February 2- 8, 2006
city beatEstranged Brew
The pending sale of a niche distributor is giving beer guys the shakes.
Philadelphia is considered a sophisticated beer drinker's town. In the past decade or so, a "beer renaissance" has enlightened us, emphasizing quality over quantityor at least putting the two on par. Many parties contributed to this development. But if you ask the true hop sophisticates, the beer guys, whom to credit, one name will ring out above the din of the bar: Friedland.
The Edward I. Friedland Company is a third-generation, family-owned distributor. Buying from breweries and selling to retailers, it's a key player in choosing the beers that give Philly its buzz. Although it is the smallest of the city's four distributors, Friedland is credited with introducing many popular beers to the market, including Guinness and Bass in the 1950s and '60s, Chimay in the '80s, and most of the local craft breweries. To this day, Friedland remains the tap to Philly's best kegs.
: Doron Taussig
But in a few weeks, Eddie Friedland, grandson of the company's founder, will very likely sell his family business to King of Prussia's Kunda Beverage. And the specter of a Philadelphia without Friedland is making some beer guys very nervous.
block in North Philadelphia. The building itself is an unimpressive red garage; old Toyota forklifts chug around inside, and kegs and cases spill out onto the sidewalk. Much of Philly's beer supply (all the Yards, all the Sierra Nevada) depends on this seemingly shoestring operation.
Last week, City Paper called Eddie Friedland for an interview, but he couldn't talkan employee had dropped a half-keg on his foot, and the owner had to spend the day making truck deliveries.
"This is half the reason I'm selling the business," he said, "so I don't have to do stuff like this."
The other half-reason, according to industry insiders, is that it's getting harder for smaller entities like this to compete. Distributors across the country are consolidating, spurred on by higher operating costs. Friedland had been thinking of selling for several years, but wanted to find a buyer who would keep his portfolio and small staff intact. In Kunda Beverage, another family-owned business, he found what he was looking for.
Tim Kunda won't speak at length about the deal until it's finalized, but did say, "We signed an agreement to purchase the brand rights. Ed and most of his employees will be coming to work with me."
For five years, he says, Eddie Friedland will stay on, running his business as part of Kunda's. So what's there to be nervous about? For starters, there's the fact that Kunda hasn't served Philly in the past.
"I've had a lot of trouble attempting to give them money for beer," says Michael "Scoats" Scotese, purveyor of the Northeast's Grey Lodge Pub, which is known for its wide beer selection. "I'd call up there and they'd say that they wouldn't sell to the Northeast."
Bill Barton of Yards Brewery, which currently uses Friedland as a distributor, is debating whether to switch to Kunda or seek a new home. He echoes Scoats' concern about location. "I don't know how well they would represent us," he says.
Kunda's defenders explain that the distributor didn't previously have enough Philly orders to make the trip worthwhile, but now he will. "I can't imagine they would have spent the money on Friedland just to abandon the city," says beer expert Lew Bryson.
But even if Kunda's drivers conquer the Schuylkill Expressway, people worry about losing Friedland's greatest intangible: his willingness to take a chance on the little guy.
"Eddie will bring in a beer that he won't be able to sell much of," says Tom Peters, the owner of Monks, a tavern known for specialty suds. "I don't know if Kunda will."
It does seem like every local brewer has a story about Friedland giving him a break. Sam Calagione of Dogfish Head remembers, "Back when I was selling T-shirts on the side of the road to get enough gas money together, more than once, Mrs. Friedland, Eddie's mother, lent me five bucks to get my pickup truck back to Delaware."
: Doron Taussig
Dogfish Head is presently with Friedland's, and will be moving to Kunda. "I think it's a step in the right direction for every party," Calagione says. "With Kunda's infrastructure, Friedland's sales force can concentrate" on selling beer. As for future little guys, "the market will take care of itself."
But others will believe it when they taste it. They fear that niche beers will be shut out, consumers will have fewer choices and specialty bars will struggle to survive.
"I'm a little concerned about the Philly beer scene," says Barton. "It could change pretty drastically."