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Q&A with Bridget Smith of 12% Imports

Bridget Smith of 12% ImportsWe’ve done a lot of Q&As with brewers on this blog, and because we have New York-based importer 12% Imports (founded in October 2008) in-house today for a tasting, we thought it’d be fun to get a little perspective from their side of the fence. Sales Manager Bridget Smith, who handles our fair state of Massachusetts for the company, was kind enough to answer a few of our questions.

What are all the breweries that are in the 12% portfolio?
From Belgium: Scheledebrouwerij, Hof ten Dormaal, ‘t Gaverhopke, De Dochter von de Korenaar, Gueuzerie Tilquin, Brasserie de Cazeau, Brasserie Contreras. From Sweden: Hantverksbryggeriet, Omnipollo, and Dugges. From Spain: Nomada. From the Netherlands: Emelisse. From England: Marble Manchester. From Canada: Bellwoods, Hopfenstark. From the US: Stillwater, Evil Twin (now living in Brooklyn), Local Option and Against the Grain.

How did 12% come to be?
Brian Ewing originally started the company back in November of 2007 but the official first sale wasn’t made until October of 2008. Back then Brian was still working full time at a marketing firm and then coming home, (much to his wife’s chagrin) and selling beer on nights and weekends. He used to deliver the beer himself out of his Toyota Prius, so truly it was about as grassroots as it gets. We still self distribute to this day and are now selling just in NYC through our distributorship brands like Crooked Stave and Westbrook. Honestly, none of this would have happened though without Brian just being Brian. He has a tendency to get into something and become a bit obsessed and his passion for beer proved to be no different. At one point he was traveling to Belgium five times a year and visiting every brewery he could find, it all came to a head one day while drinking the beer known here as ‘t Gaverhopke Extra (overseas it is called ‘t Gaverhopke 12). The decision was made to start an importing company, and as a bit of a nod to the beer that pushed him into the deep end of the pool we are known as 12% Imports.

How does the company decide which breweries to carry?
I wouldn’t say we have a specific itinerary or checklist that we follow when it comes to breweries, but we have a pattern. First and foremost, the beer needs to be superb, the rest tends to fall into place when the product is exemplary. Obviously we care about who we represent as well. We have a lot of tiny producers within our portfolio and in many ways we have a bit of a family vibe which comes from having a great amount of respect and admiration for who you are working with and I can’t think of a single brewer that we work with that we do not have that general feeling towards. Another factor would be that in choosing a brewery we want to be sure that we are bringing something into a market with a ‘fresh’ feel. Saturating a market with something that’s been done a million times isn’t ideal so we want to make sure we are bringing something in that will stand out, that will open people’s minds to something different and not just get lost on the shelves.

What sort of trends or patterns are you observing in beer sales these days? Are any styles that are booming or fading away?
I think the trend towards session beer is still rolling a bit, also resurrecting lost styles like Gose, Gotlandsdricka, and Kentucky Common ales are in full swing. Really every state I work in is a bit different, just like every beer drinker.

Do you get to travel to breweries on a regular basis?
We typically travel to Europe once a year, hit up some festivals and try beers from breweries we’ve never heard of or breweries we may be loosely talking to. Normally you go over with a plan, reach out to breweries you’ve been admiring from afar and hopefully set up visits. I think the most new beer exposure we get is often on the road working our various markets. So many times I’ll be out riding with distributor reps and you’ll see a brewpub or a new beer on the shelf and since we all love beer (that’s why we do this, right?) you end up stopping to try things out. I’ve had endless opportunities to try so much just from being out on the road and taking the time to try out new beer.

What are 5 beers you’re really digging right now?
1. Oxbow Sasuga bottles…hands down my favorite beer this year. If you haven’t been up to Maine to see them yet, YOU SHOULD.
2. Jack’s Abbey, ’nuff said. I celebrate their entire catalog.
3. Though it isn’t easy to always find, I really enjoyed the Prairie Noir from Prairie Artisan Ales…plus they have some of the best labels out there right now which never hurts.
4. I always have Saison Cazeau bottles at my house, it’s my go-to. Absolute elderflower delight.
5. Founders All Day IPA. When you work for a company called 12%, a 4.7% IPA is borderline “baby beer,” and since it’s rather tasty, I can get behind that.

We’d love to know what you think about the three-tier system. It’s often criticized for various reasons, and it seems that there are many opinions about the way things should or could be.
I could rant about the positives and negatives of the three tier system for hours, and hand me a beer and I may just do that in a one on one scenario but really it’s the current system, and whether you like it or not, one needs to make it work so to speak. It’s political and therefore touchy so I’ll go ahead and just leave it at that.

Why do you love working in the craft beer industry?
I’ve been working in beer for just about 10 years, and I’ve worked from behind the bar, as a buyer, a distributor rep, and now an importer rep and I’m not sick of it yet! I like the challenges of breaking down walls in terms of a person’s notions about beer, as well as promoting brands I genuinely respect. I’ve met a ton of great people who I am happy to work with and proud to call friends. Most people in the beer industry support one another, and it’s nice to see that camaraderie instead of a back alley knife fight.

Join us at the Belmont store from 5 to 7 p.m. today to meet Bridget and sample some of 12%’s portfolio!

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