For a guy in the business of selling beer, Isaac Bernstein-Miller doesn't act like he's trying to sell anyone a beer.
Reverie, the notoriously elusive beer distribution company he founded in Richmond at the end of 2015, doesn't have a public phone number. There's no website. And anybody looking for Bernstein-Miller's email address might have an easier time asking Ryan Reynolds out to prom on Twitter.
In fact, when trying to reach Bernstein-Miller for this piece, I accidentally ended up calling his wife instead. "Don't worry," she told me. "It happens a lot." But people seek Reverie out for a reason. The company is a little like the beer version of a hip indie-rock label in the 1990s: tight curation, limited runs.
Reverie distributes some of the most sought-after, small-batch beers in the state, including Virginia artisans like Precarious Beer Project, international rarities like Mikkeller Brewing Company, and collaborations from cult obsessions like Vermont's Hill Farmstead.
Only the lucky or well-connected can get hold of the beers – spots like The Birch and Esoteric in Hampton Roads, or The Cask Cafe and The Wink in Richmond.
A slight-figured former Montessori teacher who often wears his hair in a voluminous mop, Bernstein-Miller says he's not trying to be difficult. "We take beer from niche breweries and give it to people who are passionate about beer," he said, "People who are interested in trying new things."
The company started, he says, because he was trying to help out his friends at The Veil, a Richmond brewery whose fans are so fervid they line up at the door each Tuesday for their beer releases (see page 44).
"They couldn't find somebody that lined up with what (brewer Matt Tarpey) was looking for – both in terms of getting beer to market in a timely fashion, and also not requiring a set amount of inventory," Bernstein-Miller said.
Leveraging his ties to not only The Veil, but to the equally tiny Richmond cult favorite The Answer Brewpub, Bernstein-Miller hung up a shingle. For the first year, it was just Bernstein-Miller and a truck, roaming the state with beers from Oxbow, Ocelot, and Commonwealth (which Reverie no longer distributes).
Reverie is part of one of the defining trends in Virginia craft beer. In Virginia, distribution agreements can be as binding and financially painful to end as a marriage. Not only are contracts long-term, says Bernstein-Miller, but they often require minimum inventories that small-batch breweries struggle to meet without sacrificing quality.
Breweries have instead taken to de facto self-distributing. Though breweries can't own distribution arms, brewers like Big Ugly Brewing and Three Notch'd Brewing Company helped form tightly-aligned companies founded by owners they trust, who distribute Virginia beers on brewer-friendly terms.
What makes Reverie different is both its scope and its exclusivity. Rather than just keep a tight network of local brewers, the company also brings beer into Virginia from outside – offering out-of-state brewers the ability to dip their toes into the Virginia market without diving all the way in.
"Our contract is very open-ended," says Bernstein-Miller. "It's 30-day notice for either side, or like, 'Here's your 90-day contract. Let that one lapse, come back for another 90 days.'"
Last May, Reverie added Connecticut's Kent Falls Brewing to its fold alongside a pivotal partnership with Shelton Brothers, a far-ranging Massachusetts distribution company best known for being the first to import Belgium's wild-fermented Cantillon to America.
Reverie was also the first to introduce Virginia to beers like design-conscious stout makers Burial Beer Company in North Carolina and barrel-obsessed American Solera from Oklahoma. They've just signed a deal to bring cult Austin brewery Jester King Brewery to Virginia.
Although Bernstein-Miller insists nothing he's ever done has really been about money – "I taught for 10 years at a Montessori school!" he says – Reverie's distribution model is nonetheless driven by a certain market savvy.
Bernstein-Miller consciously cultivates scarcity – making the beer's arrival an event rather than something beer drinkers can take for granted.
"The market is very focused on variation – they always want to try something new," he said. "Even small-to-large breweries are making one-offs. So even with (Oklahoma's) Prairie Artisan, which can certainly fill the volume, we don't always want to have the full portfolio all the time. We bring it in seasonally: Always have one thing available."
The strategy works. When word gets around Reverie's delivery truck is planning to roll through town, said Kevin Aylesworth of Virginia Beach bottle shop Grape and Gourmet, "I'll start texting Isaac: When are you going to be around?"
The scarcity also leads to a certain economy. The beer is always fresh, and the warehouse is always cleaned out.
"We get it that week, it's gonna be sold that week," said Bernstein-Miller. The truck follows the same circuit over and over: Hampton Roads, Richmond, D.C. suburbs, and then back to Richmond.