The Search for Better Beer
written by Neil Sheehan
Long before the craft beer market went into hyperdrive, eons before quality IPAs, porters and Belgian ales of all stripes became available within short distance of beer lovers all over the region, the options for securing something more exotic than Genesee Cream Ale or Miller High Life were limited.
In the ‘70s and into the ‘80s, there were certain bars and restaurants that might dabble in “premium” beers (think Löwenbräu), but they were few and far between.
That helps explain why the mere mention of a beer store just south of Allentown would draw misty-eyed stares from those who had been there. Invoking the name of Shangy’s would result in lengthy recitations of what they had seen: the small mountains of intriguing, flavorful beer, the jaw-dropping variety, the exotic gift packs for sale.
Shangy’s, tucked away in the quaint Lehigh County borough of Emmaus, was considered an oasis in a desert, filled with watery lagers, bland light beers and cloying malt liquors. It was a Shangri-La that held out promise for those—particularly in Pennsylvania, with its restrictive LCB laws—who knew there simply had to be more than the take-it-or-leave-it offerings served up by their local beer distributor or tavern.
“It wasn’t pallets of beer sitting on a Home Depot-like concrete floor. It was tiled floors, with pyramid displays, with descriptions of the beers,” recalls Nima Hadian, whose father, Javad, conceived of and opened the original Shangy’s in September of 1980.
“When he saw what was going on there, he basically sold the business, sold the house, said goodbye to the relatives, packed his three kids up and my mom, and we landed in Allentown, Pennsylvania,” said Nima Hadian, who was just 6 years old at the time.
While the elder Hadian had been in the clothing manufacturing business in their native country, he determined it would be difficult to break into that industry here. However, he was also an avid brewer and after scoping out area beer retailers, Javad Hadian observed that he could vastly improve on the experience.
That included he and his wife, Mancy, working the floor, “hand-selling” the beer. That is, they would strive to help customers understand what made the various products unique and what might be a good fit for their respective palates.
“Back in 1980,” Nima Hadian said, “I’m pretty sure no one else was out there hand-selling beer to consumers.”
Thus, Shangy’s was born. His father also contributed the store’s name. In Farsi, Shangy means happy, cheerful.
“That’s what they always called him as a kid, so he named his store Shangy’s,” Nima said, adding, “He’s very optimistic, kind of a can-can-do kind of guy. He was always a happy-go-lucky kid who grew into a happy-go-lucky, must-succeed, very hard-working immigrant.”
Fast-forward to 2015 and Shangy’s “The Beer Authority” is not only following that sales formula but is now housed in a much larger store and continuing to thrive. His parents have now stepped back from the business, while his brother and sister have pursued other livelihoods, so Nima Hadian is now fully running the show.
In 1999, the family moved down the street about a mile to a 35,000-square-foot showroom (a huge leap from the original space of 4,000 square feet) on Main Street in Emmaus, that is still the largest outlet of its kind in Pennsylvania. The store, situated between an Exxon gas station and a restaurant, offers more than 4,000 different brands, with new additions joining the mix on an ongoing basis.
A simple neon sign inside the store’s interior reading “Welcome to Beer Heaven!” neatly sums up what patrons can expect.
“Still, to this day, everyone on the floor is trained for weeks before they can talk to consumers,” Nima explains. “We’re still doing pairings. We’re doing tasting notes for all of the beers. We have the largest selection of beer in the United States. And we also guarantee the lowest prices in the state.”
But these days, the store is only part of Shangy’s business model. About 25 years ago, the company moved into wholesaling, which involved its sale of beer to other beer distributors, restaurants and bars.
The company has never looked back.
Today, Shangy’s has 10 salespeople who fan out across the 20 counties in Eastern Pennsylvania that they distribute to directly. They are led by a general manager and a sales manager.
The company also employs about 50 people who distribute to roughly 3,000 accounts stretching from well into Northeastern Pennsylvania all the way down to Philadelphia and surrounding counties.
Nima said Shangy’s adheres to the philosophy that, “We don’t try to make our accounts buy pallets of beer. We want salespeople to know the beers they sell, present them in the right manner, make their money on them and educate the consumer on them. And that’s really been our key to success.”
During a visit to the store in mid-December, the broad range of beers and hard ciders offered at Shangy’s was on vivid display. Some examples: ACE, a pineapple hard cider from California; Skull Splitter, a product of Scotland; Cave Creek Chili Beer, from Mexico; Bell’s Special Double Cream Stout, from Michigan; and Wells Banana Beer Bread, from England.
There were also display cards providing personalized descriptions of the products. They were penned by store staff or Nima himself.
On the stack of cases of Lost Coast Tangerine Wheat, from Eureka, California, the beer was designated as being worthy of four stars. The note read: “Wow … well-done indeed! Pours with a hazed honey color with a dense head that lingers of smells of tangerine, for sure. … full nectar with creamy carbonization. This is truly one of the most appetizing beers I have tried from the U.S. beer scene.”
Regarding the Brother Thelonious Belgian-style abbey ale, from North Coast Brewing in California, Shangy’s found it qualified for five stars, writing, “This is another masterpiece from one of the world’s finest breweries. With the developing interest in the Belgian abbey ales and the monasteries that brew them, it’s time to remind the world that here in the U.S. we have a monk of our own: jazz icon, Thelonious Monk.”
A portion of the profits from the ale’s sales go to the Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz.
After so many years of working in the family beer business, Nima’s unbridled enthusiasm about the industry and its future prospects have not dimmed at all. He recalled how it started early on.
In the late 1980s, he was attending Muhlenberg College in Allentown while working in the store. But along with his parents, he grew frustrated by the difficulty involved in getting the kinds of unique beers they wanted due to wholesalers’ focus on major brands.
“They would bring in specialty beers for a few months, but they couldn’t do anything with them and they’d end up dumping them in the marketplace and we couldn’t get anything. We started getting more and more frustrated with the fact that the larger wholesalers honestly didn’t give a crap about specialty imports or, by that point, the new crafts opening up,” he said.
Nima had started home-brewing by then and had also joined the Beer Across America mail-order club, through which beers from far-flung corners of the U.S. are delivered to your doorstep. As such, he was keenly aware of the craft beer market starting to emerge.
One brand in particular that caught his attention was Sierra Nevada, a Chico, California brewery that was one of the pioneers in the craft beer industry. On a whim one day, he called Sierra Nevada to see what he could do to get its beers for Shangy’s.
“They kind of laughed and said, ‘We’re not even in all of California and we’re not ready to ship our beer to Pennsylvania,’” Nima said.
Despite the rebuff, his college roommate asked if he wanted to go check out the brewery. “I said, ‘I would love to, but combined we have twelve dollars in savings.’ But my roommate laughed and said, ‘Well, my dad has frequent flyer miles. Let’s go tomorrow.’ And I said okay.”
He continued, “So we got on the plane, flew to Chico, and I asked for the man I had talked to, who was named Steve Harrison (who was a sales executive for the company at the time). We just showed up at the brewery. After about 10 minutes, he came out and looked at me like I was a stalker, like there was something wrong with me, and said, ‘Didn’t you just call me?’
I explained what happened. He laughed and gave us a tour and bought us lunch. It was a really nice visit. But basically again he said, ‘We’re not coming to Pennsylvania. It’s not really something I’m looking to do right now.’”
About six months passed and Nima received a call from Harrison, who asked, “How close is Emmaus to Pittsburgh?”
When he told him it was close to five hours away, Harrison responded, “My grandmother lives in Pittsburgh. I visit her every Christmas. You came to see me and I want to come see you.”
That led to a visit by Harrison to the original Shangy’s store.
Hadian remembers Harrison remarking, “This is such a beautiful store. It’s so neat what you guys do.”
But then he followed up with some questions. “Do you have any sales people? Do you have any trucks?”
“We said, ‘No, this is it, just me and my dad.’”
Harrison continued, “Are you a wholesaler?”
When the reply was also no, the Sierra Nevada executive looked puzzled and asked, “Why exactly did you call me and come see me?”
Hadian replied, “I really just wanted your beer in my dad’s store.”
Somewhat incredulously, Harrison responded, “You came to California because you wanted our beer in your parents’ store?”
When the answer was yes, Harrison said, “You’re crazy, but we’re still not ready yet.”
Harrison left on a Friday. The following Monday morning, he called Nima and suggested he take his passion, buy a van, and “really take your show on the road.” In other words, why not become a wholesaler as well as operating as a retailer?
What’s more, they were eventually able to get hold of Sierra Nevada product to sell.
“And that’s how we got into the wholesale business. It seems like yesterday,” Hadian said.
“We did exactly what he said. We basically knocked on restaurant doors and other beer distributors’ doors and really hand-sold beer. Our first beer was Sierra Nevada and we did a really good job and we were able to continue to build on our portfolio based on word-of-mouth between suppliers that we were making our living selling craft beer and not big brands.”
These days, Shangy’s represents about 60 percent of the craft beers and specialty imports available in Eastern Pennsylvania.
“We were very fortunate,” Nima said. “We were at the right place at the right time. It was very hard getting it off the ground, convincing a lot of beer distributors and bars and restaurants that selling better beer makes you more money, selling better beer gets you better customers, selling better beer means you sell better food. But one by one, we continued to grow our business.”
From his vantage point as someone involved in both the retail and wholesale ends of the business, Nima is amazed at how rapidly the craft beer industry has grown, with new brewers and micro-brewers seemingly opening their doors every day.
Asked if the field has reached the point of saturation, Nima doesn’t hesitate to say there are some beers “that should go away.”
“Do I think there needs to be a shakeout? I think it’s already occurring,” he said.
Hadian sees three different tiers of brewers at present: the top 50 U.S. brewers, which include Bell’s, Southern Tier, Stone, New Belgium, etc.; mid-sized craft brewers which will have to decide if they have the deep pockets to go up against the big brewers or stay regional; and small brewers.
“I don’t think there’s room for all of them,” he observed.
As the dust settles, Shangy’s plans to continue to sell such big mainstream brands as Budweiser and Corona. At the same time, Nima hopes that exposing customers to more nuanced craft and specialty beers will convince them to give other options a try.
He tells the story of a group of twenty-four guys from a Lehigh Valley golf club who have set up their own beer club. They came to Shangy’s to pick up cases for a beer exchange. They also asked a representative of the store to come speak to the group at a session.
Nima said Shangy’s was pleased to support the request, saying it was consistent with the store’s goal of educating and supporting beer lovers.
“We always want to go the extra mile,” said Nima, whose passion for the beer biz remains as strong as ever. “You want to give customers the ultimate experience.”
Several decades down the road, Shangy’s continues to adhere to the winning approach and philosophy imported by Hadian’s parents.