Fuhrer Wholesale expanding on craft beer popularity

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Funny thing about beer sales — even when they’re flat, they’re growing.

Growing physically, that is.

“The craft specialty end of the business is growing considerably,” said Frank B. Fuhrer III, head of Fuhrer Wholesale Co. Pittsburgh’s biggest beer wholesaler.

That means “more brands, more packages, more SKUs,” and more kegs, he said.

That growth in niche brands and craft brewers, even absent growth in total sales volume, is what’s driving the ongoing $18 million physical expansion at the wholesaler’s South Side campus.

Phase one, a new office building, wraps up this week, as administrative employees complete their move into the offices today.

“We’re pretty well maxed out,” Mr. Fuhrer said. The new building, near the intersection of East Carson Street and 33rd Street, adds 23,000 square feet of office space.

Phase two of the construction project is a 38,000-square-foot expansion of the wholesaler’s Anheuser-Busch warehouse. That expansion should be completed by Jan. 1, Mr. Fuhrer said.

The extra storage space will help accommodate craft brands such as DuClaw Brewing Co. out of Maryland, Deschutes Brewery in Oregon, and Left Hand Brewing in Colorado. All three brands are being distributed by Fuhrer as of this month.

“Regional craft brands seem to do very well,” Mr. Fuhrer said. “That’s where a lot of the consumer loyalty is.”

If it were up to Mr. Fuhrer, the business would sell even more craft brews. But the wholesaler is still tangling with MillerCoors, alleging in federal court that the brewing giant is refusing Fuhrer the ability to sell MillerCoors’ specialty and craft beers, because Fuhrer handles Anheuser-Busch’s competing brands.

In its suit, which began in the Allegheny County Court of Common Pleas and is now pending in the U.S. Court of Appeals’ Third Circuit, attorneys for Fuhrer said, “Specialty beers are the future of the beer industry.

“While sales of many traditional domestic beer brands either have remained flat or declined over the past four to five years, sales of craft [and] specialty beers have had double-digit growth trends.”

The suit claims that MillerCoors and related companies wanted the wholesaler to create a new, Coors-specific corporate entity in order to gain permission to sell Coors’ new craft beers, including Batch 19.

While Fuhrer began its operations with the purchase of an Anheuser-Busch wholesaler in 1982, it said in the lawsuit that it helped establish Coors and Coors Light as major brands in the Pittsburgh area through a 1988 distribution agreement.

Fuhrer has been Coors’ exclusive distributor in and around Pittsburgh since 1997, but following the merger of Millers and Coors, the new combined company gave Batch 19 distribution rights to smaller area wholesalers.

Fuhrer wants those distribution rights; Mr. Fuhrer said the appeals court could issue a decision by the end of summer.

Fuhrer Wholesale Co. sells beer in 11 counties in southwestern Pennsylvania to more than 800 retailers, carrying 75 different suppliers.

With 280 employees and annual sales of about $245 million, it is the second-largest wholesaler in Pennsylvania, and in the top 25 nationally.

Bill Toland: btoland@post-gazette.com or 412-263-2625.

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