Emily Hamann | Aug 6, 2020, 7:39am PDT
When he was growing up, Jason Mussetter had an unusual response to this question: "What do you want to be when you grow up?"
He wanted to be a beer distributor.
“I’ve been in this my whole life, really born into this,” he said.
Distributing beer has been the family business for more than 40 years. He started at Mussetter Distributing, doing grunt work like pouring out old beer cans, at 13 years old. Now he manages the company.
Mussetter’s mother and father purchased a small, two-man beer distribution operation in Auburn, which was selling brands like Miller High Life and Hams.
“They pretty much sold everything and moved back with my mom’s parents in Sacramento,” Mussetter said. The couple was able to pick up the rights to more brands, like Heineken and Corona, and grew the business for 30 years, until 2008, when SABMiller merged with Molson Coors. The newly formed MillerCoors (which has since become Molson Coors Beverage Co.) wanted to consolidate distribution, which meant cutting out small local distributors like the Mussetters.
They tried to fight it, but knew it was an uphill battle.
“We rolled the dice and started over again,” Mussetter said. In 2010, they made the switch to carrying small, local craft beers. It turned out to be a gamble that paid off. At the time, craft beer was a small, obscure segment of the market, making up only 17% of national sales, Mussetter said. Since then, craft has exploded, now reaching 34% of national sales.
“It’s basically doubled,” Mussetter said.
Today, Mussetter Distributing carries around 50 mostly small, local brands. The company invested in infrastructure, expanding the refrigerator space and upgrading to solar panels and new electric equipment.
Then Covid-19 hit, plunging the entire industry into chaos.
On average, 60% of Mussetter's beer is sold for off-premise consumption, like at grocery and liquor stores. The other 40% of their products are for on-premise consumption, at restaurants and bars. That’s the segment of business that’s been heavily impacted by the outbreak.
“We essentially lost 40% of our business overnight when that hit,” Mussetter said.
Mussetter Distributing has 34 employees, and when the pandemic hit, they made the commitment not to lay anyone off, not even the staff dedicated to on-premise sales.
“It’s a lot of money,” Mussetter said. “But at the same time, we treat everybody as a family.”
At the same time, Mussetter was worried about how his suppliers and buyers would fare as well.
“I was honestly thinking about the brands, like what happens if these guys can’t make it?” Mussetter said. “We’ve had a thriving beer scene in Sacramento up to this point.”
The shutdown of bars and restaurants also heavily impacted the small breweries, which sell most of their beer on draft.
“We suggested to them, hey guys, if you can get this into a package, we can get it sold,” Mussetter said.
Grocery store business was on the upswing. Big chain grocery stores don’t tend to carry smaller breweries, but Mussetter had decades of experience working with them from back when his company carried the big corporate beer brands.
“That kind of paid off because I did have a relationship with them,” Mussetter said. “It was easier than coming in from scratch.”
The surge in demand for beer wasn’t just felt at grocery stores, said Robert Porter, co-owner and operator of Porter’s House of Draft in Roseville.
“People were drinking like it was going out of style,” he said. When his brewpub was first forced to shut down, Porter began selling grocery items to go, along with some beer in growlers.
The California Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control loosened up some of its restrictions, which, in part, allowed some license holders to sell their draft beer in growlers.
This, in turn, made getting growler containers a challenge.
Porter said Mussetter Distributing tapped all its suppliers to buy up any growlers they had to sell.
“Mussetter provided all the growlers,” Porter said. “Nobody else would pick up growlers, as distributors.”
Porter said beer sold so well they had a hard time getting more, especially since some beerhouses stopped shipping out beer altogether.
“Mussetter was getting whatever they could get their hands on,” Porter said. He’s come to rely on Mussetter Distributing for most of his supply.
“This is where Mussetter is excelling right now, in the ability to be nimble,” Porter said.
Mussetter Distributing was also able to expand the reach of breweries like Crooked Lane Brewing Co. The 90,000-gallon-a-year brewery in Auburn was just entering a deal with the distributor when the pandemic hit, said cofounder and President Kirt Braun.
“I couldn’t ask for a better business relationship at this point in time,” Braun said.
Crooked Lane Brewing went from about a third of its sales going into packages, where it was sold in places like Whole Foods Market and Nugget Market, to 80% packaged beer in the end of May, due to wider distribution in big grocery stores.
Overall distribution sales have actually increased during the pandemic, due to the extra grocery store business.
“We would be focused on ‘how do we survive?' and instead we’re looking at ‘how do we grow?'” Braun said. “Certainly this has given us that opportunity that I don’t know that we would have had.”
Braun said his work with Mussetter Distributing is indicative of the way many in the craft beer community are riding out this crisis.
“We’re all in this together,” Braun said. “We will move beyond this together. We’ve just got to work together.”
General Manager: Jason Mussetter
Favorite beer: IPA
Hobbies: Visiting Tahoe, golfing, hanging out with friends and family (pre-Covid)
Dream job: “It’s doing what I’m doing. I wake up and I live, breathe this business, and I’ve been doing it forever. At the end of the day, week, month year, I couldn’t really imagine doing anything other than what I’m doing right now.”