Meet two middlemen responsible for bringing craft beer and artisan cheese to a dinner table near you
It’s a wonderful time to be eating great cheese and drinking craft beer in America. Both old-world creations are witnessing a resurgence the likes of which hasn’t been seen in recent times. And for an increasing number of folk, finding amazing cheese and beer is as easy as walking to a local shop or restaurant. The travels that beer and cheese endure after leaving their places of origin, however, may be something you take for granted.
You see, you have to think of a handcrafted American IPA or a soft-ripened goat’s milk cheese as the child of its maker. All craft brewers and cheesemakers surely have a twinkle in their eyes as they watch their bottles and wheels carted off down the road. That pride, perhaps, is only surpassed by apprehension and the hope that their “children” are cared for by people who will truly understand all they have to offer.
It’s important to understand what your favorite fermentables go through to reach your lips. To that end we’ve asked two gentlemen—Wes Phillips, area sales manager for Windy City Distribution, and Adam Moskowitz, CEO of Larkin, a specialty food warehouse in New York City—who are pretty darn familiar with the process to share their side of the story.
On the whole, post-Prohibition liquor laws in the United States have created a three-tiered system, which in the beer world goes a little something like this: breweries sell beer to distributors, who sell beer to retailers, who sell beer to consumers. In this scenario craft breweries—especially the really small ones—rely on their distribution partners a great deal.
Windy City Distribution, housed on the outskirts of Chicago, Ill., is something of a rarity when it comes to beer distributors. The company’s entire portfolio is made up strictly of American craft breweries and small-batch European imports—from Stone Brewing Company in California to Brasserie Dupont in Belgium. Consequently, Phillips is aptly suited to speak about what it takes to appropriately represent the breweries that have put their beer, and their reputations, in his hands. Phillips and the rest of the Windy City team face issues and considerations that commodity beer distributors don’t.
For instance, craft breweries operate on a batch-by-batch basis and release small, highly coveted experimental beers. Windy City bears the responsibility of ensuring that that beer finds its right home.
“For those breweries with a limited capacity comes the responsibility of placing those products as thoughtfully as possible,” Phillips says. “Depending on how limited some items are, we’re forced to make some tough choices at times, allocating products amongst our base of retailers.”
Phillips says it’s his responsibility not only to promote but to protect the breweries. That means storing beer properly and constantly monitoring freshness dates once beer makes it to the shelves. It means holding staff trainings at Chicago’s premier restaurants, where servers are given tips on pairing beer with food. It also means operating not only as a salesman but as an educator and an ambassador of all things craft beer.
“We take each of our products very seriously. We want our sales team to not only be well informed about the world of craft beer generally, but they should also be able to tell the story of these breweries,” Phillips says. “The story is almost as important as the beer, really.”
The government may not monitor cheese distribution as closely as it does beer—cheesemakers often ship their product directly to retail shops—but the challenges of moving both are remarkably similar. While cheese and beer are each living, breathing, evolving creations, one could certainly argue that it’s easier to crush a bloomy-rind Camembert than a keg of beer.
That’s where Adam Moskowitz comes in. At Larkin, the CEO manages what he calls “a crossroads of cheese” here in the United States. And since Larkin handled approximately 10 million pounds of cheese in 2010, you’ll agree that he knows how to move product.
Here’s how the business works: Larkin gathers some of Europe’s finest cheeses in its warehouse in France and ships containers every week to a warehouse in Queens, New York. Meanwhile, American artisan cheesemakers are also shipping pallets of their cheese to Larkin’s U.S. facility. Moskowitz takes both European and American cheeses, breaks them down into orders for his domestic importer-distributor customers, and ships them off across the country. Is the “crossroads of cheese” concept starting to make sense?
It helps that Moskowitz—a third-generation specialty-food importer—has an affinity for cheese. “I love cheese. Cheese, cheese, cheese. Cheese for days. And because I love cheese, my business has always helped artisan cheesemakers try to reach a national audience,” Moskowitz says. Aside from bringing in every wheel of Neal’s Yard Dairy cheese that hits U.S. shores, Larkin currently works with multiple American farmstead cheesemakers, including Jasper Hill and Rogue Creamery.
But it’s not just logistical know-how that has cheesemakers calling Larkin. After all, Moskowitz says, there are plenty of companies that can ship boxes. It’s Larkin’s understanding of cheese that makes the company so attractive to producers. The 40,000-square-foot, temperature-controlled warehouse in Queens and a meticulous packing process are paramount to Larkin’s success.
“If you don’t get the cheese to the consumer in the way the cheesemaker intended it, then you’ve done a complete disservice to the cow, to the terroir, to the cheese,” Moskowitz says. That’s why it’s so important, he adds, that “I do my job well.”
Illustration by Dmitri Jackson
Photo: courtesy of Adam Moskowitz