A visit to Allagash Brewing Co.

I visited the highly respected Allagash Brewing Co. in Portland, Maine, and interviewed National Sales Director, Naomi Neville.

Allagash Brewing Co

Allagash Brewing Co. in Portland, Maine

You can check out the Brewers Association list of the 50 biggest craft breweries to see which craft breweries sell the most beer.  What that list won’t tell you is which breweries are the most respected.

There are revered breweries that sell plenty of beer, like Sierra Nevada, which played an integral part in making craft beer happen with a relentless focus on flavor and quality.  There are rock star breweries like Stone and Dogfish Head, whose charismatic founders Greg Koch and Sam Calagione took beer to new and exciting places.  And there are stalwarts of the movement in breweries such as Brooklyn, Bell’s, Deschutes and Boston Beer who sit in the top 10 for sales volume and whose names are synonymous with great American beer.

But when talking about breweries that are respected across the industry there is an outlier whose impact on craft beer far outweighs its relatively low sales volume.  Allagash Brewing Company, based in Portland, Maine, sells just over 80,000 barrels a year and sits at #42 in the Brewers Association list.

Allagash-Coolship-Door

Founded in 1995 by Rob Tod, Allagash has been a trail-blazer for over 20 years, leading the evolution of Belgian-style American craft beer.  In my time in the industry, I have never read or heard anything but high praise for the quality of Allagash’s complex and flavorful brews or the people making and selling them.

This is reflected by the recent announcement that Rob Tod has been elected to the non-executive post of Chairman of the Brewers Association, filling the shoes of past chairs Steve Hindy of Brooklyn Brewery, Kim Jordan of New Belgium, Gary Fish of Deschutes and Sam Calagione of Dogfish Head.  It’s a mark of the esteem in which Tod and his brewery are held.

I recently visited Portland to have a beer with Naomi Neville, National Sales Director at Allagash, and learn about the way Allagash operates.  I also acquired insight into the way Neville, a fellow ex-patriate Brit, has achieved success in the American craft beer industry.

“Rob Tod’s charisma and dedication to brewing has molded the Allagash ethos,” Neville told me amidst the bustle and hubbub of Allagash’s tap room.  “Rob is completely focused on the two pillars of Allagash’s success in the market: quality beer and excellent relationships.  Those two things are the platform on which we operate.”

Neville has plenty of charisma herself, and has contributed quite a bit to Allagash’s steady growth since she joined the brewery as its sole sales rep in 2009.  “I came to the US to work in a bar 16 years ago.  I never imagined I would be heading up sales for a Belgian-style craft brewery!  But yes, this is my dream job and it’s a thrill to come to work every day.”

Another platform for the brewery’s success is Allagash White, a super-approachable and exquisitely made witbier that makes up four fifths of the company’s sales.  “It’s almost freaky how consistently White sells,” Neville commented. “There may be variation from quarter to quarter.  But even as our total volume grows and we make a greater variety of beers, White comes in at 80% of our sales year in, year out.”

Glass of Allagash White

Full disclosure: I was drinking this delicious glass of Allagash White during the interview

Consistency and quality are hot buttons for Neville, as became clear when we discussed the brewery’s steady growth trajectory.  “We grew +16% in 2015, which I attribute largely to the consistency of our beer and our message,” Neville explained. “We are in 17 states right now and we haven’t moved into any new ones in my whole tenure with the brewery.  In fact, we’ve withdrawn from a couple because we were not able to keep up with demand.   All our growth is organic, and I’m incredibly proud that we grew +23% in Maine last year.”

Maine makes up 11% of Allagash’s sales, but as its home market, success there is a matter of pride as much as anything else.  Thing is, Maine’s craft scene has recently exploded, with highly lauded breweries like Bunker, Maine Beer Co., Rising Tide and Bissell Brothers making RateBeer-dominating brews in Allagash’s backyard.  (Literally: Bissell Brothers, Foundation Brewing and Austin Street Brewery are all based within 200 yards of Allagash’s front door.)  How does Allagash feel about the new kids on the block?

“Well, we’re no longer the most expensive keg in Maine!  We get on really well with the breweries opening up, and we make a point of reaching out to offer whatever support we can.  We’re fans of craft beer first and foremost, and as far as we’re concerned the more people there are making great beer in Maine the more people will drink it.  I think our sales results are testament to that.”  Neville imparted with a smile:  “And it means we get to do things like the inter-brewery pond hockey tournament, which is taken very seriously round these parts.”

And how about the other 4,000 breweries further from home – are they eating Allagash’s lunch in harder-to-reach markets?  “The Allagash White tap handle is impressively sticky,” Naomi commented. “Once it gets into a bar it normally stays there, so long as we maintain a good relationship with the account.  The fiercest competition comes in the form of other locally-brewed witbiers.  For so long it was really just us, Blue Moon and a small handful of others.  Now there are excellent wits being brewed all around the country.  But with our experience and rigorous QC processes I’m enormously confident in our offering.”

Coolship Resurgam

Drinking a Coolship Resurgam outside Allagash’s coolship is a pretty cool experience

I was curious about the evolving culture at Allagash.  For example, as Rob Tod gets more involved with the Brewers Association and the industry at large is his role at the brewery winding down?

“Not in the slightest,” Neville quickly answered.  “It’s impossible to imagine Allagash without Rob, and there are no signs he’s slowing down.  He’s intimately involved in everything at the brewery; he’s constantly on the floor.”

Neville continued: “Before he took the Vice-Chair role at the BA he canvassed a lot of the team to be sure we were comfortable with his working outside Allagash.  We were unanimously supportive, and so far there’s really been no difference in our relationship.”

“The Allagash approach is to grow at a pace that works for everyone at the brewery – we enjoy growing, but we will not compromise the quality of our beer or the quality of life enjoyed by every employee,” Neville expanded.  “That’s really our secret in a nutshell: great beer, brewed consistently by happy, motivated people.”

“When we project an enthusiastic, energetic presence in the market it enables us to build great relationships with our customers, and that’s what enables us to grow,” she summed up.  “I wouldn’t have it any other way.”

Pic: Mat Trogner, Creative Director at Allagash Brewing Co.

Pic: Mat Trogner, Creative Director at Allagash Brewing Co.

10 Questions To Educate The Drinking Classes with Naomi Neville, National Sales Director at Allagash Brewing Company

  1. Can you describe what your company does in one short sentence?

Allagash brews amazing Belgian style beers and gives back to its employees and the community as  it goes.

  1. How long have you worked here?

Since 2009.  I was the first sales rep to work at Allagash and have grown into my current role since.

  1. How and why did you come to be here?

This could be a really long answer if you want it to be!

I moved from England to Portland 16 years ago to work at an Irish bar downtown.  I met Rob Tod, our founder, in that bar.

Back then Rob would literally hand sell beer from account to account.  He made a point to visit the bar I worked at once a week, to see how we were.  I’m afraid that Allagash didn’t sell that well in the early days, but everyone at the bar liked Rob so much that we refused to take his beer off.

Persistence paid dividends.  By the time I left that bar, Allagash White was often outselling Guinness, which for an Irish bar is saying something.

I got to know Rob well and decided it would be a good idea to work for him.  I subtly suggested  the idea by giving him my resume – repeatedly! – and one day he invited me to the brewery for a beer.  The rest is history.

I started as the sales rep for Maine, New Hampshire and Massachusetts, taking over from Rob as the person who would go from bar to bar with samples of beer.  Over time I’ve been promoted to manage new sales people as they’ve been hired.  I now manage a team of 16 – 7 based out West and 9 on the East Coast.

My advice for anyone looking to get into sales in craft beer is to get your foot in the door.  If you’re good, the need for you will soon arise and then it’s up to you to show what you’re made of.

Allagash makes dark beers too, like St Klippenstein, a barrel-aged Belgian stout. (Pic: Allagash Brewing Co. Internal)

Allagash makes dark beers too, like St Klippenstein, a barrel-aged Belgian stout. (Pic: Allagash Brewing Co. Internal)

  1. What is your daily routine?

There’s no such thing as a daily routine if you work for a craft brewery.

I’m on the road for just over half my time, which can be anything from a week on the West coast or a day driving to Vermont or Boston.

If I’m in Portland I’ll work from the brewery, tackling admin, attending meetings, or just catching up with people to see what’s going on.  This business evolves so quickly that when I’m away for a few days I feel like I need a full day talking with people to find out what’s changed.

My two big responsibilities are internal and external relationships.  My team all work remotely, so it’s my job to ensure they feel close to the business and have the tools to do their jobs.  I see everyone on my team at least once a quarter.

I also have accountability for great relationships with our distributors and our key retail customers, who are incredibly varied.  Our single biggest account is a market bar in California and our second biggest is a pool hall in New York City.  Our retail base is surprisingly diverse!

And even after seven years, a big part of my job is still to walk into bars and find out how they’re doing and how we can help them to sell our beer.  Caring about your customer’s business is how you sell beer.

  1. What is the hardest thing about your job?

Prioritization.  There is always so much that needs doing that it’s a real challenge to stay focused on the big picture stuff.

We only have 100 employees, which means everyone has to pitch in at some point.  When I started a good chunk of my time would be spent hand-packing bottles of beer, or hosting brewery tours.  While that’s less true nowadays I still have a broad array of jobs to do on any given day.

When you’re on the management team for a small, fast growing business, you have to be very choiceful about where you invest your energy and your time.  You have to make the right decisions and tackle the tasks that will keep the business moving in the right direction.  That means some stuff doesn’t get done, and you have to be okay with that.

  1. In your view, what does it take to make it in beer?

For a brewery it’s very simple: consistent quality of output.  I don’t care what kind of beer you brew, how high your BeerAdvocate ratings are or how big your portfolio is: customers need to be able to depend on your beer.

Allagash’s sales rely on just one beer, Allagash White, and you would not believe how much effort goes into ensuring every batch tastes exactly the same.  Quality control is more important to a growing brewery than any amount of marketing or sales, or any number of GABF medals.

For a person working in beer, it’s all about relationships.  We’re lucky at Allagash to have a founder and leader who is a master at forging and maintaining excellent relationships, so everyone who works here has an amazing role-model to follow.

As the market for beer gets more competitive, relationships will be the difference between moving forward and not.  We have a rigorous recruitment process, in which every candidate goes through at least three interviews – including an interview with Rob.  We only hire the people who have the potential to build the company’s reputation through exceptional internal and external relationships.

One nugget I cannot stress enough is to focus on face-to-face meetings, even in the age of Skype and Facetime.  I find I can achieve so much more in one short meeting than in any number of phone calls and emails.  In the beer industry a lot still gets done over a pint.

Allagash Tap Room

No one has yet regretted a visit to Allagash’s tap room on Industrial Way.

  1. What is success for you?

I have two answers for that.

The more important and meaningful one for me is seeing members of my team succeed, especially if they get promoted internally.  I’m proud to say a number of my team have already been promoted, and there’s no bigger buzz for me.  But even on a smaller scale, I love to get calls or emails from my sales team letting me know they’ve achieved something big in their job.  I take pride in seeing my team take pride in their work.

The second one is when someone I’ve just met tells me they love our beer.  I love it when someone approaches me in a bar just to tell me how much they like Allagash.  It’s a big reason I do this job.

  1. If you could change one thing about the industry, what would it be?

The world of beer is changing fast, and I believe that consumers care about who makes beer and who owns a brewery.  I would go so far as to say the corporate ownership of a beer brand should be mandatory information to display on a label.

I think it would be more fair for that information to be available to shoppers.  The resources bigger breweries have are so vastly superior to small regional breweries that I think there’s a risk they could stamp out competition.

Small, independent breweries have made the American beer market what it is today.  To keep it healthy, I think independent breweries should be protected.

Allagash Tap Handles

Tap handles in Allagash’s tap room at the brewery

  1. Apart from your own, what are your three favorite beers, and why?

1. I was recently at Sierra Nevada’s Asheville facility brewing a “sales managers” Beer Camp beer, and I was reminded how this company does everything perfectly.  Sierra Nevada Pale Ale is deservedly a flagship of the American craft beer industry.

2. Oxbow is a local Maine brewery that is getting a lot of recognition these days. While it’s not their most talked about beer, their Farmhouse Pale Ale is probably my favorite. It’s easy to find round town, and when I’m not drinking Allagash I can be found enjoying a glass or two.

3. We’re a Belgian style brewery, and my overall favorite Belgian beer is Orval. Two years ago I was treated to a tour of Belgium with Rob and Jason [Perkins], our brewmaster.  Sipping a glass of Orval at a little beer café tucked away in the cobbled streets of a rural Belgian village is awesome.  (It’s actually something all employees get to experience after five years working here.)

10. Apart from the Allagash tasting room, where’s the best place to get a beer in Portland?

There are too many amazing bars and restaurants in Portland serving fantastic beer to call out one account.  I will say that my preference is for bars with outside space.

If you’re sat outside in Maine in the early summer with a glass of freshly poured Allagash White in your hand, you’re winning at life.  How’s that for an answer?!

Naomi Neville Beer

Naomi Neville, winning at life!

 

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