It’s Magic: Meet J.J. Taylor and its Incredible Technicolor Beer Packer

Lots of people in the world are content to have a beer in their hand.

Some people are more adventurous and go about brewing their own beer, but that’s a story for another time. Far fewer people are interested in the magic that happens in the middle. That “middle tier” in the historical three-tier system is called distribution. You should be interested in distribution because it’s the magic that happens there that connects the brewer’s dreams of “my awesome beer in every hand” to your dreams of “my favorite beer in my hand”. Without distributors, breweries would have to distribute their own beer to retailers (including bars, bottle shops, and restaurants) and beer drinkers would be much less likely to get the beer they really want when they want it.

Before we get started on J.J. Taylor – here’s a quick primer on the three tier system and its incarnation. After prohibition, the federal government suggested to the states that they create a “three tier system” of brewers, distributors, and retailers. They left the design and implementation up to the states – which explains why some states have state-owned retail stores and others have private ventures. In the state of Florida we have a system with little state involvement – but with a legally mandated three tiers. There’s lots more to the system than this – you can check out Fermentarium’s excellent write up if you’re so inclined. If you’re really interested, you can check out the actual Florida laws. Remember, that even in the absence of a three-tier system as required by law, the market would likely settle on a solution like this because it is relatively efficient.

What Does J.J. Taylor do?

J.J. Taylor serves the traditional beer-distributor role in the beer market here in Florida: they get the beer from the breweries around the world and make sure that it gets to the bars, restaurants, and bottle shops (the retailers) from where you purchase it. In a simple sense, they are the “middle-man.” But – don’t think of them as the kind of middle-man that just takes a chunk of money and adds no value – by far – J.J. Taylor in this guy’s opinion adds a significant amount of value to the market place in terms of the enormous variety of beer they offer to beer drinkers. Beers from breweries big and small around the world pass through J.J. Taylor’s massive temperature controlled warehouse each day. If retailers were left to their own devices, they would need to contract and secure delivery through breweries directly to get the beer that you want. In Tampa alone, that would mean literally dozens of possible brewery contracts for each restaurant, and literally hundreds of accounts for each brewery to deal with and manage.

So what exactly does J.J. Taylor do, and what is this “incredible Technicolor beer packer”?

I was fortunate enough to spend the afternoon with Matt A. – the guy responsible for interfacing the craft brewers and the retailers they supply. In that time with Matt, I learned about how a distributor operates. He also showed me the machinery that perfectly aligns cases of beer into neat stacks and wraps them for delivery – the incredible Technicolor beer packer” as I’ve decided to call it. I’m going to show you all about it in this post.

Before we get started, there are a few main actors you need to know about:

  • The sales representatives at J.J. Taylor – these are the people that service the accounts and make sure that they get the beer and the supporting marketing that they need from the brewery; we’ll call them “reps”.
  • The brewery reps – the people from the brewery who work with J.J. Taylor to make sure that they have the beer that the market demands and that they have any promotional materials needed to support the sales and marketing of the beer; well call them “brewers”.
  • The people working in the J.J. Taylor warehouse – these are the people that pick, pack, and ship out orders to the retailers; we’ll call them “miracle workers”.
  • The retailers buying the beer from J.J. Taylor – we’ll call these folks “retailers”.

Now that you know who’s involved, let’s talk about the main pieces of work: generating demand for beer,  getting the beer from the brewers to the retailers, and getting kegs and returns back to breweries.

Generating Demand for Beer

J.J. Taylor has a sign shop and a tap-handle room. Why do they have these rooms? Well, they act as a central clearing house for these kinds of things on behalf of the brewers. When a retailer needs a tap handle for a new beer, who do they call? They call the reps, of course! When a retailer is offering a promotion and they need a sign, who do they call? They call the reps! When a brewer has a flood of beer available from a new recipe or style offering and they want to make sure that everyone knows about it, who do they call? The reps! I think you can see the pattern here. Reps serve as as “fixers” for brewers and retailers, making sure that they have what they need to get their respective needs met. The reps are not the only channels by which retailers and brewers communicate – of course the brewers and the retailers can talk to each other – but the reps are there to help get things done.

Getting the Beer from the Brewers to the Retailers

J.J. Taylor reps take the beer from the brewers in huge batches – sometimes arriving on J.J. Taylor’s own private rail spur in huge refrigerated railroad cars – and store it in facilities as specified by the brewers. They then break down these bulk shipments of pallets and pallets of beers into the orders as placed by the retailers. Most retailers aren’t ordering 50 cases of one unique flavor of beer in a single order – they’re ordering 5 cases. It’s the miracle workers that break down those shipments, stock the shelves of the incredible Technicolor beer packer ultimately make sure that every single retailer’s order makes it out the door correctly. Every time.

Kegs of Guinness await distribution to the marketplace.

Kegs of Guinness await distribution to the marketplace.

This middle-man work is a crucial step, and one that shouldn’t be overlooked: we all know that fresh beer is the best beer. Distributors like J.J. Taylor have a huge impact on the quality of the beer you drink. Most of the facility is temperature controlled by an on-site A/C plant big enough to make literally football-fields worth of ice. The miracle workers also make sure that the oldest beer – sometimes only days old – is moved out first. Not enough can be said about this: if your retail outlet is serving old beer, skunky beer, or other defective products – it’s probably because they’re not keeping an eye on it and not because it comes to them that way.

The conveyor line is incredibly long.

The conveyor line is incredibly long.

Once the beer is in the J.J. Taylor warehouse, the work of the reps starts the process to get it out. Each day the reps are out there servicing their accounts: making sure that the products are fresh, front, and center; making sure that promotional materials are current and orderly; informing the retailer about specials, promotions, and changes in brewery lineups; and finally taking the next order. This is where the magic begins: with the order.

Each order taken must be organized such that the beer that the retailer wants is loaded into the truck in the right order and in the right quantity to make sure that the retailer gets what was ordered the first time, every time. Some orders are very complex – perhaps pulling from dozens of breweries around the world in various form factors and sizes like kegs, tall-boy cans, bottles, 12-ounce cans, and 22-ounce bombers. The miracle workers back at the warehouse see to it that it’s all there.

Now, I don’t have pictures of it, but you have to take my word for it. The peer packer is incredible. It can automatically pick beer off of shelves and stack it on a pallet. All.Day.Long. Without making a mistake. It basically is like a series of towers, each tower stocked with a specific kind of beer. As a retailer orders a beer, it carefully drops down the tower and onto the conveyor belt line. There’s another line that has beer which is less frequently sold – this one is operated by a guy that knows the precise slot location of each variety of beer and can pull it almost by muscle memory. After the beer is picked, it rides along this massive conveyor belt system into a palletizing device.

Getting the beer out of the warehouse is a huge endeavor. J.J. Taylor must operate literally hundreds of vehicles throughout their territory. They operate a variety of vehicles but in general there are two: refrigerated keg trucks and lift-gate tractor-trailers which are used for packaged beer delivery. You probably see these trucks out and about delivering beer to your local retailers.

A J.J. Taylor natural-gas powered tractor-trailer awaits its load before going out on its route.

A J.J. Taylor natural-gas powered tractor-trailer awaits its load before going out on its route.

Getting Kegs and Returns Back to Breweries

This is the final part of the value that a distributor like J.J. Taylor adds to the equation: moving the empty beer kegs back to the brewery so they can be cleaned and re-filled. Not only do J.J. Taylor reps bring back the empty kegs, but they bring back the beer that is out of date, didn’t sell, or was damaged on delivery.

Out of date and damaged beer awaits processing

Out of date and damaged beer awaits processing

Going Green

J.J. Taylor takes a number of steps to be a good corporate citizen here in the Tampa Bay area. Probably the most interesting is their focus on efficiency in all forms – from replacing individual air conditioners with a single more efficient centralized air conditioning system (using less energy and therefore costing less) to replacing light-bulbs with more efficient ones and installing motion sensors to reduce cooling needs caused by the heat the lamps produce. Not only do they focus on their own operations, but they look for ways to reduce the impact of what leaves their buildings each day. J.J. Taylor saves all of its recyclable plastic for use by a company that transforms it into building materials – it never enters a landfill. And probably the biggest energy saver/pollution reducer is the conversion of the J.J. Taylor distribution fleet from diesel to natural gas by 2016. That’s right – they operate their own compressed natural gas filling station for their fleet of distribution tractors.

What Makes J.J. Taylor a Fixture in the Tampa Bay Beer Community

It all comes together when you think about the big picture of what J.J. Taylor does: they sell beer. Most of their employees can tell you the difference between an ale and a lager – they all get that level of training. And everyone working there when I went seemed genuinely happy – and its not like they set up a Potemkin village beer distributor – I walked into their main production facility on a busy afternoon. People were happily stocking the huge devices that load the pallets. There was a guy that looked as if he actually enjoyed sweeping the floor. And rightfully so – these people work for a company that loves beer. They participate in the marketplace as the variety leader. They want to be known as the company that can get the biggest variety of beers – not just six different packages sizes of that one light lager – but six different unique lagers from six different breweries. Not only do they love beer, but they’re always looking for ways to improve things – reduce the amount of time it takes to load a truck, or reduce fuel consumption, or get tap handles out quicker. Sure these things are helpful to the bottom line, but after spending some time with them it sure feels like they’re doing it because they its the right thing to do, rather than because they’ll save a few dollars a year on lighting costs.

Other Tampa Bay Beer Distributors

Tampa breweries are fortunate to have a wide variety of distributors from which to choose. Other Tampa Bay beer distributors include Pepin, and Great Bay. J.J. Taylor’s not alone in their commitment to the region: you may have heard of the Pepin Heart Hospital, Pepin Academies, or the Pepin Family Foundation – all charitable causes related to the distributor. With so many great breweries popping up in the Tampa Bay area, these distributors can look forward to lots of new business. And breweries – you have choices!