Moving Beer Forward With the Oldest Beer Family in Town
written by Adam Paulus
Prohibition effectively ended a once proud, robust brewing industry in the city of Philadelphia. Very few breweries survived the shutdown, and for those who remained, the future was not bright. Robert Gretz was the third-generation scion of a Philadelphia beer legacy. He had been in the beer business long enough to know this. His grandfather had begun brewing beer 75 years before. What Robert saw was the city’s brewery business rapidly declining, as brewer after brewer was forced to shut down. “My grandfather saw the writing on the walls, as his competitors got bought out, got eaten up, or just outright closed,” said his grandson, Mike Gretz, Jr. To keep the family in a changing beer-scape, Robert signed a licensing contract to distribute Anheuser-Busch throughout Delaware County, eventually extending the sales region throughout the Philly suburbs. “The Gretz’s and the Busch’s were pretty close back then and Anheuser-Busch wasn’t as big as they are today, nowhere near. As a matter of fact, Gretz sold more beer in Philadelphia than Busch did,” Gretz, Jr. explains of the nascent relationship that changed his family’s beer fortunes. “I’m sure [my grandfather] was very confident in his family’s business, but this was also an opportunity for him to do something different than what his family was doing, and really, that was the thing that saved us.”
There was a time when Philadelphia was the beer capitol of the United States and seemingly boasted of a brewery on every corner, and a large German population thirsty for Germany’s trademark styles. At the corner of Germantown and Oxford Avenues stood the Rieger & Gretz Brewery, first built in 1881. “At the peak of their production in 1946, they were making over 200,000 gallons of beer, which is enormous. And then that dipped, [and] steadily declined. [That was when Robert] purchased Delco Beverage and that was the start of this company. Less than ten years later, the family brewery ended up merging with Esslinger and then Esslinger ended up selling. So Gretz Beer continued to be produced and sold for a while after, but was eventually discontinued,” Gretz Jr. explains. Philadelphia’s last brewery, Hatfield Schmidt’s, closed its doors in 1988, all of Philly’s 200+ breweries were a victim of the loss of regional appeal and a general homogenization of the American market. “There was a lot that happened because post-war America was tending to favor less flavorful things, more mass-produced things. Wonder Bread and things like that became very popular. And beers that were strong, powerful bocks and porters no longer held much appeal,” Gretz, Jr. opines. Markets change and tastes change. Gretz’s adaptability has been its catalyst for survival. When the market favored Budweiser, they happily acquiesced. Now that the market’s saturated with crafts, they likewise do the same. For Gretz, as sales people, they do not dictate the market, but merely provide what people want, acting as a medium between brewer and consumer.
Bud and Bud Light still dominate sales for the company, but the rapidly growing craft beer scene has expanded beers’ market viability and expanded Gretz’s portfolio. “With the burgeoning craft beer scene and the market rate growing, the expanding market share, you have…well, it’s still a very small portion of the beer business. 90% of the beer business is macro beer, even [in] a really saturated craft beer market. It might not feel like it’s that much, but it is. Even though your bar may be known for craft beer, like Capone’s, well, they sell a ton of Bud Light. But they’re known as a destination craft beer bar.” For as much as beer geeks may shudder to think, Bud Light sells in every bar across America. Nonetheless, there’s an increasing amount of patrons clamoring for something more palatably complex.
With a broadening portfolio of beers and demand for beers growing, Gretz had to develop expansion plans for a much larger, and more high-tech warehouse. Mike Gretz, Sr. had been preparing for the transition from their former Norristown facility for some time. Prior to the big move, he noted, “We’re very excited to be moving into the largest beer distribution warehouse in the Philadelphia area. We will have over 340,000 square feet of the most technologically advanced distribution systems available. In addition to being completely solar powered, we will have voice picking, ‘claw’ layer picking, and the most innovative racking available.” Gretz spent time touring the best distributing warehouses in the country, compiling ideas from all of them to create one of the most innovative and hi-tech facilities for beer in the country. As an added bonus, the new facility is available to the public as well. “In addition to our community room for outside organizations to meet, we will be installing a hi-tech 3 barrel home brewing system that will be available for home brewers to come in and brew, with the assistance of guest brewers from our suppliers, all free of charge. It’s really very exciting!”
It’s interesting to note that what killed the Gretz Brewery, a lack of regional appeal, the power of macro over micro, has come full circle to expand the Gretz Beer Company, as local crafts try to insert themselves into the marketplace. But it’s not like Philly-area crafts have taken over all the tap handles. “When I was out in San Diego a couple years ago, I was just floored by how local-centric those bars are. We feel like we support local in this area, but we don’t. In San Diego, they have 50 beers on tap and they’re all from San Diego. And we have awesome beer here. And there’s awesome beers all over, but San Diego, they focus on ‘This is our hometown. We’re only going to sell beers that are [from] San Diego.’ Whereas, here, it’s like Victory and Tröegs, these are amazing breweries. And of course, Yards, PBC, Dock Street, all the others in the area that are also very well-known. Everyone is making consistent, quality beers and yet you don’t see bars…well, it’s just really odd to see the different dynamic as to how we support locals as opposed to San Diego. As a wholesaler, that is a huge focus for us, and that’s why Victory is our number two brand. We try to separate them out [the brands], try to promote them as being close by,” says Gretz, Jr.
Gretz’s craft portfolio features nationals like Rogue, Uinta and Long Trail, and many regional selections—Victory, Prism, Tröegs, Lancaster and Susquehanna, among others. With the expansion of breweries and improved quality of local craft, Gretz is pushing ahead, promoting singular brands like Tröegs DreamWeaver, or Victory DirtWolf and Prima Pils, instead of entire lines. “Those focused brands are a different way of approaching marketing for craft. Now, usually, it’s all lumped in together, like ‘This is Victory and we’re going to sell Victory.’ But that’s not how, if you look at the big guys, that’s not how they do it. They push individual brands. ‘This is our program for Bud Light. And this is what we are doing to support Bud Light Lime.’ It’s very focused and craft beer doesn’t usually get that. It’s like, ‘Here’s our portfolio and let’s hope to collectively sell a bunch,'” Gretz, Jr. continues. “But as a wholesaler, we’re saying, ‘DirtWolf is a phenomenal double IPA.’ I just think you say, whoever it is out there who hasn’t tried DirtWolf, I want them to try it. We want to push that as something that should be a staple. We want someone to say, ‘Do you want a really good double IPA that’s consistent, that’s local, and that has a good price? Well, here it is.’
Gretz is trying a new idea in guerilla marketing to promote local crafts and increase their sales regionally. “Through sampling we think we can push Victory into another realm entirely,” Jr. states. “Sampling, like actually going into the bar at night, saying, ‘Hey, we got a six pack of beer and we’re going to crack ’em open and sample some,’ and wet sample customers at the bar. And then we leave, because the liquid itself is so incredible and unique that people need to taste so that they start buying it. We have 25 brands we’re focusing on. If we can sample all those brands across our entire region, we think that’s going to be a fairly effective way of changing sales in the direction of the breweries.”
This is Junior’s vision for making Philly more San Diego-ish, at least as far as beer consumption goes. There’s a delicate balance in dealing with these smaller brewers though, as Gretz, Jr. explains it. The relationship between the wholesaler and the distributor is more complicated than it is with Anheuser, where they can ship as many cases as needed. “We don’t want to be in a relationship with a brewer where our communication is off, or there’s some production issues. It is a communication process. It can be very foggy at times. With each tier you say, brewers don’t know, because they are not the sales people, and it’s better this way. Their focus is to develop the marketing, look and feel of the brand, and the product itself. They deal with quality control, [and] marketing. But the stuff they need to hear from us is direct from what our customers say, so the distributors and bars, they need to tell us, and we know we need to be very observant as far as what’s selling, some upward trend in one brand…we need to relay that information to the brewer. We need to say, ‘Hey, make more of this because it looks like we’re going to need it.’ So that’s something we’re working on right now, with focusing on specific brands. And when I say brand, I mean Rogue Dead Guy, not all Rogue beers. We’re going to focus on one brand and we tell the brewer, ‘Make more of this because we’re ramping up. We’re going to be buying a lot more of this and we’re also going to be selling a lot more of this.’” The wholesaler, such as Gretz, essentially acts as the voice of the people. Eventually, Gretz thinks, getting the product out will make Philly area bars more local-centric. “There’s only a couple of bars, Standard Tap and Johnny Brenda’s in Philly, that are all local,” Gretz, Jr. notes. It’s a lofty ambition to see Philly become almost wholly local tap-wise, but with the quality of local crafts and the number of new breweries opening across the region, a rededication to local is a feasible goal.
And for the fifth-generation Philly beer family, it’s always really been about local. Regardless of the affiliation with Anheuser, Gretz is very much aware of who they are and where they’re from. As such, Gretz’s desire to reach out to the local community extends beyond just beer, bars, and brewers. Rich Wiley has been a bartender for 33 years, working over two decades at Finney’s in Doylestown. When asked what separated Gretz from the other wholesalers, he talked not about how they helped the bar but more about how they helped the community. “They’re actually more customer and town-oriented. [They’re] more about taking care of the customer and taking care of the surroundings that they are working in. Doing charitable things, doing functions, helping us promote their products, helping us with our business, Gretz Beer is more of a family-run business. You don’t have choices. Each place has a platform and you do it by the platform, but I mean, if I ever say, ‘Doylestown Police are doing a hockey tournament for kids and they want giveaways,’ they support the police thoroughly, just with a phone call. They’re just more community-oriented.”
Of course, Mike Gretz, Sr. is pleased to hear one of his customers mention this. “It is what we believe in, and have always felt that we are here to serve our community. Most of our retailers understand that if a local cause is important to them, then it is important to Gretz Beer and we will support them any way we can. We have been especially involved in the causes relating to assisting families of military wounded or lost in action and any cause that supports our heroes, such as hero funds, specific benefits for lost/wounded military, police, firemen and all first responders. The Travis Manion Foundation has been near and dear to my heart. Travis was my nephew, and was killed in action in Iraq saving the life of a wounded soldier. Travis is my hero and we will continue to honor his memory.”
Gretz intends to remain community-focused, be it pushing for a greater local craft beer presence or sponsoring a 9/11 Heroes Run in Norristown. They’ve been at it for five generations and their focus remains getting suds to the masses. As Philly-area drinkers have more opportunity to purchase beer from different sources such as grocery stores, there will be further opportunities to sell more beer. After all, beer has always been a growth business. People drink whether times are good or bad. The bar is one business, along with law and medicine and car mechanics, that’s recession-proof. There’s always a market for beer, and even if the craft beer revolution were to be remembered a decade from now as just a passing trend, everyone can agree that drinking beer is not a trend. Beer consumption is more a sustained cultural legacy. So even if the market for jalapeño-infused double IPAs dries up, it’s doubtful that the market for Budweiser does. That was the gamble Bob Gretz took back in 1954. Even if no one wants to drink the beer you’re brewing, that doesn’t mean they aren’t drinking beer. There’s always a market to sell beer.