The Birth of The Better Beer Society

Rob Shellman of the Better Beer Society

Katie Cannon / Heavy Table

The beer scene in the Twin Cities is booming — as evidence, look at the number of microbrew efforts, Surly’s ambitious plans, and thoughtful beer menus popping up everywhere — but could all this growth use some additional cohesion to make the metro even more beer savvy?

Rob Shellman is willing to give it a shot.

As founder of the new agency Better Beer Society (BBS), Shellman envisions a scene that could rival Portland and San Diego, two areas that are well entrenched in the craft beer movement. And he figures that he’s just the expert for the task.

“There are so many exciting things happening here,” he says. “We’re light years behind some markets, but far ahead of others. I think that with more collaboration, we could really be a major beer destination.”

Begun just a month ago, BBS intends to provide representation for small breweries that includes promotion and connections to distributors and retailers. The agency will also train wait staff, consult with chefs about beer and food pairings, and recommend beer additions to a restaurant’s existing lineup. Another major component will be events that go far beyond the usual beer dinners and single-brewery get-togethers.

Rob Shellman of the Better Beer Society

Katie Cannon / Heavy Table

Along the way, Shellman and his associate cicerones (the beer world’s equivalent of a sommelier, and a very tough certification to get) will rate bars and eateries and provide them with a certification that reflects their beer knowledge, storage, and service. Think of it as a Better Business Bureau score for the beer purveyor.

“If Rob can manage to pull this off, I think it would be very valuable for bar owners and for customers,” says Catherine Pflueger, bar manager for The Happy Gnome. “Those of us who clean our tap lines, teach our servers to talk about beer, and pay attention to the details wouldn’t mind some recognition that we’re doing things right. It would be nice to be appreciated for all our efforts.”

She adds that Shellman’s BBS is a “noble endeavor,” started by someone who’s well respected locally. “He seems to have put a great deal of thought into a multifaceted concept,” she notes. “I don’t know how it will work out, but the idea is solid.”

Currently, Shellman is more in entrepreneurial mode than full swing, but he expects that to change after the official BBS launch on January 7, at a promotional event (details will be on the BBS site) that will bring together the area’s brewers and distributors, as well as the general, brew-loving public.

“Our aim is to promote craft beer, and that sounds like a broad statement, I know,” he says. “But there are so many aspects that are involved, and we want BBS to be a part of all of them. As far as I know, there’s no other agency in the world that has the mission that we do.”

Better Beer Society

Katie Cannon / Heavy Table

Yet there are consultants who do overlap with his proposed strategies — most notably, local cicerone and food writer Michael Agnew, who started A Perfect Pint in order to do just the type of bar-level consultations that BBS is now seeking. “Basically, BBS had better timing,” says Agnew. “Also, Rob has the connections locally, and that could be an advantage to him.”

Agnew started his enterprise a few years ago, he notes, but the craft beer scene wasn’t as popular then as it is now. He believes the launch of BBS right now, as more breweries are getting started and the local beer scene is getting more vibrant, gives the agency a better position than A Perfect Pint.

Whether one might triumph over the other remains to be seen, but Agnew is still convinced of the need: “Definitely, I think something like this is important, because the beer scene is growing quickly and the knowledge in food service and retail hasn’t caught up yet. The time is right for this type of effort.”

If Shellman fails in the new consultancy, it won’t be from lack of passion. With an intense gaze and quick joke, he’s the affable and knowledgeable beer expert at the table. He can talk about the rise of Belgian beers and the necessity of proper beer glassware and still sound passionate, not pretentious. Although he has big plans for BBS — wanting to see it go national after it catches on locally — he still maintains a laidback attitude and a “we’ll see, fingers crossed” kind of vibe.

Rob Shellman of the Better Beer Society

Katie Cannon / Heavy Table

Maybe it comes from a major dose of Southern California experience. Originally a Navy brat who hails from San Diego, Shellman lived all over the country before settling in Minnesota about 15 years ago. When he decided to take the plunge into acting, he and his wife, Sherri, moved to Los Angeles six years ago and he worked as an extra for a while. But he began to read more books about beer than about acting, and then he and Sherri started cruising up and down the California coast on the weekends, visiting brewpubs and breweries.

After becoming a cicerone, Shellman worked as a beer buyer for a small wine shop, and eventually, the couple made their way back to Minneapolis last August.

“BBS stems from my time in Los Angeles,” he notes. “I’ve been playing with the idea for a few years, while being immersed in an amazing Southern California beer scene. There, everyone really collaborates with each other, they work together. Here, you don’t see that as much, so that’s why I wanted to open it here as opposed to there.”

Although local brewers and distributors are often willing to toast each other, there have been some challenges, he believes. Connections aren’t always as strong as they could be, particularly between smaller breweries and bar owners / retailers. Shellman hopes that BBS can be the local industry’s glue. He won’t recommend tap lines for his clients only, for example — he’ll advise a bar owner on lines based on what fits for the bar, not the BBS bottom line.

But representation of smaller breweries could make it tough for Shellman to maintain credibility, posits Lanny Hoff, VP of Artisanal Imports, a distributor that specializes in Belgian beers. There are plenty of local brokers who represent several breweries at once, Hoff says, but none try to blend in consultant services and advocacy the way that Shellman proposes. The demand for that blend is real, though. Hoff notes that the Twin Cities has a great beer culture, but is currently “over-running the headlights to some degree,” with so many people wanting to jump into the bar scene, but with only some of them knowing the nuances of aspects like storage and serving.

“The biggest challenge, I think, is if he’ll be able to make a living at this,” says Hoff. “It’s not going to be easy, but he’s got the drive, so who knows? Personally, I hope it works. Having a third-party consultant would be fantastic, and more education about beer benefits everyone.”

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Elizabeth Millard

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15 Comments

  1. Sounds intriguing. If it actually does result in better beer for us I can’t see how that’s a bad thing.

    Any word on if Rob will still be working for Tallgrass once this gets going?

    Will Tallgrass be connected to the new business or is this separate?

    I’m guessing there would be plenty of mutual benefits for both of them if they were connected. Maybe we’ll get some cool single batches up in Minnesota.

    Either way, good luck and cheers!

  2. Mikey – thanks for your support! Yes, I am not going anywhere.

    The two companies are separate, however we do share the same philosophies. In fact, working for Tallgrass (a small, independent brewery) is partially what fueled my desire to launch this sooner.

    Seeing the challenges small breweries like ours face every day, gives me the knowledge and credibility to help others get off the ground level. Hope that makes sense.

    With that said, stay tuned in the coming months, we (Tallgrass) have some fun treats in store for you! Feel free to email me with any questions.

  3. Thanks for filling in some of the blanks.

    I thought that the lack of mention of Tallgrass in the article meant that you were going in a different direction.

    Good to know it’s not the case.

  4. Michael Brown 12/15/2011

    Nice article! Good luck bro

  5. Great article. And an attractive man.

  6. Joseph B 12/15/2011

    From Minnpost

    “According to Rob Shellman, founder of Minneapolis-based beer consulting firm Better Beer Society, both craft and microbreweries are defined as small and independent, with less than 25 percent of the brewery owned or controlled by another alcoholic beverage industry member. In other words, if a brewer is whipping up some craft-type concoctions but the place is owned by an entity like MillerCoors, then they tend to get less credit for being crafty (we’re looking at you, Blue Moon and Leinenkugel).”

    Are we also looking at Goose Island? Wanna weigh in on that Rob?

  7. Author
    Elizabeth MIllard 12/15/2011

    Joseph, just to be clear, Rob provided me with the definition of craft/microbreweries, but the riff after “in other words” is my opinion/interpretation, not his. Not sure if that changes your question, but thought I’d throw it out there.

  8. Goat-ham 12/17/2011

    Intriguing, well written article and multi faceted. Kudos to the author for bringing in so many voices. I can’t wait to read the follow up, maybe after the promotional event? With such strong influences coming out of MN in the small beer world I hope we can get some of Rob’s experience in NYC. In the meantime we’ll raise a glass to BBS at the Blind Tiger.

  9. Jo Taco 12/18/2011

    Rob,

    It would seem to me like there is a conflict of interests in receiving a paycheck to represent one brewery and remaining impartial as a consultant that helps area bars put together a well rounded beer menu.

    Is this a smart sales ploy?

    How do you plan to remain unbaised in your consulting?

    I don’t mean to be rude. Also, I don’t work in an establishment that would use your service. However, if I did, I would be asking myself these questions before I would consider hiring you.

  10. Joseph – yes…while my quote did end before the “in other words” comment, I’ll give you my take.

    Yes, you could include Goose Island in that mix according to BA’s definition. However, they have proven that they are still dedicated to making world-class beer, and continue to be respected in the industry, in fact…people are clamoring for “King Henry” as we speak.

  11. Jo – no worries, that’s a valid question. First though, there is no “ploy” here, no devious or ulterior motive. This agency was created out of respect to craft beer, plain and simple, whether they are with the agency or not.

    It is our main goal to provide restaurants and bars with a thoughtful and unbiased beer list according to their respective food menus, and what pairs best with each. In fact, there is a very good chance that the majority of the beers on these lists will come from respected breweries who are already well represented.

    While it is also our goal to provide a supportive resource for our clients, and assist with their creative efforts, it is not our goal to simply add them to a beer list, just because.