Legendary Twin Cities beer distributors reflect on the rise of craft

Gary “Bo” Bonlender, middle, raises a toast at The Happy Gnome with several other beer industry representatives // Photo courtesy of Hohensteins

In the craft beer industry, brewers tend to get a lot of attention, and rightly so. But behind every great brewery is a great salesforce. And if you ask around in the industry, there are certain names on the sales/distribution side of things that come up again and again—the veterans. The legends. The gurus.

Gary “Bo from Stroh’s” Bonlender is one of them. During his impressive career in beer, he has witnessed a volume of change throughout the industry and was active in the trenches when craft beer experienced its boom.

I sat down with him on the first day of his retirement to discuss the cultural shift to craft. As we settle into a corner booth at The Happy Gnome in St. Paul, Bo gives a shy smile and says right off the bat he is uncomfortable with being interviewed. I notice he has his own notes. “Preparation is key,” he tells me. “I’ve given a lot of presentations over my career, and preparation is key.”

I ask about his first day of retirement, and he tells me he was in the office doing a bit of final clean up. “It gets a little emotional, but it was all right. It’s been a long run—36 years. And one month.”

Bo’s sales career started at the age of 16 selling in an exclusive clothing store in West Bend, Wisconsin, his hometown and where he met his wife. At the same time he sold leather products and spent his summers doing trade shows around the country. He tells a story of coming back to his hotel room after one of his first shows to find his room had been ransacked. “It was kind of a tough area. Lost all my suits. I was really a nervous wreck.”

In 1979, he decided to explore other options, and his father’s saloon helped lead him in the direction of Schlitz Brewing. When Stroh Brewery purchased Schlitz in 1982, they asked Bo to move to the Twin Cities to help roll out Stroh’s. He became the district manager in 1983. He was involved in getting Stroh’s into the first ever WE Fest and onto Northwest Airlines, eventually getting promoted to national chain accounts manager.

After 17 years with Stroh’s, Bo attempted to retire only to be talked back into the industry to work for Hohenstein’s Distributing as chain account manager in 2009. “And that’s when I experienced a big portfolio of craft brands. It was exciting, overwhelming. I came in when we acquired Fulton.”

Joining Bo and I for a quick Q&A were two other heavy-hitters in the industry: Bob Pacyga of Hohenstein’s Distributing and Hans “Hanszee” Lofgren of Original Gravity Distributing.

The Growler: What did the craft beer scene look like in the ’80s?

Bo Bonlender: It wasn’t much of a factor when I came up here in the ’80s. It was Sierra Nevada and Anchor Steam. That was about it.

Bob Pacyga66

Bob Pacyga // Photo by Aaron Davidson

Bob Pacyga: Back in the ’80s, all the major breweries had a “super premium brand,” which would be considered like your craft beers today. Anheuser-Busch had Michelob; Schmidt had Schmidt Extra Special. And then they had the shakeout in the late ’90s [when many contract brewers closed] and imports kind of heated up again.

Hans Lofgren: I had seen it come and go [in the ’80s]. A few hung around, like Redhook and Boulder, and made it. In the ’90s I saw some strong growth, but it was still…there wasn’t a lot of beers like that.

[All three specifically mention Mark Stutrud starting Summit in the ’80s.]

The Growler: So it didn’t really take off till the 2000s?

Bonlender: I think that’s when it really escalated pretty quickly. How people—the young adults, hipsters—really got onto it.

Lofgren: I’d say it was probably around 2005, 2006. Five years ago in Minnesota there was only like 15 craft breweries. Now there’s over 100.

Pacyga: Yeah, they got back on track and really stepped on the gas. And then when they changed the laws and let these small craft breweries self-distribute, all of a sudden you’ve got people that started by self-distributing.

The Growler: Did the emergence of craft affect the way you sold?

Bonlender: It let us be very competitive [at Hohenstein’s] because that category had grown so much. So I was fortunate to be in that position that I had a great portfolio.

Pacyga: We had a portfolio [at Rex Distributing] that we had to hand sell and find the right account, the right fit. And when you talk to startup craft brewers it’s the same terminology. So I think distributors that had a good import portfolio [had an] easier move into craft.

The Growler: Any hard lessons along the way?

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Hans “Hanszee” Lofgren at the 2015 Minnesota Craft Brewers Guide Technical Conference

Lofgren: I went to CBC [Craft Brewers Conference] in Boston within a month of starting [at Capitol Beverage], telling people we were staring up a craft beer division within a Budweiser house. Went on a boat trip out in the harbor with a bunch of the rock stars of the craft beer business. We hand our business cards to people…they all got a big ‘ol Budweiser logo on the top. Someone came up to us, and he’s like, “Those cards are gonna be in the garbage before they leave the boat.” The next morning, we’re running down to Kinkos, and we had these cards printed with just Capitol Beverage. I’m still learning daily.

The Growler: Do you think we’re at a saturation point with craft beer? Where do you project it going in the next five to 10 years?

Bonlender: My gut feeling is it will continue to grow for several years. But these guys better make good products, or they’re not gonna survive. Cause the big breweries really got it down. You’ve got to invest a lot of money and you’ve got to create a lot of great product. They better do their homework.

Lofgren: I don’t necessarily think we’re at saturation on craft beer, but I do think there’s definitely brewery fatigue settling in. There’s a lot of new breweries, and I think we’re getting to a point where you can’t just be new. It all comes down to quality. I think they’re gonna grow craft beer, but there’s gonna be less breweries.

Pacyga: I would guess that some won’t be in business in 10 years. And there’s some that are getting into it I think probably just to build it up and sell it.

The Growler: Congratulations on your retirement, Bo. Any final thoughts?

Bonlender: The industry was good to Bo. And his family. No complaints.

 
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