The beer industry is separated into three tiers: the breweries that make the product, the retailers and hospitality industry that serves the consumer and the wholesalers that bridge them. Much of the power in this industry sits with the beer distributors/wholesalers for better or worse. For a brewery, partnering with the right distributor can make or break you, just ask some of the breweries who partnered with Morgan Distributing or General Distributors before each sold out. Luckily in Oregon we have a new class of small – some might say nano – beer distributors. These new indie companies may not have the assets of Bud and Miller-Coors distributors, but they have offer a level of hands-on commitment and personal connection that can be hard to find at bigger outfits.
The new Portland-based High Road Distribution is one of the good guys, a tiny new beer distributor founded by two longtime friends with experience on both sides of the industry.
High Road is co-founded by Brandon Mikel, former Hot Lips Pizza operations manager and a manager at the Portland Craft Beer Festival. After leaving his job at Hot Lips and after a short stint at Atlas Pizza, Mikel started High Road before being joined by his partner Chris Rhodes, an industry veteran who has ran events and draft systems at Point Blank Distributing from 2014 to 2019.
Mikel and Rhodes met in 1998 at the Hotel Monaco (then called 5th Ave. Suites) when Mikel was 21 and in guest services and Rhodes worked at the front desk. At the time, Joseph Sundberg was the hotel bellman and took the pair under his wing many years before he would go on to co-found the Portland Craft Beer Festival. Mikel and Rhodes became fast friends, bonding over their love of heavy metal and craft beer before they both ended up in the industry and later took over managing, and resuscitating, the Nano Beer Fest.
Fresh off their success reinvigorating the Nano Beer Fest, Mikel and Rhodes discussed opening a beer bar before settling on a small startup beer distributor. Between them, they had seen both sides of the game and thought they could offer something different.
“We felt there were a large and growing number of breweries who are either too small or didn’t want to go with one of the larger distributors,” says Mikel. “We would hear all the time that they didn’t want to get “Lost in the Book,” or felt they would not be properly represented by a larger distributor.”
“Oregon doesn’t need another distributor; it needs several more,” says Rhodes. “Breweries are popping up faster than they are dying off. Therefore, to be properly represented, Breweries should be looking to be one of several good brands in a lineup instead of number four on page 26 of a book.”
High Road Distribution started out of the gates with just Mikel at the helm, and a list of small upstart breweries that earned them an early reputation as a nano beer distributor. But the HRD guys are quick to counter that they do not want to be seen as just for nanos, they want to build brands and service areas and niches that may not be covered by a larger distributor.
“If you were to take your Brewery to a larger distributor you better be the best new thing in town, or you are going to sit at the bottom of their talking points as a salesman comes through the bar,” opines Rhodes on why Oregon needs another beer distributor. “Look at events that are backed by large distributors. It is always the same breweries being showcased while others are left out constantly. We want to represent those guys making top notch beer and cider but don’t have infrastructure to get out and share to all the beer lovers.”
But these guys aren’t just advocating that every brewery needs a distributor, they believe there is a place for self-distribution and flexible contracts that do not lock brewers into uncomfortable positions. Both Rhodes and Mikel express admiration for what Day One Distribution and Running Man Distribution have done in the scene.
“We would encourage anyone to self-distribute,” says Mikel, “but it takes a ton of time and effort as well as financial investment to build up your infrastructure. And even then, most purchasers can’t or won’t deal with a bunch of independents, they simply don’t have the time. So High Road was started as a Coalition for small to midsized breweries to have a better chance for potential customers to try their beer and cider.”
With less than a year in business, High Road Distribution is beginning to pick up some more well known and established brands. Mikel has been a shepard and advocate for Ross Island Brewing, which has now returned under Carston Haney and Chefstable Group.
Mikel first met Carston Haney through his wife Maude, an active sponsor and organizer in the beer industry with Caputo Group. Mikel had tried Ross Island beers before Chefstable had purchased the brewery and relaunched it as Dirty Pretty Brewing. Soon, Mikel formed a partnership with Chefstable group to distribute Dirty Pretty at the same time advocating for a relaunch of Ross Island.
“I thought the beer was great and the name Ross Island Brewing was about as Portland as you could get. In a time when outside brands are coming to Portland, it was refreshing to have an unmistakable Portland beer,” he says.
“By working with High Road and not having a tap room to manage, Carston can focus more on brewing his amazing beer and High Road will worry about getting it to the people. It sounds like a better formula for success to me,” says Mikel on Ross Island’s second go-around.
While building new brands, High Road is also expanding established ones. KEX is an Iceland hostel and bar known for hosting beer fests and brewing their own beers. KEX Brewing’s brand is known for extremely vibrant and colorful collages of both beer and art.
KEX has partnered with Portland’s Chefstable on a swanky new Portland-location and beers to boot. A selection of draft releases based on popular Icelandic recipes are now being brewed in Portland at Ross Island Brewing and are available out in the wild. The KEX Brewing beers are familiar styles with Icelandic twists. Kveik yeast strains of Nordic origin are in-vogue right now, KEX offers a Nordic-style Double IPA called “Steroids to Heaven.” The “Forbidden Fruit” gose with cherry and raspberry is kettle-soured with Icelandic yogurt. They also have more classical interpretations of Kolsch and Pale Ales with new school hops like Strata, Hull Melon and Idaho 7, a stark contrast to the classical American, English, German-inspired beers and hopping of Ross Island Brewing’s beers.
The KEX brand offers both an opportunity and a challenge for High Road whose other brands consist of mostly smaller and less flashier brands like Leikam Brewing, Flyboy Brewing, Look Long, Victor 23 and Brewery 26. High Road is also building out cider brands like Stone Circle and will soon partner with Queen Orchard, a new cidery from 7Bev and the Willamette Ale & Cider folks.
Like other small and independent beer distributors, High Road has major competition in a three-tier system manipulated by huge worldwide conglomerates. Like breweries, smaller distributors have been crashing out or getting gobbled up by bigger players. But, where others see trouble, High Road see’s a path of opportunity for the little guys to make good.
Founder of The New School and most frequent contributor Ezra Johnson-Greenough has worked in the craft beer industry for almost 10 years, doing everything from illustrating beer labels to bartending at renowned beer bars and breweries like Belmont Station, Apex, Laurelwood and Upright Brewing. He has also had a hand in creating events like the Portland Fruit Beer Festival, Portland Beer Week, and the Brewing up Cocktails series. He is available for freelance consultation in marketing, events, graphic design and branding.