Interview & Photos - Matthew Curtis
The Great American Beer Festival can be a pretty overwhelming experience. With over 3000 beers on offer from around 700 brewers selecting your next beer can be a daunting task, so it’s essential to take some good friends into GABF with you. Thankfully at last year’s festival I had my good friend Sharona Selby, who works for Colorado’s Left Hand Brewing Company, by my side to help with this important decision-making.
Sharona, who originally hails from Oklahoma via San Francisco, is well known in the London beer scene for her seemingly unwavering optimism and enthusiasm for beer. What I found interesting, was that when I introduced her to the brewers and volunteers working the stands at GABF, their reaction was one of shock and surprise. It seemed unusual to them that a modestly sized US brewery such as Left Hand had invested in an overseas sales representative.
What’s more surprising to me is the lack of investment many US breweries are putting into their export operations here in the UK. We’ve seen breweries such as Lagunitas, Founders and Left Hand make successful entry into the market because they’ve put people on the ground. I’m not surprised that many of the US brands that are floundering are those that simply leave their brand in the hands of a distributor, rather than one of their own employees.
This year I think we’ll see an increasing trend of US breweries hiring permanent overseas staff as they look to grow business in our territory. Recently, I caught up with Sharona to talk about this trend and how she feels a North American brewery like Left Hand fits into the UK beer industry.
Hi Sharona! Please tell us what exactly it is you do.
I'm the international sales rep for Colorado's Left Hand Brewing Company. I'm based out of London and cover England, Scotland, and Dublin currently and will be adding Europe to my turf in 2016.
How did you wind up working for Left Hand Brewing Company?
It all started when the wonderful Glenn Payne (who sadly passed away in December – Ed) invited me out one night. Left Hand's Eric Wallace and Chris Lennert were in town and they were pub-hopping through Islington. He invited me to join them on their crawl and as one pint led to another, we all connected and had a great time. When Left Hand's beers came to the UK a couple of short months later, they asked if I wanted to help out and the answer was a resounding yes. Soon thereafter I left my job in marketing and here we are!
"The regional sales teams are all really close and I'm a bit of a floater, like a human island representing a physical island - it's surreal."
What's it like working for a US brewery but being based in another territory such as the UK?
It's really bizarre. You're part of this great team full of high-spirited individuals, but you only see them a handful of times a year. Going to visit the brewery is like summer camp - you have a week that's technically for work, but you're surrounded by all these happy people that you feel strangely close to, despite the few hours you've actually spent together in person. And since the brewery is in Longmont, Colorado you're right there, inches from the mountains, and the air and the water and the light and the beer are all so pure and infused with joy it's like an alternate reality. The regional sales teams are all really close and I'm a bit of a floater, like a human island representing a physical island - it's surreal. I get to ping between all the teams - it's pretty awesome.
What's the toughest thing about working for a company based in another country/time zone?
Being in a different time zone can be strangely productive - you can send a ton of emails in the morning and it will be hours before the recipients are awake and responding. It's not like a normal job, when emails are coming in as fast as you're sending them out and you don't get a sense of progress. That said, when things are time-sensitive, it's slightly more difficult: when that email you've been waiting for comes in at ten pm and you need to respond and you've been camped out at Mother Kelly's for four hours, you're like, 'OMG I HAVE TO SOUND SOBER WHAT AM I TYPING I DON'T EVEN KNOW OMG I LOVE MY COWORKER SO MUCH RIGHT NOW I FEEL THE NEED TO TELL THEM THAT AND I NEED MORE EXCLAMATION POINTS WHERE ARE THEY.' I'm pretty sure everyone I work with thinks I'm absolutely insane.
Do you find that your colleagues in the US are interested in the UK brewing scene? What's exciting them the most at the moment?
SUPER interested. Not a whole lot of British craft makes it over there (officially, that is), but they know it's happening and they want to get their hands on it. There's also an air of romance over the British pub concept - there's not really anything like it in the States, though some places try, to varying degrees of success. The brewing scene, the drinking scene - they want to see it for themselves. We have a very cool thing here in the UK and it's one of a kind.
What do you think the young British Craft Beer scene can learn from established businesses like Left Hand?
One thing I'd love to see more of from UK brewers is merch - tees, caps, bags, etc. If I'm a fan of your brewery, I want to show it! Brewing has got to be one of the few industries where people WANT to advertise for you and rock out your brand. A few breweries are getting into the game now but I'd really like to see more stuff hit the shelves.
"There's an air of romance over the British pub concept - there's not really anything like it in the States."
How does a larger brewery such as Left Hand avoid stepping on the toes of small businesses in a pretty young craft beer industry?
Left Hand is hugely supportive of small businesses and smaller breweries. We're all in this together and if we can help a young start-up by sharing advice or kit or materials or just generally drinking the heck out of your product, then we'll do it. A spirit of community in this business helps everyone.
What's your favourite thing about the London Beer Scene at the moment and where do you think Left Hand fits into this?
The London Beer Scene is so dynamic. There are so many exciting things happening - you can't turn your head for innovation, experimentation and love of the game. There are no rules: if you can dream it, you can brew it. It's a wonderful time to be here; it's almost like being in Wonka's Chocolate Factory. There's some crazy stuff happening and it doesn't even matter when it doesn't always work - there's a joy in the endeavour of it. Who doesn't love it when Violet Beauregarde turns into a blueberry? Keep rolling! Also, the community itself is so close-knit; it feels like every time you go out, you run into someone you know and enjoy - and in these moments, your heart fills with all the exclamation points. We're all riding the same tide and having a helluva good time.