When I think about what inspires me, regarding the future of craft beer in Houston and throughout Texas, I look toward the innovators. The forward thinkers. The entrepreneurs. I am intrigued by those who choose to blend passion, good taste, and a unique vision to change the way we think about the beverages we love along with (in this case) the process by which we acquire them. When it comes to the growth of any local craft beer scene, distribution is a key component often overlooked by consumers. It’s easy to pay attention to the producers (ISO: Whalezbro) and the retailers (cans + growlers = crowlers!). With hype exploding at either end, who has time to think about the middleman? When distribution is noticed, it’s never for a good reason. Follow any Texas beer-related legislation and you will quickly learn that our distributors are not the good guys. But what if they could be? What if a distributor came along to push the envelope in Texas as much as you pushed your palate at last week’s bottle share?
Amid Houston Beer Week, I had a chance to sit down with Kyle White of Flood Independent Distribution, Texas’ only non-BMC affiliated beer distribution company that distributes statewide. White started Flood in February of 2014 along with Brian Rod, his long-time friend, and Kevin Smith, a previous employee of Duff Beer Distributors. During my chat with Kyle, we talked about how Flood came to be, why he is so passionate about craft beer in Texas and what lies ahead in the next five years.
In 2011, White was looking to enter the craft beer world through production. He had been drinking craft beer for about six years, was homebrewing 2-3 times a week, and was eager to pursue a career he felt passionate about. “Happiest people are those that follow their passions,” said White about the decision to leave behind his previous and varied pursuits, ranging from teaching in Korea to legal archiving. He applied to several breweries in Houston but found it difficult to get hired. Finally, he landed a gig to be a driver for Duff Beer Distributors. “Ash Rowell was the best boss I ever had,” said White of the former Duff owner who passed away in early 2013. “Probably the best boss I’ll ever have,” he continued. White worked as a driver for Duff until the company was acquired by Dallas-based distributor Favorite Brands. It was then that White felt he was presented with the opportunity to make a big impact on the community he cared so much. He contemplated the idea of creating a beer distribution company in Texas that was unlike any other in the state. With encouragement from several local craft beer scene influencers, including Kevin Floyd, White took the plunge and partnered with Brian Rod and Kevin Smith. In February 2014, Flood Independent Distribution was born. With Flood, Kyle and his partners set out to do three things: try to do right by Ash Rowell and his influence in the beer community, provide an alternative option for distributorship within the three-tier system by offering breweries open-door contracts, and, of course, bring amazing new beers to Texas.
If you are unfamiliar with the three-tier system in Texas, it’s a process that was put in place to keep the market even-handed across producers, wholesalers, and retailers. At their core, beer distributors are not evil. They take on the operating costs and business responsibilities that small breweries would have a difficult time handling on their own. So why do they get such a bad rap? “What happens is a lot of distributors get tied down to whatever their largest brewery wants them to do,” said White. This means if a craft brewery partners with an Anheuser-Busch InBev or MillerCoors-aligned wholesaler, they could easily be overshadowed and neglected. However, with the growth of craft beer and the slow but inevitable decline of big beer, boutique and craft-focused distributors are gaining traction across markets in the U.S. “Independent distributors have more flexibility and are able to be more reactionary,” said White.
Working to keep their operations customer-centric, to do what’s best for their accounts, and to influence the sophistication of craft beer in Texas, Flood has grown into a small but fierce distributor in the 14 months it has been in operation. The partners each contribute their knowledge and expertise in a way that creates a balanced three-pronged approach to their agile business. In addition to running a sales route to build up new launches across Houston, White manages brewery acquisition and relations, ordering, social media, and sales management. Smith manages operations, logistics, warehouse management, and overseas accounting. Rod oversees bigger picture business such as budget forecasting, capital expenditure planning, permitting, and infrastructural growth. “Flood isn’t owned by a bunch of investors,” said White. “There is no exit plan. This is our statement to the craft beer community.”
And what a statement it has been. In the past year, Flood has built a remarkable portfolio that has brought to Texas impressive (not to mention some of my personal favorite) brands, such as Jolly Pumpkin Artisan Ales, To Øl, and Mikkeller. When I asked Kyle what else was in store from Flood, I was excited to hear that they have only just started digging into the Shelton Brothers stash. Apart from engaging imports, Flood has also partnered with several Austin-based breweries, such as Jester King Farmhouse Brewery, Oasis Texas Brewing Company, and Strange Land Brewery. In Houston, White is excited about partnering with the highly-anticipated Brash Brewing Company, headed by Petrol Station owner Ben Fullelove and former Saint Arnold brewer Vince Mandeville. “It’s the first time we will be distributing Houston beer in Houston, and that’s something that really means a lot to me,” White said. “Ben is a really intuitive and thoughtful visionary. I’m very excited to work with him.” Beyond their current brands, White’s primary goals with the Flood portfolio are keeping it diverse, unique, and high quality. “The last thing I want is to get into a war with other distributors about who has the best IPA in Texas,” Kyle said. Flood will continue to be selective about which local brands they choose to partner with as they continue to diversify their portfolio.
As we got ready to wrap up, I asked Kyle to describe the craft beer scene in Houston in the next five years. “Texas is a craft thirsty state,” he said. “I see an influx of quality brands and talent as we add layers of sophistication to our beer scene.” White believes the out-of-state demand for breweries like Jester King and Lone Pint will help create a beer renaissance in our state. “With more breweries willing to take risks, more Texas beer will start leaving the state, and esteem will grow nationally.” Really, there is no crystal ball, and even though I asked Kyle to close his eyes as he described the future of craft beer in Texas to me, he can’t see into the future any more than I can. And, you know, that’s okay, because as long as there are people who believe in craft beer and all that it stands for, as long as there are people who wake up each morning and work to make that dream a reality, my heart is flooded with hope.