Bluffton brothers distribute good taste

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COOPER AND WILLIE CRAM OWN BEAR ISLAND DISTRIBUTORS, WHICH BRINGS CRAFT BEERS TO THE LOWCOUNTRY.

High quality beer was an acquired taste for Cooper and Willie Cram, but now it has become their business.

“Even up through college, I was drinking Natty Ice,” said Cooper, thinking of the watery mass-produced national brand. His brother Willie nods, reclining in a wooden chair beside sun-bleached oyster shells, the remains of years of family oyster roasts.

Crickets hum in the Lowocuntry heat as he takes a sip of Tropicalus, an American IPA-style beer in a pint can with a bright tie-dyed palmetto tree logo.

“Nobody knew about craft beer back then,” Willie said.

The Cram brothers of Bluffton don’t brew beers, but they are the reason a variety of unique small-batch suds can be found in Lowcountry coolers. In 2011, Cooper and Willie founded Bear Island Distributors, named after their family’s private island. The brothers are dedicated to spreading their love for local beer.

These Lowcountry natives enjoy a successful partnership, sparked years ago by an internship at a large Dutch brewery in the Netherlands. They fondly recall boozy field trips spent sampling beer brewed by Trappist monks. A family friend partly owned the company, and when they got the idea to start a distribution company, he gave them their first product: a lager brewed in the Netherlands. The Cram brothers had to sell it to South Carolina beer drinkers.

 Cram Brothers2“They were unhappy with their distribution, a big brand distributor that overlooked them,” Cooper said. It was this assignment that “gave us the idea of taking care of the small guy.”

The brothers studied the industry and realized that big distributors were neglecting smaller breweries — often owned by passionate brewers whose main focus was making good beer, not worry about sales. Big distributors had little incentive to promote these small-batch brews because they accounted for only a small part of the market share. The brothers promised an alternative.

“We were scratching for the next couple of years,” Willie said, reaching down to pet Addie, the family dog. “We had one more brewery from Connecticut we picked up through a friend.”

Although the first breweries the brothers represented weren’t local to the Lowcountry, the success they had distributing these beers gave them the credibility to do what they really wanted — promote local brews. By this time, everyone had heard the words “craft beer” and “IPA.”

“Visitors and locals are now willing to pay an extra dollar for a pint of good local beer. It’s a good way to taste where you are,” Willie said.

By 2014, Bear Island Distributors had a roster of breweries and reliable buyers. The company moved its warehouse to Charleston, staking a claim in the Holy City’s larger market. Cooper continued to wait tables at Old Oyster Factory while managing many aspects of the business. Willie, who was often delivering the beer himself, was spread thin. That’s when they hired their first sales rep, Carly Rosser, who “kills it. People love Carly at this point,” Cooper said. They also asked childhood friend Andrew Hazel to manage sales in Beaufort County.

“Since he’s been around here his entire life, he has good relationships with everyone,” Willie said. Bear Island Distributors also has a rep in Myrtle Beach and Greenville, where the brothers plan to set up a second warehouse.

Now, new breweries contact the brothers before they open because they want the personalized service that the small company provides. The brothers can scout out a new brewery within a half day’s drive, shake hands, and sample its best beers.

“We’re similarly sized as the breweries we work for, so our flexibility is our sales pitch. We grow together,” Willie said.

The brothers are raising their beers for one last toast when their father, Peter Cram, strolls in holding a jar of honey from beehives along the winding dirt road leading to their home. It’s suddenly clear what sets Bear Island Distributors apart: This connection to place. It’s business with a Lowcountry flavor.

“At the end of the day, I still get to come out here on Sunday, throw the ball to Addie, and kayak in the creek. We’re still down here,” Cooper said.