Raleigh — Raleigh A decade ago Mims Distributing, the long-time wholesaler of Miller beer in the Triangle, carried just five craft beer brands.
Today it carries more than a dozen, including three it added last year, and it’s eagerly prospecting for more.
“It’s like any business, you’ve got to adapt to what is going on or you’re gonna die,” CEO Chip Mims said. “It just so happens that we love beer.”
After years of stagnant sales triggered by the recession and its slow-growth aftermath – which Chip attributed to some beer drinkers, especially blue-collar workers, buying less-expensive brews – Mims’ expanded roster of craft beers paid off in 2013. The company’s sales rose nearly 8 percent while case volume rose a more modest 3-plus percent.
“We’re selling more high-end beers,” Chip said of the gap between dollar sales and case volume. “That’s part of the craft beer phenomenon.”
Here’s another side of that phenomenon: Nationwide, overall beer sales fell two percent over the first six months of 2013, while craft beer sales rose 15 percent, according to the Brewers Association.
Chip, whose company has 130 employees, sees the booming sales of craft beers in recent years as a confluence of factors.
“People started making great craft beers and the millennial generation came of age and they wanted choice, they wanted different,” he said. “They didn’t want to drink the Budweisers or the Coors or the Millers that their dads drank or their uncles drank.”
Today, craft and import beers comprise about 40 percent of Mims’ business, up from 20 to 25 percent a decade ago, Chip said.
Here’s a taste of some of the craft beer brands and/or breweries Mims distributes: Anchor, Carolina Brewing, Foothills, Lagunitas, Magic Hat, Samuel Adams and Sierra Nevada. Imports include Bass, Dos Equis, Guinness, Newcastle and Red Stripe. It continues to distribute Miller, which has been a mainstay of the family-owned business since its inception 49 years ago.
The Triangle is a fertile market for craft beers. According to market research firm IRI, over the first 11 months of 2013 craft beers in the Raleigh/Greensboro region made up 13 percent of the total beer market – measured in dollars – as opposed to 11.5 percent for all of North Carolina.
The differential would have been greater, said Jeff Mims, chief sales officer at Mims Distributing, if the regional data focused exclusively on the Triangle market.
In 2013, craft brewers Anchor and Lagunitas launched new products here prior to going national with them.
“They think the Triangle is a great craft market to try new things,” Chip said. “We like to think they like us too, obviously.”
Foothills Brewing in Winston-Salem, which makes Hoppyum IPA and Torch Pilsner, signed up with Mims at the outset of 2013.
“They are by far our biggest wholesaler and we would consider them probably our best wholesaler of the 27 we have ... in four states,” said Jamie Bartholomaus, president and brewmaster. “They execute like no one else.”
Family-owned Mims is the exclusive distributor for the breweries it works with in a nine-county region that includes Durham, Orange and Wake.
“We’re in the begging business,” said Jeff, who volunteers that he stole the line from his dad, Joe, the company’s semi-retired president. “We beg suppliers to sell us the beer so we can beg retailers to buy it from us.”
One facet of the business is simply keeping the trains running – that is, timely deliveries. That’s no mean feat when you consider that Mims delivers to 2,758 retail outlets, bars and restaurants.
Some of those customers receive deliveries twice a week. And then there are what Mims calls “hot spots” – taverns and restaurants that call for help because their inventory has unexpectedly run low. With brand-new establishments, such calls are almost inevitable because there’s no way of predicting what will prove to be the favorites among their particular clientele.
“It takes two or three weeks to figure it out,” Jeff said. “You have to be patient.”
Mims boasts that it delivers above-and-beyond service.
“We lecture on it all the time,” said Joe, 79, who joined the business in 1966. “If you call me and you need a keg of beer, I’ll still throw it in the back of my car and deliver it.”
Joe Zonin, co-owner of Carolina Brewing in Holly Springs, which makes Carolina Pale Ale and Carolina Nut Brown Ale, has been a satisfied customer since his company signed up with the distributor in May.
“They know the marketplace, they know their customers and they know their customers’ needs,” Zonin said. “It’s a huge deal with us, especially with all of the recent microbreweries that have appeared in the marketplace. We feel service is one thing that can set you apart.”
Another facet of Mims’ wholesaling business involves working in conjunction with its roster of breweries to promote their products.
“We’re good at building brands,” Jeff said. “Retailers know our guys know what they’re talking about.”
The people at Mims are so engrossed with beer that after the business moved into its renovated, 144,000-square-foot facility in 2011, they planted some hops – a key beer ingredient – on-site.
Last year they harvested 20 or so pounds of the stuff. That was enough for about 70 cases of beer, which Carolina Brewing used to create a limited-edition beer, Carolina Wet Hop. This year’s crop should be much bigger.
“The third year is when the roots really take hold,” Jeff said.
Mims was created in 1964 when the late H.H. “Boots” Mims, who was sales manager at a money-losing Raleigh beer distributor, purchased the business with the help of his parents – who mortgaged their home to make it happen.
Two years later his identical twin brother, Joe, an experienced salesman, joined the company as partner and sales manager. At the time the company had about a dozen employees and carried three brands: Miller, Falstaff and Colt 45.
Cousins Chip, 50, and Jeff, 49, are the second Mims generation to run the business. Chip is Boots’ son and Jeff is Joe’s son.
Mims enjoyed a growth spurt in the 1970s after Miller launched Miller Lite, the first mainstream light beer and an enormous hit with consumers.
Joe vividly recalls the day he and Boots attended a Miller national sales meeting at a downtown Washington, D.C., hotel and got a sneak preview of the renowned “Great Taste ... Less Filling” commercials.
“We came out of there skipping and jumping around because we were so excited about the Miller Lite campaign,” Joe said.
In the 1980s the company also ventured into the wine business by acquiring a distributor of high-end wines, including Dom Perignon and Lafite Rothschild. They did so well that in 2000 the company was pondering building a new warehouse when it received an unsolicited, lucrative offer to buy the wine business.
That divestiture also included a swap that gave Mims the distribution rights to Samuel Adams, J.W. Dundee's and Grolsch beers.
In 2012 Mims once again expanded beyond the beer business – this time into non-alcoholic beverages. New accounts in this category include Arizona Iced Tea, Tropical Fantasy and SunnyD.
“It’s been very successful,” Chip said. “We are looking for other partners in that space as well.”
At the same time, Mims is looking to expand its beer business.
“There are a lot of breweries that aren’t in North Carolina yet,” Chip said.