Perhaps too often I profile only one part of the brewing industry- the breweries. On Saturday I was afforded the opportunity to sit down with Erin Tyler, General Manager of Legends Limited Distributing to examine the ‘middle tier’ of the industry while enjoying a beer at Mahaffey’s. Erin got her start in the industry on the retail side working in restaurants. In 2005 she made the transition to the middle tier at Legends Limited. A naturally gregarious person that enjoys interacting with people, sales married perfectly with her background in craft beer, wine and spirits.
Legends Limited was founded by Pat and Sherri Casey in 1994 when they became frustrated by the lack of reputable distributors for their import alcoholic beverage brands. Yes, to clarify Legends started because of imports- not because of craft as it hadn’t really taken off at the time. Craft would soon follow. They opened in the Natty Boh tower at the same time Brimstone Brewing was in residence. When Erin began at Legends they were extremely small- only nine employees. With an unprecedented thirst for knowledge and ever inquisitive, Erin absorbed everything she could from her accounts and the specialists behind the bar/counter like Casey at Max’s Taphouse, Robert from State Line, and Randy from Whole Foods. This was invaluable and helped catapult Erin up the ranks at Legends. As she learned everything she could to maximize her potential, Pat and Sherri Casey sold Legends to a larger family of distributors in 2009, Sheehan Family Companies, a distribution company founded in 1898. This coincided with the rapid proliferation in craft breweries across the country and shifted the focus to specializing in craft and imports. Legends never distributed macro products like Budweiser, remaining dedicated to the craft/import side, and this continued under the new ownership.
Today Legends has eighty five employees, and distributes over forty craft beer brands. They landed five Maryland breweries including Union, RaR, Manor Hill, Oliver Brewing, and Burley Oak. As Erin noted- they are not brand collectors but work specifically with suppliers that fit well with their portfolio. The approach is not to sign breweries unless they can market and place the products with a full devotion of resources. In fact Erin made her opinion quite clear:
“New breweries should self-distribute to learn the ins and outs of distribution, before signing with a distributor.”
Sage advice, and unexpected from the distribution side- but that is what sets Legends apart from other distributors. Their territory covers all of Maryland and Washington D.C. In 2018 they added 20,000 sf of warehouse space to bring the total to 70, 000 sf of temperature controlled warehouse, complete with cold boxes for all kegs. This is one of the most critical components for breweries when it comes to choosing a distributor- temperature control to maintain the freshness and quality of the beer. Along with that they hired a new warehouse manager and operations team to change the layout and maximize space and efficiency. Legends is truly a ‘partner’ with their suppliers as they co-op everything: printing (they have an in-house printer), tap handles, POS, glasses, etc. Erin’s sales team is extremely well trained and highly respected for their craft beer/wine/spirits knowledge. This is one of the reasons the relationships Legends maintains with their suppliers is so strong, and why there is little turn over in her sales team. In addition, the company benefits are numerous and generous, from the health insurance to the tuition reimbursement, to the sixteen paid hours of leave for volunteer activities. This is an family-oriented operation, and that is exactly how Erin describes her team- a family, and one she is extremely reluctant to ever consider leaving.
Erin is content at Legends, enjoying the challenges brought on a daily basis from trucks breaking down to beer not coming in when a big event is on tap. She never asks her team to do anything she herself would not do, which has her doing a bit of everything- and she revels in this. There is always quite a lot happening, but she never lets her team lose focus- they need to collaborate and work together to make sure that at the end of the day the customers and suppliers are happy. This is the true end game of the middle tier, and Legends has mastered this. The quality of her team is a large part of the success, but so is consumer education (which her team engages in regularly), continuing education for her employees to learn about new products (and the push to work with the growing population of craft distilleries), and a willingness to adapt their models to the ever-changing climate- whether that be changes in consumer buying or changes in legislation. When queried about the slate of proposed alcoholic beverage bills on the table in the legislature her answer was simple- we have adapted before and will do so again whatever may come.
The recent host of craft breweries that have sold to AB-InBev and Constellation, has required a bit of flexibility on Legend’s part to navigate these uncharted waters. A sale of rare, premium spirits a few years ago required an IT intervention to add the extra digit (five instead of four) in the cost line to log the product in the system. No matter the challenges Legends adapts and one thing remains immovable: they strictly adhere to guidelines governing industry practices, and all reps are extremely well versed in each facet. Erin is very proud of this and this is why they have such a stellar reputation in the craft industry. In addition to this being policy- they are experts at understanding the products, retail spaces, availability of shelf space and refrigeration, and the market. They do their homework.
This is really the story of Erin and of Legends and how the services they provide cannot be replicated. Whether it be a draft technician- a trade skill that so many people don’t know or utilize anymore, the Micromatic and other industry training classes employees participate in regularly, the BJCP manual used to train all salespeople, or the fact that they consider their most valuable assets at to be human capital…this is a one of a kind operation. Erin Tyler is also one of a kind. She is the only certified cicerone at her company, although the parent company has a master cicerone on staff, and provides funding for employees to complete cicerone certification.
Erin is also one of the very few women in the country heading a distribution house. She states that she has encountered very little pushback, and her breadth of knowledge allays any concerns a supplier or retail establishment could drum up. Her reputation precedes her. She does acknowledge that things might have been different if she had signed with a macro distributor. The different establishments she would have interacted with might have tipped the balance in a less than favorable way for her and her career. Erin sees more diversity in the industry now than ever before, and predicts an expanded presence in all tiers. She actively works to bring women in contact with craft beer as a co-founder of the Baltimore Beer Babes, and has helped introduce consumers from all backgrounds to the wonders of craft beverages. This is the industry, the craft industry (whether beer, wine or spirits) and it is her favorite part of the job, working with people- because as a whole they are really good people. This is also where she reminds me that she met her best friend Alice Kistner, owner of Mahaffey’s because of this industry. Years ago when Erin was just a sales rep and Mahaffey’s was one of her clients (when Wayne still owned it) Alice walked in to apply for a job. That was at the beginning of a wonderful and lifelong friendship that has continued to solidify to this day, and even includes annual tropical vacations.
What does the future hold for Erin and Legends? Personally, she will finish the MBA she has been pursuing at University of Baltimore, and travel. Travelling affords time to completely detach (no cell service) and immerse herself in something entirely new. Croatia was restorative, and stunningly beautiful, while Estonia revealed a burgeoning craft brewing world filled with unexpected and delicious IPA’s. Kosovo, Macedonia, and Albania are next on the itinerary. As for Legends? The focus will shift to a very proactive approach since the last few years have been reactive with the growth of the market. Spending time on strategic/long term planning is priority as Erin wants Legends to be the best specialty beverage distributor in the state in five years. Erin also wants to be the person behind the great breakthrough in craft beer distribution…stay tuned. One thing is certain, she is not leaving Legends:
“I can’t imagine doing anything else- they are my family!”
They are very lucky to have her. Unfailingly Erin operates in the best interest of her suppliers the way she operates in the best interests of her employees, reminding me- “without them where would we be?” I would add to that…without Erin where would Legends be? There is no question they are far better positioned because of her, as are all of their partners from suppliers to retail shops.
After nearly three hours spent on the intricacies of the business, Erin left me with a few golden nuggets to get excited about;
- Union Craft Brewing’s release of a new year round IPA- Divine (the name suits it perfectly)
- Firestone Walker’s release of Rosalee
- Oskar Blues Guns n’ Rosés Ale
- Better Wine Company Nitro Rosé in cans
They all sound intriguing! So put on a little David Bowie, or just watch Labyrinth and take a sip of that delightful craft beverage and be grateful Erin and Legends are here in Maryland to deliver it to you- always fresh!