Badass Women in the Michigan Beer Industry: Jennifer Austin
by Courtney Burk of Batch Brewing
Detroit is filled with craft breweries and restaurants that have made their beer program an essential part of their operation. How the beer moves from the production space, into warehouse inventory, placed in front of a beer buyer, and ordered into a restaurant – requires a craft beer sales rep.
I sat down with Jennifer Austin, Detroit’s sales rep for distribution company M4 CIC who has spent years learning the ins and outs of the industry and has an immense amount of knowledge of craft beer.
What’s your origin story?
I was born in Massachusetts and when I was 10, my parents moved us to the burbs of Lake Orion. I felt like a fish out of water by the whole experience – what the hell is a Michigander – and it wasn’t until I attended Wayne State in college that I fell head over heels for Detroit.
I’ve always had a special affinity towards beer but my love of craft really got started while I was working at Trader Joe’s during college. My original plan was to head to Boston with the intent to finish my degree, but I landed in Worcester – about an hour outside of the city.
It was a lot of luck and being in the right place at the right time. I realized that I wanted to spend my time talking about something that I loved, something I would never get bored talking about. So, I got a resume together and I shamelessly put I LOVE BEER as the header (something my former employer still likes to remind me of) and dropped it off at my DREAM bar, Armsby Abbey.
From bartending to craft beer sales rep, where did that come into play?
I remember my first interview for a sales position so well. Most candidates had been reps in the industry for numerous years with degrees in marketing or business and there I was, with only three years of bartending under my belt. It felt like the chances of getting the job were equivalent to hell freezing over. Still, I arrived at the interview clinging to the small chance that my passion for the beer would win out.
I think that’s my favorite part of distribution, proving the misconception wrong and the idea that you need all this experience in sales and marketing. Don’t get me wrong – they’re great tools but illustrating my love and passion for beer is where I’ve found the most success.
What does a typical day look like for you?
What makes this job both fun and challenging is that no two days look alike. It does, however, always involve a ton of running around and multitasking – if someone has mastered the ability to be in two different places at one, let a girl know!
You’ll usually see me at a bar switching between my phone and computer, while talking to a bartender and drinking a beer. Most likely after dropping off a tap handle that didn’t arrive with the kegs on the order. The short of it – my main focus is usually sourcing new accounts or updating my current buyers on new beers, and filling orders as needed.
Planning and education also play a huge role in this position so a good portion of my day is dedicated to both. Knowing the products backwards and forwards is key so I do my best to source as much info as I can before I even leave for the day. That definitely helps when coming up with ideas for beer features and events, whether it be pairing suggestions for dinners or figuring out a way to correlate beers with other alcoholic beverages (sours with digestifs? Match made in heaven!)
What advice would you give to someone looking to further their career as a craft beer sales rep?
The craft beer community in general has changed dramatically over the past ten years and is still undergoing new transformations. There’s been a huge influx of breweries, both local and out-of-state. So, for a heavily competitive market, staying on top of trends and tastes is vital.
I ultimately never viewed myself as a salesperson because I’m terrible at pushing products I don’t believe in. Even when I worked as a server or behind the bar and I was restrained by menus and guests’ personal tastes. But now, I get to endlessly drone on about the history of grisettes or fervently argue why pilsners will always be the best – at the end of the day it’s a sales pitch but to me, it’s talking about what I find fantastic and interesting.
What’s one of those that create some difficulty in getting a product in front of people?
A couple years ago, Untapped used to be this fun little app you used to check in beers, take notes on everything different you tried, and get neat little badges. Now, I have buyers that refuse to pick up a title if the rating isn’t high enough on there because they have ten others to choose from – it’s immensely challenging. And what justifies the rating? Someone could rate a beer low because they don’t personally enjoy that specific style – but the beer itself is true to style.
Poof! You’ve been given a superpower to change one thing in craft beer. What would it be?
If I could change one thing, it would be diversity in beer culture today. Representation of POC and the LGBTQ+ community in beer, both in Detroit and on a larger scale, is severely lacking. Almost every culture in history can credit fermenting beverages but the modern scene still consists of mostly white dudes.
Beer itself is so diverse. Whether it’s sipping a gueuze among friends, waiting in line for that latest hyped pastry stout, or for those that still only drink Miller Lite after thirty years – shout out to my dad! For a beverage that has the ability to be so varied, the actual community is most definitely not.
At the end of the day if you drink beer, you get a seat at the table and you get a voice. I just want to see more people with that opportunity. For example, one of my new favorite Instagram accounts (@colvinology): this guy reviews all these different beers and builds robots for each one. It’s so f*cking awesome and he should have a million followers. If you love craft beer, go follow him. His commentary is honest, on-point, and refreshingly without a pompous rating system – and there’s robots!
That’s what we need – more inclusiveness, less trolling, and more robots.