Interview in the Beverage Business Journal

Reprinted with permission from journalist Andy Crouch. Copyright 2003.

Dan Shelton is a purist.

In an industry where self-criticism is considered impolitic and counter-productive, Shelton is given to making strong proclamations about the beer market and the products and brewing methods of his competitors. For someone with such strong views, however, the realities of Shelton’s small, niche-based importing business require that he express his views in unusual venues. Instead of print ads or radio spots, Shelton spreads the good word about his product line by word-of-mouth, to anyone who will listen. These impromptu sales sessions take place in media interviews, festival tastings, or simply at a pub when an unsuspecting consumer chooses a competitor’s brand over his.


As a principal for Shelton Brothers, Dan Shelton began the importing business on his family’s shared love of lambic-style beers. In their traditional form, lambics are spontaneously fermented through the wonders of natural, airborne yeasts. The locally cultivated yeasts (mainly found in Senne Valley near Brussels, Belgium) produce some of the world’s most peculiar and intriguing beers, with earthy, oaky aromas and sour, acidic flavors. For a beer style whose aromas reviewers often describe as reminiscent of horse blankets or farm dirt, lambics are realistically out of the appreciation range of most consumers. To lambic lovers, however, the mainstream’s loss is their privileged gain.I recently spoke with Dan Shelton about lambic beers, tracking down traditional breweries for his importing business, and why he wants to make consumers feel bad about drinking sweet beers.Andy Crouch: How did you get into the importing business?Dan Shelton: I wonder if I should go back and tell you what I was doing before. I was a lawyer. I went to Yale Law School and worked for a judge out in Micronesia, which is a Pacific island paradise situation. I then worked for a judge on the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals in Seattle. I then went to a law firm in DC for a little while. Throughout all of this, I was making lots of trips and drinking a lot of beer in various places. At the law firm in D.C., I only agreed to go after they agreed it was fine that I took off for some period of time to go to Africa. I drank loads of beer there. When I came back from there, they never quite looked at me the same. They started thinking I was not all that keen on being a lawyer, which I think was true…

I’ve done a lot of traveling and that’s sort of where the whole thing started. In fact, my two brothers and I have done a lot of traveling and generally spent a lot of time looking for beer. So I was in New York and wasn’t sure what I was going to do next. Somewhere along the line, my brother Joel, who is a musician in New York, was in Brussels doing Broadway shows. At that point, he was pretty much spending all of his free time with Michael Jackson and other guidebooks checking out beer everywhere he went. He knows the beer scene in Germany like nobody I’ve ever met…He ended up in Brussels and of course at the Cantillon Brewery. He pretty quickly became friendly with Jean-Pierre, the master brewer in the family-owned brewery. He gave the whole family tickets to a Chorus Line. Years later, I was visiting and at dinner Jean-Pierre brought out a CD of A Chorus Line, which he loves apparently. Turns out he purchased some tap shoes and was practicing up in the attic of the brewery. So I feel like they certainly ended up changing our lives and maybe we also had some effect on them. Although I don’t think he has ever become a professional tap dancer.

So they got along really well and Joel brought back a bunch of Cantillon beer. I think Cantillon is the only authentic lambic brewery still going, meaning only spontaneous fermentation, wild yeast fermentation, and oak barrels, lengthy aging process, and no sugar, only whole fruit, with no syrup added. I could start to list all of the things the other so-called lambic breweries are doing to make the process shorter or to make their beer more sweet and not sour. But Cantillon is the only one who is really doing it the way it was done before big industry got a hold of the lambic concept.

So Joel brought back several bottles of the Cantillon lambic in 1994 or 1995. My other brother, Will, and I really loved the beer. I was looking for some for a Thanksgiving meal. So I called all around Brooklyn where I was living and asked various stores if they had any. No one knew what I was talking about. Finally, one woman in a little store in Brooklyn said, “Yeah, we get calls all the time looking for that but we can’t get any.” I said, “Well, my brother knows the brewer and they’re really friendly and I’m sure he could get some for you.” She said, “Well, you’ll have to become an importer to do that.” And I literally said, “How hard can that be?” And so I got this little idea to do a little importing on the side, mainly to have a whole pile of Cantillon in my cellar. And hopefully be selling some of it too…

While I started filling out the paperwork, my brother Will was in Brussels on other business and stopped in to the brewery. He got them to agree to work with us. At that time, they were being imported into the U.S., but not very successfully. They were down to selling maybe a pallet or two of beer per year. It was nothing and they had given up on it. We came in and said we’d really like to try this and they said, “What the hell.” They liked us and thought it couldn’t hurt.

The interesting thing is, I think it would have remained a very small matter. We wouldn’t have done much with it, but then we realized we had to get help from someone as I really had no idea what was involved in importing beer. We started looking for someone else in the business to help us out for a partnership of some sort. We would just run Cantillon through their system and sort of stand off to the side. The money wasn’t even an issue. We just wanted to keep the brewery happy by selling a little beer, but mainly let someone else do it for us. We started talking to Vanberg and Dewulf and we started talking to B. United. Talking to B. United at first, we were a little put off. We had a meeting — on my birthday, as it happened — in 1995, and I drank four or five pints in the course of this business meeting and Matthias Neidhart of B. United drank orange juice and we kind of had this feeling like, “Wow, this guy doesn’t really drink beer.” We thought, “Well he talks a good game and he might be alright, but not really our kind of guy.”

Then we talked to Don Feinberg [of Vanberg and Dewulf] and decided that was the way to go. So we drew up a contract with Feinberg. At that point, an announcement came out in Barleycorn Magazine that B. United would be bringing in Cantillon beers, including a special spiced beer for Christmas. So we looked at this and went, “Whoa, wait a minute.” About the same time, we got a fax letter from Jean-Pierre saying that he had agreed to sell them some beer until we were up and running. So what happened was, I guess, Matthias Neidhart went over there and said, “Don’t waste your time with these Shelton guys, they don’t even have a license yet. Why don’t you just work with us.” They said, “Well, we kind of like the Sheltons.” So he said, “Then how about this. Until they get their license, why don’t you just work with us?” Which, of course, was a way to get the account because once you start with someone, it’s really hard to switch gears. So we got absolutely furious, and honestly, if I hadn’t gotten so furious, I probably wouldn’t have worried about it much and wouldn’t have been so keen on the beer business and so personally involved in it.

So I started a massive campaign and started talking with Cantillon about what kind of people B. United were. It didn’t help them that they had announced that Cantillon was putting out a spiced Christmas beer, because, as Jean Pierre said [feigning Belgian accent], “We don’t use spices.” He didn’t know what they were talking about. So basically, with that fire under our feet we told Cantillon, “We really want to work with you. We don’t think you’ll be happy with them. And frankly, if you start with them, you’re never going to work with us. And by the way, I’ll buy twice as much beer as they said they would buy.” So that’s where I made my fatal mistake. It would have been a small matter and it wouldn’t have been much of a business of any sort. But I promised to buy what amounts to about a container of beer, which is twenty pallets. It’s hard to explain, but it’s about 2,000 cases, which is a lot of a beer most people don’t understand and react pretty badly to.

AC: How do you decide which beers to add to your portfolio?

DS: That’s a good question. Honestly, in the beginning, I went over to Belgium blind. I didn’t think of any other countries at the time. Actually, that’s not true. We began talking to a brewery in Germany that was referred to us by a guy who previously imported them, but not successfully, so they canned him…He told us that this brewery was available and we pursued them. It was the Kulmbacher Brewery, which is actually one of the top fifteen in Germany; it’s pretty sizable. In fact, we went to visit them and we wore our suits, which is not the same business as Cantillon. In the middle of getting a tour of the brewery, my brother whispered to me, “What are we doing here?” It was just so out of our league. But we just pretended, I guess it was sort of lawyer’s bluffing, that we were ready for them. Eventually, they agreed and felt we didn’t have too many beers to compete with theirs. So that was in the works, but it took a couple of years to come to anything.

While that was going on, I started going to Belgium. I went to Brussels to visit the Cantillon Brewery and we had a great time getting tight with the family. I started making little trips out just looking for beer. In retrospect, it was a lot of fun. I found a few that way, just going out and looking for things and learning what was already being imported, also realizing that a lot of it was crap. A lot of it was industrial, highly commercial stuff that was fermented too quickly and full of sugar and not very interesting or characterful. Working with Cantillon, you get a very strong opinion about what is authentic and what is good. It has to have character. It can’t be sweet or bland. If I ever suggested any interest in anything that didn’t meet their standards, they would really make me feel small. So I had these critics that didn’t want to be associated with people and breweries that weren’t doing good work.

So I was looking for the authentic stuff. I found a few like that. The main thing was, I met a guy named Yvan DeBaets, and he is one of the smartest beer people I know. He has one of the best palates and really knows his stuff. He is probably, I am almost certain, the most knowledgeable person about Belgian beer in the world…Until there were changes in formula at Orval, he thought Orval was the best beer. He has cases and cases of Orval from sometime in the late eighties to the mid-nineties. In 1993, as it is now well-known, the brewery changed some things in their methods, and Yvan actually swooped down on them and went to the brewery and talked to them. He said, “It’s not the same beer anymore.” They finally acknowledged to him that they had made certain changes. He said, “Well, if you don’t change it back, then your beer is just crap.” They said, “Well people don’t really like hoppy beer and we appreciate your interest, but don’t worry about it.” So he has pretty much disowned them. But he is also a huge fan of the Dupont Brewery. At one point, Dupont actually changed its formula, or were doing something different, and he went and said, “It’s different.” And they said, “You’re right, how did you know?” And they actually changed it back.

So he helped me a lot…We went out and had a few beers and talked about our philosophies, and we happened to agree completely. Also, we happen to have very similar palates and mutual respect. So he started pointing me towards breweries that I didn’t know about. He was afraid to show me because if they started exporting to the U.S., that like everything else, they might start getting greedy and changing things to put out more beer and become more popular by dumbing down their formulas. I told him, “There is no way we’re going to encourage that.” So through him, we started getting the breweries that are making the best stuff in Belgium and are not compromising and are not professional brewers who need to make money on the brewing. But they are quite good and have extreme integrity in making stuff that is really a statement. It’s not commercialized or trying to appeal to the broad population. It’s sort of a natural tendency of ours, my brother and I, to be pretty picky about what we think is good. That became, almost naturally, our theme in picking our beers. We have become a little more commercial lately, but mainly we look for stuff we think is really good and doesn’t compromise. Most of it is bottle-conditioned beer that comes from pretty small breweries.

There’s not a lot of money in it and they don’t have the money to provide marketing budgets, so you’re kind of on your own. So the success we’ve had is based upon people realizing that we’ve got the best stuff out there. It has been gratifying like that.

We’re in this niche now and we like it there. A lot of people accuse me especially of being a real beer snob, or worse. But I say, “That’s good. I want you to think that and I don’t mind telling you that I think most beer is crap.” I’ve actually gotten into a lot of trouble telling people that something isn’t that good. Brewers are making too much beer or are changing their processes. There are too many people out there who don’t realize the way beer should have been or how it was in the old days is not the way people are making it in breweries now. I probably could do better for myself by not telling people what I think of some of these more popular beers, but it’s a habit and it’s kind of the character of the company. Ultimately, I think people are going to start to notice that.

I get really hot and bothered occasionally by people who refuse to acknowledge that beers are being dumbed down constantly. They’ll say, “Well it’s still good beer, it’s better than Miller.” I just think there has to be a higher standard than that and no one is doing it. The big goal in the beer business of people I talk to, which is beer writers and importers and craft brewers in the U.S., is to get people to think of beer more like they think of wine. If you look at some of these beer magazines, and probably you write for some of them, they seem worried about saying anything negative unless it is about Budweiser. They’ll pick on the big breweries, fairly or not, but when it comes to anything else, they are afraid to say anything negative. They’re afraid to acknowledge, for example, that Orval is not what it used to be. For a while, there was so much resistance to that idea, that a trappist beer, which is supposedly brewed by monks, though it isn’t, is a sacred thing. You can’t say that kind of thing about these beers. My feeling is that if you don’t, then all kinds of bad things are going to happen. People aren’t going to respect beer writing. They’re going to assume that beer is just beer and that people who drink beer don’t really have a lot of taste.

If you look at wine writing, it is quite cutting and acerbic sometimes. They say, “This is good, this is bad.” But beer people aren’t willing to say, “This is bad.” I think until we do, the business is not going to be looked at like a serious one, like wine. We’ll continue to lose market share to wine and other beverages. I think there needs to be a little bit of snobbism attached to it like there is with wine. Well, hell, naturally that is the role I’m taking. I hope more people will develop that attitude. Even Michael Jackson, I think he is a great writer and I like him a lot, but he seems more and more unwilling to criticize breweries that are changing formulas and dumbing down their beers to get a broader appeal, and I think it is the wrong way to go. In the end, the beer business is going to suffer for it.

AC: What is your approach to getting consumers to try more authentic or traditional beers and styles?

DS: There is a bar [the Moan & Dove] near here that came into Amherst, Massachusetts and decided they wanted to be a real beer bar. They’re kind of out in the middle of nowhere, but it’s turning out to work quite well. We threw in with them right away and got them all of our good stuff. We’ve talked to the owner a lot about beer. I’ve actually traveled with him in Germany for a while showing him what I thought was good beer versus bad beer. He is really kind of buying our line, or I shouldn’t say that. He is falling in with us about what good beer is. At the same time, I go down there and spend a long time drinking and I see so much Lindemans [the most popular lambic beer in America, imported by Merchant du Vin] go over the counter. After I’ve had a few, I just can’t resist telling people that it is sweet soda pop stuff for kids. People definitely don’t like that. They don’t like to hear they aren’t drinking sophisticated stuff.

I buy people Cantillon just to show them the difference. More than half the time, they really like it quite a bit, but it’s kind of hopeless trying to fight the commercial operations that have a lot of money to put into marketing and have convinced people-Lindemans’s big campaign is that it was so close to wine. If you’ve tried the stuff, it’s nothing like wine, nothing like beer. It’s like soda pop at best. It’s only at three percent alcohol. It convinces people who don’t really like beer that there is a beer that they like. In a way, I can’t argue with that. It’s good to get people drinking any beer, when they otherwise would be drinking some kind of mai tai or something. That is the right direction on its own, but obviously well away from what I want to do. So I’m stuck out on the real fringe saying, “Yeah, it’s good that people realize that beer comes in many different forms and is a hugely varied market compared to wine, but still, people go for the dumbest stuff, the stuff that has syrup and sugar added.”

The only way I can see to get people to switch over to something like Cantillon is to really hit on the authenticity and frankly to be kind of negative about the sweet stuff and make people feel a little bit guilty. I always tell people, when I started drinking in the seventies, we were drinking Riunite and Boon’s Farm, which was terrible stuff, this sugared, crappy wine or wine food, wine-like stuff. Somewhere along the line, people started realizing that that wasn’t what wine really was and started spending money on real wine. Then people became authorities on wine and started telling people what was good and what was bad and started making people feel embarrassed about Boon’s Farm and Riunite. I’m sure those things still exist, or their equivalents in white zinfandel, but it took people who knew better to make other people feel a little bit bad about going for the cheap stuff. That’s the only way I can really see for people in the beer sector to go along with the good stuff is to make them feel a little bit bad about what they’re drinking.

When I’ve had a few beers in a bar and I’m watching a lot of Lindemans go over the counter, I tend to get pretty excited about it and I start to tell people, “Listen, this stuff is for kids what you are drinking.” And I can get kind of obnoxious about it, which isn’t usually the best way to go. But I think that the basic approach of just getting into peoples’ heads that the one thing is sophisticated and the other thing is purposely geared towards people with unsophisticated palates. It is purposely made for people who grew up drinking kool-aid or orange Nehi.

AC: So your approach focuses on the methods of production and telling a story about the product?

DS: I think it is up to those of us who have seen the real thing to tell people that it is the real thing. The way we convey that is to look at the authenticity of it. You want to try and show people how it is made and definitely draw the distinction between that and how they make the other stuff…It’s like coffee. I tell people, “Look at what Starbucks did for coffee.” We have no hope of doing that for lambics over the long haul, but we keep plugging away at it. People have come to sneer at your average diner’s coffee. You try to get people the idea that there is stuff that is more authentic and has more flavor. There is good stuff that costs more money, and there’s bad stuff or stuff that is meant to be cheap and to appeal to the average person. You make people feel special about liking Cantillon.

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