limited-release batches,” says Adrian Baker, the chain’s vice president of center store category management.

Large beer marketers also work with select on-premise accounts on special programming. Last fall, for example, Heineken USA introduced Dos Equis Mexican pale ale on draft exclusively at sports bars, including Buffalo Wild Wings, in the first phase of what could be a broader national launch. “The on-premise is where trial occurs,” says Dos Equis brand manager Lindsay Certilman, who adds that the experience was a novel one. Since last year’s launch, Heineken has expanded Mexican pale ale into other on-premise accounts in Texas, as well as off-premise venues in the state and neighboring New Mexico. And more expansion may be in the works: Heineken USA will decide next year whether the beer will be rolled out nationally.