A local legend on the Rhode Island beer scene is at the end of his long and illustrious career. On Friday [12.16] — 37 years after his first day on the job [12.10.79] — Chuck Borkoski will be retiring from McLaughlin & Moran, the Cranston-based wholesaler which has distributed Anheuser-Busch brews since 1945 [he’s the VP of marketing and portfolio development]. Chuck is one of the genuinely nice guys in the biz; he has generously shared his insights and info with us during our five years on the beer beat [heartfelt thanks, sir]. And he did so once again, when we asked a few questions about his life and times in the beer trade. Cheers, Chuck!
How did you get started in the beer industry?
My first beer job actually was as a Narragansett/Falstaff campus rep at Providence College in the fall of 1970. I was also the co-manager of the 21 Club, the on-campus bar, and in that role I had access to dispensing pumps and other paraphernalia. It also didn’t hurt that I was involved in lots of activities and had a pretty robust network of friends on campus. That experience morphed into doing some more elaborate promotions for the brewery during the academic year and then a summer job in 1971 driving the ’Gansett Brew Bus all over New England promoting something revolutionary at the time — aluminum can recycling. About a week before I was slated to leave for a full-time job of selling life insurance, the brewery’s GM, Barry Sullivan, informed me that there was a good chance he was going to be able to hire me at the first of the year to join the brewery’s sales and marketing department as a field representative. So I opted out of the insurance job and stayed on for the next four months, keeping the bus visible at Patriots games, The Big E in Springfield, and other events.
In November I got word that the new position had been approved and effective January 1, 1972, my “career in beer” became very real. Working the Boston market, I had to learn about some of the brands that Narragansett had acquired from that part of the world, like Pickwick Ale and Boston Stock and Boston Light Ales. I began to acquire a taste for these more bitter brews (aromatic hops were nowhere near as prevalent then as they are now). I also started enjoying Narragansett Porter, which was only available on draught and in returnable bottles. I did comment one Friday afternoon while drinking Narragansett Porter in the executive tap room at the brewery that I thought it would be a great idea to package it in non-returnable bottles. My stellar idea was immediately beaten back by my elders around the table as being a crazy idea because consumers at the time really only wanted lager beers. Suffice it to say that they were correct at the time and maybe, just maybe, I was a bit of a visionary. It was shortly after that when Falstaff acquired P. Ballantine & Sons of Newark, N.J. and were charged with now selling their portfolio which included something very different, Ballantine India Pale Ale. And yes, I did enjoy drinking this very different brew.
When did Elevated Spirits get established at McLaughlin & Moran?
In January of 2007, Paul and Terry Moran opted to diversify our portfolio by first getting into the spirits business and then we immediately stated to add some craft beers. I was part of a three-person committee initially that evaluated the new products as they came to us. The one craft beer line that we started selling in 2007 which we still have in the portfolio was from the Clipper City Brewery [now known as Heavy Seas] in Baltimore. Its flagship product was an IPA called Loose Cannon and it was represented by a local broker, Tim Coleman. Taking this product to retail served as a great learning experience for our team in how to position, market and sell a craft beer. The rifle shot approach that Tim fostered with us was eye-opening and extremely effective.
In October of 2007, the Morans asked me to take on a leadership role in this new and exciting foray and start knocking on doors of suppliers (both beers and spirits) rather than waiting for them to come to us, an approach that made sense initially because we had a lot to learn about hand-selling. Since that time there have been numerous letters, e-mails, brewery visits, trade show and convention attendance and popping into promotions and samplings in other markets to gain the attention of targeted suppliers. It was really a matter of living the life of a missionary with the “religion” I was promoting being that of putting a portfolio in the care of McLaughlin & Moran/Elevated Spirits. Once we had enough critical mass in terms of diversified offerings of products, it made sense to us to split off the newer products from our long-time supplier to showcase all of the great new products we had attracted to the market.
The name came about via an in-house contest that Terry Moran enacted after being less than satisfied with the division names provided to us by a marketing firm. Elevated Spirits was entered by a college student working for us during the summer and his semester abroad was a little more pleasant when he received his winnings in the mail.
I know it’s a picking-your-favorite child question, but is there a craft brand that you were most proud of bringing into the state?
Wow, there are so many brands that I am proud about attracting for various reasons. Wachusett was the first significant regional brand to sign on with us and gave us a good amount of critical mass at the time. In 2011, I met with Alan and Jen Brinton from Grey Sail and within the confines of that meeting I felt that they were going to be successful despite not having a beer for me to try, and they were so happy with what they heard from me that they opted to not meet with any other distributors in Rhode Island. I think that this all worked out pretty well for both Grey Sail and Elevated Spirits. Attracting Founders was a coup for us as it was an emerging national craft that had as part of its portfolio one of the darlings of the industry, KBS. Goose Island came with us right about the same time and we had the great pleasure of selling Bourbon County Brand Stout in November and KBS in April. I could go down our entire list of brands and find something significant to share as why I felt good about adding them to our offerings.
What is your perspective on the growth of craft beer in the state, and the recent surge of Rhode Island breweries?
Local is the big story in craft beer everywhere. We are extremely fortunate to have two great Rhode Island breweries to bring to market, Grey Sail and Revival. They are very complimentary product lines. We are seeing so many great breweries open up here in our little state and our tourist industry is helping to get them discovered. The real heroes are the brewers who are busting their collective asses to make sure that Rhode Island’s breweries are putting out beers that are respected on the national platform.
Can you look into the beer-filled crystal ball and muse on the future of the market? Shelf space and tap handles are already maxed out. How much bigger can craft get?
The what’s-new syndrome in craft is going to bring about more innovative beers and beer variants. As you point out, shelf space and taps are at a finite level, so we are going to see breweries replacing tired and less appreciated beers from their portfolios and replacing them with more New England-style IPAs and session beers. I also think that the pendulum will eventually swing back to some degree to more malt-forward beers over time. The breweries that invest in better equipment and pay more attention to quality control with sophisticated lab equipment and microbiologists are the ones that will flourish. None of us want to read about major product recalls for the sake of the category or the fiscal health of the affected breweries.
As I close out this chapter of my life, I do want to say that the last nine years of my nearly 46-year career have been absolutely awesome. Drinking some world-class beers from coast to coast has been a privilege. More importantly, the friendships and relationships I have forged as a result are cherished. I have met so many amazing people…brewery owners, sales reps, brewers, distributor personnel, retailers, waitstaff and clerks, ardent and passionate consumers and, of course, the beer writers I have gotten to know. Let me say that you will all be missed as I migrate away from my current duties. I sincerely hope that our paths will continue to cross as we all age well, like some of the cellarable vintage beers we enjoy. Cheers!