The writing had been on the wall for Premier Distributing for a little while before it closed, but once the official announcement was made, Marc Steiman faced a tough decision. Premier had been something of a niche distributor of beer and wine in northern Delaware, but Steiman was the engine that powered Sussex County holdings for the company.
He had developed some strong relationships with craft breweries and small wineries through the years, and many of his clients, both producers and retailers, encouraged him to strike out on his own.
Beer and wine distribution is a thoroughly regulated but also government-protected business. Delaware, like many other states, requires that a distributor bring the products from the brewery or winery to the various retailers who sell it. Increasingly, smaller producers fear their larger competitors will squeeze them out of the distribution market.
It is common for large distributors to have deals with large-scale breweries, but that is where Steiman saw his opportunity. His idea was to borrow the attitude and attention to detail that has made craft beer such a phenomenon.
“It’s not a coincidence that I work with who I work with,” Steiman said.
His main clients tend to be brewers and vintners that treasure the independence that small production allows, and he hoped to replicate that formula as a small independent distributor. Steiman also represents some exclusive wines, which brought him to the attention of Dewey Beer Co., one of the earliest clients for his newly formed Bottle and Brew Selections distributing.
“We knew him from when we were in the restaurant business,” said Brandon Smith, one of the principals at Dewey Beer Co. “He had Shelton Brothers (wine), he always had stuff we craved.”
Smith credited Steiman with developing a major presence for interesting wines in Sussex County, so when they heard that he was starting Bottle and Brew, he and his partners decided to sign on.
It takes time for a new distributor to get licensed and established, which is why it is so rare to see new ones come online in Delaware. Plus, there is a waiting period if a brewery wants to change distributors, making it difficult for a new distributor to get hometown clients.
Given these difficulties, Steiman instead decided to focus on increasing the number of imports. One of his earliest acquisitions came at the request of a friend and client. Robert Leggett, who owns Cantina Ultima in Milton, came from Philadelphia and wanted access to Dock Street, one of that city’s well-known craft beers. Although Dock Street is more than 30 years old, it didn’t have a Delaware presence.
An old friend of the brewers, Leggett made the introductions. Steiman drove up to Philadelphia, had a couple of pints with the owners and struck a deal.
Steiman relies on his own experience as a sommelier and restaurant professional in choosing brands to bring in that he thinks can succeed in Delaware.
He also found some success representing imported wines that still are trying to find a foothold in the U.S. Steiman sees his willingness to take chances on as-yet-undiscovered brands as strengthening his hold, while looking toward the company's future growth.
“We’re very comfortable with everything that falls between the cracks,” he said.
Since starting up less than a year ago, Bottle and Brew Selections has grown quickly. Working with one truck and an SUV, he visits restaurants, bars, liquor stores and potential clients throughout the state. He has one employee who runs the warehouse in a Milton business park and another who drives the delivery truck. His mother and managing partner, Nan Steiman, runs the financial end of the operation. She encourage him to strike out on his own and helped finance it with her husband, Richard.
Steiman is confident about his small startup’s future. In the last six months, they’ve grown to the point that he is becoming selective about taking on new clients.
“It’s great to have a ton of customers but it’s important to make sure you see them all,” he said. “That’s the balance I’m working with now.”
Tony Russo, Delmarvanow Correspondent